WTF   //   April 26, 2023

WTF is productivity theater?

Employees and employers grappling with return-to-office policies and hybrid workspaces are now dealing with shifting views on what true productivity looks like, literally.

In the past, workers attempting to appear busy might have stuck around past 5.30 p.m. despite already finishing their day’s work. Leaving a coat on the back of a chair, was another popular tactic people used to hide, for example, a suspiciously long lunch meeting. But reliance on digital communication channels and the rise of remote working, have prompted a new way of appearing productive.

This behavior has been dubbed “productivity theater” and it’s on the rise. Here’s an explainer:

So what exactly does productivity theater entail?

In a nutshell, it’s a way of hacking digital communications. It involves an employee prioritizing tasks that make them seem more productive, more available and busier than they really are.

For example, this can range from a person urgently responding to colleagues’ emails or requests on other digital messaging platforms, to attending unnecessary meetings. Another tactic can be to have a sudden burst of communication via digital messaging or emails at times when the rest of the company has the afternoon off, so it appears as though they’re working overtime, when it fact that’s the only time they have worked all week.

Anything that revolves around hacking communications and embellishing responsiveness counts as productivity theater, according to a report from workforce planning software company Visier, which collected responses from 1,000 U.S. employees during February and March.

Then, of course, more employers are trying to use technology to monitor productivity. But this kind of surveillance tech can be easily tricked. People are running videos and using mouse jigglers to keep laptop screens awake, to cheat monitoring software into reporting that they’re working. 

So is this something used mainly by remote workers?

Actually no. Visier’s report revealed that in-person employees are most likely to report feeling paranoid about gaining visibility for their output, followed by hybrid workers, then those working remotely.

“That’s counterintuitive and we would assume that people who are working from home would show off more, so I think that’s a cultural or almost a performance management indicator,” Andrea Derler, principal of research and value at Visier, said.

What’s driving this faked productivity?

Of course, there have always been cases of people coasting, or phoning it in, when it comes to work. But respondents to Visier’s report said that currently, a general fear of job security makes them want to appear more valuable to their manager and company overall. So they want to make themselves appear more valuable to their coworkers.

About a third of employees in the survey said they want colleagues to know when they’re working, and more than half said they are concerned about how their work performance compares to their peers. 

Workers said they want their behavior to be recognized most by their managers, then their peers, department leaders and lastly their company’s leadership team.

Is the rise in digital tracking of employee productivity fueling this behavior?

The pandemic-driven rise of remote work led more companies to use platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack to streamline employee communications. Without them, communication between decentralized, remote teams would have been impossible. But there’s a catch: such tools also allow for ways to monitor employees — like when and how long they’re online, and how quickly they respond to messages.

This can then lead to a worry that if a person doesn’t appear present and available on these types of platforms, it’ll be assumed they’re not working.

Slack has noticed signs of this behavioral pattern in its own data. “We do sometimes see behaviors in our broader research where desk workers feel obligated to demonstrate when they are working, rather than focusing on hitting their goals,” Christina Janzer, senior vp of research and analytics at Slack said in an email.

So what’s a better approach?

Instead of tracking hours worked or emails sent, companies should build a culture where they measure performance based on actual results, Janzer said. 

“Clearly defined expectations help employees prioritize work that has the most impact. It also allows employees to get work done in the most productive way, which often includes time away from a computer in order to focus,” Janzer said.

The workplace communications platform has some features built in to drive more meaningful communications, like the ability to set one’s status to “do not disturb,” which silences notifications to eliminate disruption when focusing on a task. 

Workers can also schedule messages to be sent at a later time to not disturb coworkers outside of work hours.

Among its own workforce, Slack has teams define core collaboration hours, or a block of time when employees are expected to be available and responsive, while also defining hours where employees have more flexibility to keep their heads down and focused on a task, or to step away from their computer and work on a whiteboard, Janzer said.

These digital surveillance tools sound like a bigger problem.

Yes, it’s a misguided way some employers are using to try and get a handle on understanding whether their workforces are productive enough.

Some companies have used employee surveillance software to do things like regularly grab screenshots of a worker’s screen, or track exactly how many hours are spent actively working at a computer. 

For workers at companies using actual employee surveillance tools, about 60% said they prioritize tasks that gain them visibility, compared to 12% of those at companies without such tools, according to Visier’s report. 

Those monitored by surveillance tools were also more than twice as likely to commit what Visier deems the most egregious performative work behaviors: keeping a computer online while not actually working, having a colleague do a task for them and exaggerating status updates. 

What can managers do to try and prevent this?

Like most workplace issues, the answer lies in strong communication. Having managers establish clear goals for employees is a key way to eliminate productivity theater behaviors, said Viser’s Derler. 

“If there is no clear performance management system in place where it’s very clear what somebody’s goals are, what somebody’s daily, weekly, monthly tasks should be, then I think people are more prone to try to show externally that they are working or being busy,” she said. 

Employers that fail to clearly communicate what an effective, hard worker actually looks at an organization “risk almost needing to resort to surveillance tools,” she said.