How to battle Productivity Paranoia

John Nicklin, MD of Sorce, discusses how leaders must instead nurture a culture of trust while giving their people the tools and space to deliver what’s expected
John Nicklin
Graphic showing a worker ticking boxes

Microsoft first coined the phrase ‘productivity paranoia’ when discussing the findings from its global research into hybrid working. The findings suggest that leaders and managers are fearful that their hybrid and remote employees aren’t working as productively as they could. With workers being away from the office where they could be physically seen and scrutinised, this has led leaders to question whether they can trust their teams to do the job they’ve been employed to do. In fact, this paranoia is not only misplaced, it’s actually destructive. .

The rise of ‘productivity paranoia’

In a hybrid world, leaders no longer have the typical visual cues that help them to understand that their employees are being productive. For instance they can’t simply look across the desk to see a team member on the phone or typing on their computer. And because employees are now so often ’unseen’, many leaders are struggling to adjust to this new remote leadership, and have become paranoid that their teams aren’t as productive as they once were. In fact, 85 per cent of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive, despite most employees (87 per cent) saying that they’re being productive at work. Not only this, but research from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that working from home saves 72 minutes per day.

The untold damage

This productivity paranoia is leading to some organisations introducing surveillance technology to prove their people are being ‘productive’. This ranges from recording the amount of time employees spend on their work laptops each day through to recording screenshots of employees’ screens throughout the day, with over half of leaders believing that some form of remote worker monitoring is acceptable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this employee tracking has led to ‘productivity theatre’ (as labelled by Microsoft) in which employees spend more time looking busy than actually being productive. In fact, taking a surveillance approach is utterly counterintuitive, ultimately resulting in distrust between employees and their managers. And once trust is lost, relationships between leaders and their teams break down, employee engagement drops and retention becomes a constant battle.

Focusing on a new type of leadership and the right tech

Organisations must adjust to the new hybrid way of working rather than battling it (including demanding employees return to the office). The reality is that society has moved on and so must businesses. This means allowing employees to exercise their new sense of worth and need for a better work-life balance by providing tailored and flexible hybrid arrangements for workers who want it. 

This hybrid working acceptance must also engender an understanding that leadership is no longer about sitting together in an office. For instance, managers must recognise the damage that productivity paranoia is doing to relationships, outputs and organisational culture, and instead take a leadership approach that has trust and empowerment at the heart. And instead of using technology to spy on employees and find fault, it should be harnessed for good – to provide the crucial tools individuals need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, wherever they’re located.

Enabling tech such as a modern intranet, provides the foundation for productive working. As ‘the hub for everything’, it signposts employees to information, documents, policies and news, as well as support when needed. It facilitates collaboration, helps strengthen workplace relationships, allows all employees to have a voice, and brings everyone together, creating a purpose-driven and meaningful workplace community. And when remote and hybrid workers are given the right supportive IT infrastructure in which to do their jobs, and the trust and space to deliver what’s needed, productivity should no longer be a concern. In fact, employees will feel empowered, supported and engaged, and levels of performance will naturally improve.

Productivity positivity

As leaders get to grips with no longer sitting in the same room as their teams, and instead leading from afar, organisations must support their managers with this transition. They must champion hybrid and flexible working and guide their leaders towards a positive rather than a negative form of leadership – one which is focused on encouragement and empowerment rather than micromanagement and distrust. By tackling productivity paranoia whenever it reveals itself, and giving employees all the tools and support they need to perform their roles, this allows employees to shine - and the organisation to thrive.

Written by
John Nicklin
MD of Sorce
February 20, 2023