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I was assigned a task by my manager that I consider unproductive for a variety of reasons. It involves organizing a large number of hardcopy documents, but it's clear to me (and it seems like the manager as well) that the end users will make a mess of them again in short order. Moreover, the senior manager (who hired me to begin with) pretty much agrees with me that we need to move to a paperless system. I'm afraid that if I do it quickly they will just come to rely on me to keep the whole mess straight, leaving me less time for productive tasks.

Should I just do this quickly, or is there a polite way to negotiate some more productive activities?

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  • Is there a way you could accelerate the move to paperless while you organize? Like scan documents to pdf once the docs are complete? Or is there a way to make organization easier in the future, like applying Dewey decimal system or similar? – atk Oct 13 '14 at 3:37
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Do it quickly. Your manager has asked you to do it, and you should do your best.

Keep track of how long it takes and when you did it. When it gets messed up, your manager will appreciate the details - "it's only been three weeks since I spent six hours sorting that all out" - and may be able to use them as ammunition for the paperless system.

Taking on unpleasant tasks cheerfully, and getting through them quickly is a great way to be sure that you are assigned more pleasant tasks. Being unable to do the unpleasant ones well or without trying to get out of them is not something I would reward with the best tasks.

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  • Why isn't "Taking on unpleasant tasks cheerfully, and getting through them quickly ... a great way to be sure that you are assigned more" unpleasant tasks? – nobody Oct 14 '14 at 19:41
  • because bosses are not stupid and nor are they vindictive. Somebody has to do the crummy work, and I know it's crummy, but it has to be done. Do it well and I will reward you however I can. If you can't or won't, you're more likely to be replaced than given a treat. Yes, some lazy bosses are happy that they found someone to do the crummy work. But not most, and not the ones whose approval you truly want. – Kate Gregory Oct 14 '14 at 20:59
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The answer to this really depends on a couple of different things. First - what are you in the company? Are you a temp/entry level employee? Are you a 'supporting' position?

What do these things mean? Well if you are a temp or entry level position arguing about a particular duty, especially if it is a one off or rarely repeated duty and you are new, is the fast track to losing the respect of your supervisors. As a new, low-level or temp employee it is unlikely that you have the full context of the task. Perhaps there is a time line for moving to the paperless system that you are unaware of. Perhaps there is a reason(maybe even a legal reason depending on the data) that these documents need to be sorted. It's extremely likely that moving to a paperless system will be challenging and it is wise for management to take their time in deciding both the means and methods by which they intend to do so. Certainly ask about context and try to understand why the work needs to be done but, typically, work is assigned to be done because it, at some level and for some reason, needs to be done.

If you are in a 'support' position - it may just be that this is some unpleasant grunt work that's assigned your position. Sometimes that happens and yeah it's rarely fun or pleasant but every job has it. I was a chef for years and we purchased shell-on shrimp. 50+ pounds of it every week. Removing the veins and shells of 50+ lbs of shrimp is pretty unpleasant and we were looking for a purveyor that would sell high-quality, shelled shrimp at a reasonable price(ultimately we got both higher quality and better prices(even paying my salary) by purchasing shell on shrimp). What does this have to do with your situation? Shelling shrimp was unpleasant grunt work that had to be done in my kitchen. Sometimes, even as the chef, I had to be the one to do it. For every masterpiece meal I made there was a grunt task that was equally important and, honestly, that's pretty standard.

There's a saying about how being the best digger gets you a bigger shovel. And, yeah, that's true and you should be aware of it and working against it. But sometimes we all have to dig holes. And it would be a bit silly to complain about digging holes if you were hired as a hole digger right? Try to get some context about the task you have been assigned, try to understand the challenges both to moving to paperless and why end users make a mess of the data(that's a sign that there is a problem with how the data(hard copy or virtual) is arranged or presented as people tend to want to be tidy until there is a 'broken window'.) Then offer that understanding of the system and it's challenges to your supervisors.

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Have you talked to your manager to understand why you've been asked to do this task? It may well be the case that everyone involved is agreed that, in the long term, a move to a paperless system is a good idea - but that's a long term plan, and in short term there's a business need which means that everybody does the documents by Friday or whenever, and implementing the paperless system will take longer than that.

If after talking to your manager, you still disagree with the need for the task, by all means make some effort to convince your manager that there is a better solution which meets both the short and long term business needs, but (as Kate has already pointed out) they are your manager and fundamentally they get to tell you what you should be working on - knuckle down and do the task to the best of your ability.

As almost an aside, it may also be worth asking a quick question of your senior manager as to what the plans are for the transition to paperless system ("Hiya. When I was hired, we talked about the need to move to a paperless system - do you know if we've got any more specific plans for that yet? Thanks, Me").

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Instead of making this a total loss, ask your boss if you can at least scan the ones you're having to replace. Create a cover page with the electronic filing information.

Another intermediate step, could be to offer to scan documents being "checked out". This way, if someone else needs to see the same document, the current borrower could direct the other person to the electronic version.

The idea here, is to get your boss thinking about a beta solution to the problem. Converting everything to electronic is a daunting task that they're putting off for probably many reasons. Maybe your company can get by with only putting recently used documents in the electronic system and all older ones can be retrieved from the paper archive. Another value here is to collect some data on how documents are used. Of course there will be those who feel they need access to every single document on any given time of day, but your research could show that's not the case.

Knowing what you need (and not what you think you want) can go a long way in finding the best solution.

Hopefully this perspective on the project will keep your sanity.

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