Workers are adopting ‘productivity theater’ as bosses continue to spy on them and push for an office return

Young woman working from home.
The clash between old and new ways of work has led to a greater paranoia and "productivity theater."
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Whether you’re leaving your laptop open so your Slack status stays green while taking a break or you’re pretending to read an email when your boss saunters by in the office, some days are just about putting in the work to look like you’re working. 

At least, that’s the case for the nearly half (43%) of employees who say they spend more than 10 hours a week engaging in “productivity theater,” according to a survey of 1,000 U.S. workers from Visier. The software company defines “productivity theater” as performative work that gives off the appearance of being busy, rather than actual work that creates value. It’s the result, it says, of widespread layoffs, increased surveillance of workers, and employers’ concerns over remote work, which have created the perfect visibility paranoia cocktail for employees to adopt a busy bee act to prove their worth. 

Since the pandemic, workers have argued that the advent of flexible work has shown that keeping the nine-to-five is more or less about maintaining tradition. Many companies, like Salesforce, implemented location and schedule flexibility. “For us, the nine-to-five was on life support before the pandemic,” Steve Pickle, Salesforce’s former EVP of employee success operations told Fortune last year, “The pandemic took it off life support and put it right into the grave. It’s still dead, and we’re in a far better place.”

Across the country, other flexible workers agreed: They reported greater productivity and focus compared to those without schedule autonomy in a survey by former consortium Future Forum. And initial results from the biggest trial of the four-day workweek showed higher employee satisfaction, improved productivity, and stronger revenue, leading people to question the value of a nine-to-five, five days a week. 

But as we adjusted to a new normal, bosses were ready to turn back the clock. Fearful that remote work was hurting their bottom dollar, and citing the need for greater community and productivity, they began calling workers back to the office (Salesforce’s Marc Benioff among them). Those who struggled to get their employees to return to their desks began using surveillance software to track their remote workers’ every move. The ensuing clash between how some workers prefer to operate and how other bosses want them to show up has created some paranoia on both sides. 

“While some managers might think that bringing people back to the office may be a solution to improving performance and reducing ‘productivity theater,’ the opposite might be true,” Andrea Derler, Visier’s principal of research, tells Fortune. “When we are physically in the same room, there is added pressure to appear busy to our colleagues or manager, even during downtimes, or risk being seen as less productive.” 

It explains why Visier found that in-office workers were most likely (34%) to feel visibility paranoia, followed by 28% of hybrid workers and a quarter of remote workers. The most common “productivity theater” tasks they all engage in are responding immediately to an email from a coworker (even if it’s not urgent), scheduling an email to be sent at a later time, and attending unnecessary meetings. 

The majority of them (64%) think their performative behavior is important for a successful career, while many also say they think it will make them look more valuable to their manager or the company—something that arguably feels more important than ever as layoffs continue to roll through the workplace. It could also be the result of competition, Visier suggests, as six in 10 respondents are concerned about how they compare to their coworkers. 

But there’s also the pressure of feeling like your boss is watching over your shoulder. A majority (61%) of workers who are employed at companies that use surveillance tools were more likely to engage in “productivity theater,” dropping to 12% for those workers not being tracked. Those who are are two to three times more likely to commit more “egregious” performative acts, Visier finds, such as exaggerating a status update or offshoring a task to a coworker. 

Research has found that such monitoring tends to backfire, with workers more inclined to break the rules, feel greater resentment, and ultimately quit. Visier’s survey backs up the idea that it actually makes workers less productive rather than more productive, since they’re spending extra time to prove to their bosses that they’re working. 

It’s work pretending to work, energy that would likely be better be spent if we all just trusted one another to get the job done.

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