Productivity Theater

Productivity is a big concern for managers who have people working remotely. Will they actually work as hard as they would in an office? This fear has been called “productivity paranoia.” I recently heard that over 80% of managers don’t trust that their direct reports are as productive when working remotely. That number seems high, but given what we know about behavior, it is reasonable for managers to wonder. There are so many distractions at home—so many other things people could be doing that are more reinforcing than work.

Productivity paranoia has led to a 75% increase in employee monitoring systems since 2019. Monitoring software can track keystrokes, websites visited, time taken to read and respond to emails, and even retinal scans. Needless to say, such tracking is unwelcomed and undoubtedly leads to employee dissatisfaction and potentially turnover. No one wants to feel like Big Brother is watching.

Those that are not working under monitoring software understand that their leaders are wondering if they are working, and some look for ways to actively demonstrate that they are working. There are various strategies people use: making sure their activity icons are green on Slack, sending emails late in the day, or talking excessively about all they have accomplished and/or all they have to do. This practice has been called “productivity theater.”

While productivity theater sounds like a CYA activity, is it really that bad? From a behavioral perspective, it is difficult for managers to provide the amount of feedback and positive reinforcement necessary to generate discretionary effort with remote workers. The opportunities simply don’t present themselves as frequently. In an office setting, you run into people during the day. You chat after a meeting. You walk by their desk and stop to discuss what they are working on. They stop by your office to ask a quick question, etc. Having those frequent, brief interactions requires more effort when people are remote, and therefore we simply do it less often. That means less feedback and positive reinforcement. Less positive reinforcement means less discretionary effort. The most straight-forward solution seems to be that managers need to reach out to remote workers more often to check in and reinforce. Unfortunately, there can be a fine line between what feels like “checking in” and what feels like “checking up.” Alternatively, having direct reports tell you when they have completed a particularly challenging task, solved a problem, dealt with a difficult customer, etc. enables the use of more positive reinforcement without the feeling of being monitored. Obviously, managers need to do some confirmation in order to avoid reinforcing inflating the quality or quantity of work completed, but carefully crafted questions can help leaders make that determination and be confident their reinforcement is truly earned.

Remote work is here to stay, so managers need to get creative about how they can provide enough reinforcement to maximize performance. Productivity theater, done properly, seems like a good strategy to add to the mix.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.