Productivity Theater

Trinity Richardson

November 14, 2022

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"Productivity theater" is the phenomenon where remote or hybrid employees feel the need to display their productivity through unnecessary work. This could mean writing emails about what they're working on, updating their status on Zoom or Slack, or even joining meetings they don't need to be a part of. Data from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows workdays are, on average, about 48.5 minutes longer, which could be a direct result of feeling the need to display productivity.

With the switch to remote work came the fear that workers would not be productive without supervision. This is in line with Theory X of management, which states that workers are not motivated without heightened supervision, external rewards, and penalties. However, this has been found not to be the case. In a survey done by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, ninety-four percent of 800 employers reported that "productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely."

Ironically enough, in this rush to present proof of productivity, workers are actually being less productive. Instead of spending time working on improved outcomes, they are worried about providing visible output through hours worked. Additionally, workers are beginning to experience burnout and fatigue from having to be performative in their online work. Workers shouldn't feel pressure to prove their productivity in-person or online, especially when it's adding to their workload.

So, how can we put an end to productivity theater? The first step is to measure results instead of hours. Maybe you didn't pop in on an unnecessary meeting to make sure everyone is aware you're working, but instead finished a report. In terms of output, you're technically accomplishing more. You don't need to prove yourself outside of accomplishing your tasks. Your results should speak for themselves.

Step two is to know your supervisors trust you to get your work done without looming over your shoulder - and if they don't, that's its own issue. Supervisors should be focused on your results, not making sure you always seem busy. The more comfortable you are in your position and environment, the more productive you can be without getting burnt out.

Step three is to manage your energy. If you look busy, but aren't actually getting anything done, you're just wearing yourself out for no reason. Spinning your wheels doesn't help anyone, least of all you. Having firm boundaries isn't a bad thing, and that applies in and out of the office. Just because you don't seem overwhelmed with work doesn't mean you're not doing your job - and sometimes taking a break can help you flourish.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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