Although data shows that employees are productive while working remotely, 85% of managers still question if their hybrid employees are productive, a new survey from Microsoft reported.
Because there’s more potential to goof off while working remotely, some employees feel the need to prove they are getting things done by frequently updating their Slack status or joining meetings they don’t need to be in — “productivity theater.”
Rani Molla of Vox wrote about productivity theater recently and talked to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about how the practice has made its way into the home office. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Give us a quick definition of productivity theater.
Rani Molla: All right, productivity theater is showing that you’re getting things done. That could be something like updating your status on Zoom, emailing people or telling lots of people what you’re working on. Just sort of needless extra work.
Ryssdal: We should be clear here that productivity theater is not a pandemic Zoom work-from-home thing, it’s been going on for a very long time.
Molla: Yeah, in the article, I say productivity theater is as old as the office. It’s just a lot of things about remote work make it such that people feel like even more of a need to show their productivity, especially now.
Ryssdal: Let’s get to the now thing in a minute, but play that out for me as to why people feel that need. Is it because there’s not the face time and, and somehow not standing around the coffee machine talking about how busy you are makes people not understand that you’re actually working?
Molla: Yeah, in some ways, it’s just a matter of it’s sort of new. And at this point, it’s not especially new. We’ve been doing this for 2½ years, a lot of people who work in offices. There is the potential for a lot of bad behavior, right? If I’m on my computer at the office, I have a little bit more oversight. People can be walking around, so I don’t want to be watching Netflix. At home, potentially, I could watch Netflix, right, and no one would know. So I think because there’s more potential for this sort of bad behavior or for slacking off, people worry about it a little bit more.
Ryssdal: I am definitely not watching Netflix now, by the way, for my bosses who are listening to this, because I could be, right? So on this theater thing — and look, this is just a truism, I’m not breaking any ground here — but more senior people in an organization have always had, shall we say, some flexibility in their productivity, right? Whereas more junior people are, “Hey, how many widgets did you produce? How much code did you push? How many interviews did you cut?” You know, whatever it is.
Molla: I say it’s more measurable stuff.
Ryssdal: And so that’s kind of what’s going on here. Right?
Molla: I think when we get into the now of it, you have a few things happening as to why, even since last year, people are feeling like they have to show that they’re working more. There was a measurement that said that people are spending an extra hour or so a day, showing that they’re working, which is about five hours a week on top of just their regular work. And I think that’s happening now for a few reasons. You have the economy, you know, people are worried about a potential recession. And the result of it is just this, like, mindless, needless waste of energy.
Ryssdal: So when you had your conversation with your editor about this piece, how did that go? Did your editor say, “Well, how do I know you’re actually working on this?”
Molla: He did not, and to his credit, I don’t think he doesn’t think I’m working. But that said, I do check in, I do sort of cross the t’s and dot the i’s, and that’s what a lot of people I was talking with said. They’re like, “Hey, I’ve always had an easy time finishing all my work, I just want to make sure that my manager doesn’t think I’m quite quitting.” So that’s where some of the performance comes in. Especially, nearly 90% of managers don’t think that they could trust that their workers are being productive.
Ryssdal: I was just going to say that. This is a trust thing, right?
Molla: It’s absolutely a trust thing.
Ryssdal: Ninety percent, that’s wild.
Molla: You would think, as I said, two years, 2½ years into the pandemic you would be able to measure work a little bit better, but to their credit, managers are people too, and they’re people in the world, and they’re hearing things about how the economy is tanking, and so they’re probably feeling pressure from their bosses. So I think there are real fears there, but I think they’re also readily addressable by seeing how much work people turn in.
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