An office that looks constantly busy almost certainly isn’t. Unless you’re running a factory line, all that carefully orchestrated activity you’re seeing is probably a case of productivity theatre – and your micromanaging is to blame.
Obsessing over clock-watching rather than outcomes is anathema to creative and knowledge workers. People do not operate like machinery and it’s not psychologically possible for us to switch our brains onto a task at an arbitrarily dictated time before working continuously with uninterrupted energy and engagement until another arbitrarily dictated time.
In fact, we often work best in fits and starts that intensify at certain times of day, drawing inspiration from unexpected sources and/or after taking a mental or physical break from work. This is one of the reasons that highly innovative companies like Google schedule “playtime” periods for employees and why many design and technology companies take a choose-your-own-hours approach to work.
For most employees, however, the office experience is the exact opposite of this – and it’s making us less, not more, industrious. Constant monitoring means that workers have to focus on looking busy, regardless of whether this particular brand of busyness actually gets the best results.
So how do you tackle “productivity theatre” behaviour? To start with, shift the focus to outcomes, rather than how well employees toe the line. As business expert Janet Choi says: “Stop measuring things in terms of hours and mere presence, and look instead at results. Relying on face time as a way to measure performance incentivizes presenteeism over efficient, effective work.”
While it might seem counter-intuitive to control freak bosses, “privacy zones” in offices actually have a positive impact on work. By reducing the feeling that you are looking over shoulders, employees tend to become more relaxed, creative and productive, focussing on solving problems or trying new ideas rather than putting on a show.
A shift in attitude can bring great benefits for everyone. Knowing that they must meet certain deadlines or produce certain outcomes, but have autonomy over how they actually achieve these, can help to create an energised workforce that is motivated and empowered to do great things.
In fact, the awareness that your actual work is being keenly assessed (rather than, say, the ability to sit in the same chair for eight hours, or to switch from YouTube to a spreadsheet window with ninja-like reaction times) means that employees take more responsibility, and greater pride, in the quality of what they are producing. After all, there’s nothing else to hide behind!