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‘Productivity Theater’ on the rise: 4 ways to reel it in (and get actual productivity)

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What is “Productivity Theater” and why should it bother you?

It’s pretend work — and it’s not helpful to any organization.

On the surface it looks like this:

  • Courtney turns down every request because she’s “soooo busy”
  • Dwayne sends a plethora of email when others aren’t working, but it’s all crickets during the workday
  • Jimmy misses most meetings because he’s “tied up with some other stuff,” but he always has time to talk sports pools, or
  • Ming barely says hello to anyone on her in-office days, rushing from one unnecessary meeting to the next.

Under the surface, Productivity Theater can be a sign of:

  • disengagement
  • productivity paranoia
  • Quiet Quitting, and/or
  • boredom.

Realities of Productivity Theater

In some cases, employees start acting in Productivity Theater because they’ve prioritized performative work — “I need to look busy” — over tasks that make a difference — “I need to think through this problem before I can act effectively.” In other cases, they might hack technology — such as with a mouse mover — or embellish responsiveness — scheduling a bevy of messages to send after hours so it looks like they work overtime.

Almost 45% of employees spend about 10 hours a week on this kind of performative work, according to a study from Visier.

And why are employees acting out their actual work? Visier found:

  • 64% feel it’s important to their professional success
  • 49% want to be seen as valuable to the business
  • 33% want to look more valuable to the boss, and
  • 30% just want others to know they’re working on something.

The irony: Just 8% of employees on the Productivity Theater stage are trying to avoid more work, and only 6% don’t have enough work.

It’s acting at its best and worst!

At the root of Productivity Theater is employee engagement. Employees who are acting out their job aren’t truly engaged in their job.

Here are four ways to improve the experience and achieve actual productivity.

Adjust flexible work attitude

Employees and employers still don’t see eye to eye on work flexibility. About 70% of employees want to work a hybrid or remote schedule of their choice. But just 43% can make those choices, according to Ivanti’s 2022 Everywhere Workplace Report.  

“When it comes to how and where employees work, leaders who do not embrace and enable flexibility where they can also risk not reaping the benefits of a more engaged, more productive workforce,” says Jeff Abbott, CEO at Ivanti. “There has been a seismic shift in how and where employees expect to get work done and it’s imperative for leaders to break down culture and tech barriers to enable it.”

When employees have choices over when and where they work, they’re more likely to dig in, work hard and produce results — without faking it: That’s actual productivity.

Focus on value

Help employees recognize and focus more on the tasks that provide value, rather than the tasks that just prove they’re busy. It might take a change in mindset for both employee and boss.

Ask frontline managers and employees to sit down to lay out goals and priorities. Then they can identify that daily, weekly and long-term tasks that contribute most to those. That’s the value-driven work and where they want to spend 80% of their time.

Clearly define expectations

Employees would less likely be on Productivity Theater stage if they knew their performance was measured on results alone. While not every role can be defined by quantitative results, you can likely help employees be more productive if their expectations are clearly defined.

This is nitty-gritty work upfront, but it can pay off in productivity on the back end.

For roles, ask managers and experienced employees to set (or re-set) quantity and quality goals. Then, working down from there, define tasks and the time that needs to be committed to each to reach those goals.

That’s where smaller, but important, details come into play. For instance, a marketing employee’s goals might be to complete five customer campaigns worth $10,000 each a year. That alone doesn’t define how much time the employee needs to devote to writing and developing communication — behind the scenes, deep work that’s not visible. But that’s a high-priority task that can’t be overlooked (or fabricated).

Discourage comparisons

Formal and informal competition encourages Productivity Theater. While it’s essential to some jobs — Sales comes to mind — many employees won’t flourish when they feel they’re being compared to others.

You might not be able to completely eliminate comparisons and personal competitions — after all, some people are competitive by nature — but you can curb it when rolling out new initiatives.

Carefully communicate the purpose of new projects and initiatives and a focus on an overall good — perhaps customer satisfaction, team success or organizational goal — and how individual efforts contribute to that. Then measure performance on the group goal, employee motivation and well-being over time.

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