Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have embraced remote and hybrid work models, with many deciding to forego returning to fully in-person work arrangements even as lockdown orders lifted and offices reopened. This suggests that employees have been able to remain productive in remote and hybrid environments.
However, after more than two years of employees working in remote and hybrid environments, many managers are still not convinced employees are productive outside of the office. This emerging trend is known as “productivity paranoia,” and recent evidence suggests it’s difficult for employers to shake.
This article explains productivity paranoia and discusses what employers can do to address it.
What Is Productivity Paranoia?
Productivity paranoia is the disconnect between employer and employee perceptions of productivity. Microsoft coined this term in a 2022 survey on global workplace trends. According to the survey’s results, 85% of leaders believe hybrid work has made it difficult to be confident that employees are productive. Only 12% of senior leaders have full confidence their employees are productive. However, the majority of employees (87%) report they are productive at work, with 48% even claiming they’re burned out.
The disconnect created by the shift to remote and hybrid work is likely the result of managers and leaders no longer being able to easily observe which employees are showing up to work and what they’re producing each day. Despite leaders’ fear that employees are not being productive since shifting to hybrid work, Microsoft’s survey found many productivity metrics have increased, including the number of meetings and hours employees work. For example, the number of employee meetings per week has increased by 153% globally for the average Microsoft Teams users since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Productivity Paranoia Is Impacting the Workplace
Productivity paranoia is causing a workplace trust deficit. Many employers pivoted to hybrid and remote work models out of necessity but have continued permitting these arrangements as a concession to employees rather than by choice. In many cases, this has caused a trust breakdown between employers and employees. For example, even if remote and hybrid employees work the required hours, managers don’t necessarily believe it. As a result, many employees feel pressure to prove they are working, leaving them overwhelmed and burned out. Despite this, managers aren’t confident employees are doing their best work when they’re out of sight.
Rather than adapt, many employers are turning to technology to monitor employees to recreate the lost visibility of remote and hybrid work. According to the New York Times, 8 out of 10 of the largest private U.S. employers use tracking software to monitor individual employee activity. In many cases, these efforts to monitor employees have caused trust between employers and employees to deteriorate further.
What Employers Can Do
A lack of trust can lead to disengaged and less productive workers. However, employers must equally ensure that their workforces are productive to remain competitive in challenging economic environments. Workers tend to be more productive when there’s strong trust between employers and employees. Employers can build and maintain trust with their employees by assuming employees are working rather than taking advantage of hybrid or remote work arrangements to slack off. If employers are unable to establish trust, productivity paranoia risks making hybrid and remote work arrangements unsustainable, which may negatively impact their attraction and retention efforts since most employees prefer flexible work options.
Employers can curb productivity paranoia and create a healthy, trusting relationship with employees by doing the following:
- Focus on employee well-being. Many employees are pushing for more autonomy and flexibility to increase job
satisfaction and improve well-being. Unfortunately, employers are often more concerned about employee productivity and motivation. By worrying less about whether their employees are working enough and prioritizing employee well-being, employers can build trust within their organizations, leading to more productive and engaged employees.
- Prioritize employee output. Despite the transition to remote or hybrid work, many managers are holding on to old methods of accessing employee productivity, namely visual cues and time in the office. Employers can move away from older methods by focusing on employee work output.
- Establish new metrics. Employers have traditionally measured productivity by hours spent at the desk. Time tends to be the most common productivity metric because it’s the easiest to measure, not because it’s the best indication of productivity. Instead of measuring performance through time in the office, keystrokes and digital trackers, employers can establish metrics focused on outputs, such as deliverables and deadlines. These metrics may include the planned-to-done ratio (how much work is assigned to an employee versus how much the employee accomplishes), quality of employee work, sales revenue per sales representative and average resolution time for customer service issues. When establishing metrics, organizations should ensure employees clearly understand each metric and what it means.
- Redefine the role of a manager. Employers can shift the primary role of a manager from monitoring inputs, like workers’ time, to outcome-based management. Outcome-based management focuses on communication and the measurement of qualitative outputs instead of collecting quantitative inputs. Under this approach, a manager’s goal should be to facilitate open communication with remote and hybrid employees and provide employees with clear goals.
- Embrace flexibility. Employers can address productivity paranoia by implementing individually tailored work
arrangements that meet employee needs. This means trusting employees when they’re working remotely as well as prioritizing the times employees are physically in the office.
Smaller employers with fewer established processes and hierarchies can more easily pivot to better support hybrid and remote work environments compared to larger organizations.
The term productivity paranoia may be new, but the disconnect between employer and employee perceptions of productivity is not. As this trend will likely impact each workplace differently, being aware of it can help employers watch for signs of productivity paranoia and utilize strategies to improve trust, such as redefining metrics to reflect new workplace realities.
Employers proactively addressing this trend will likely benefit from more productive and invested employees.