Minimum Manning

Recently I was reading an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic on the future of work in the military, but really that standing in for complex multi-role workplaces. Most readers will be familiar with the nature of most of the discussion, although at least for me, some of the corporate language was new, phrases like ‘minimum manning.’ Roughly Useems writes that the US Navy is testing labour having multi-domains of practice. Practically this means sailors have some core responsibilities, but are also doing functional tasks as and when needed. I suppose I once knew this as cross-training, although labour in “fluid-task environments” was the newer description. One thing I found especially helpful about this article was how Useem points out how the ideas about labour in warships currently heading to sea were set in motion in the mid-1990s. So Useem gets points for showing how the design of workplaces  is a 25 year project.

But towards the end of the article there is a section detailing the psychology and personality suitable for this kind of arrangements of work. The short of it is that traits like “conscientiousness” hinder success in “fluid-task environments.” Rather, “distractibility” is the name of the game. From Useem: “people with this trait are less focused on doing things right, and more likely to wonder whether they’re doing the right things.” So ideal candidates are “High in fluid intelligence, low in experience, not terribly conscientious, open to potential distraction.” Useem then moves to a discussion about the bifurcation in work, with workers in stable workplaces needing perseverance, “grit,” and immersion, but fluid workplace needing the opposite.

There is something odd about this way of thinking about work that I can’t quite articulate yet. (I can’t even decide that when forming my thoughts I need more immersion or distraction.) But it seems to involve how Useem and the psychologists he conveys speaks about the psychological attributes of a worker rather than the group psychology within a team of workers. I suppose what I mean is that in attempt to praise “distractibility” and individual introspection there doesn’t seem to be a place for items like a willingness to partake in shared collective responsibility for tasks.

There is also the issue of the risks stemming from exhaustion and cognitive load. For instance, in 2017 there were been two separate incidents of US Navy ships crashing. The blame ultimately being attributed to a fleet operational cycle that leaves sailors under-trained, over-worked on extended tours. Doesn’t that sound like minimum manning? So I can’t help but think that this ‘minimum manning’ works when things aren’t too stressful, but that it courts mistakes and errors when the stress is really on in crunch time. Like deployments.


Author: Scott Timcke

I’m a Lecturer in the Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies. I use Marxist methods to study social inequality, the digital mode of production, the causes and consequences of imperial violence in the early 21st Century.

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