From the onset of COVID-19 and the work-from-home era, managers and bosses have been coming up with new ways to monitor employees’ productivity, from employee monitoring software to micromanagement.
Remote work has brought on yet another problem, a phenomenon known as “productivity paranoia.” The term was coined by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in a recent report on workplace trends. The report found that 87% of employees said that they are productive at work, but only 12% of senior leaders have full confidence that their team is being productive.
In a world where employers are growing more concerned about employee productivity and motivation, and employees are pushing for more autonomy and flexibility, how can HR help managers – and the employees on the receiving end – deal with this new phenomenon?
What is productivity paranoia?
Although the phrase “productivity paranoia” was only coined recently, the idea has been present since the onset of remote work. The phrase describes a phenomenon where “Leaders think their employees are not productive, whereas employees think they are being productive and, in many cases, even feel burnt out,” Nadella said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been a disconnect between employers and employees when it comes to productivity and working from home. While studies show employees feel they’re as productive – or more – when they work remotely, managers still feel that employees aren’t being as productive when they’re outside the office.
To add fuel to the fire, productivity – regardless of work location – is dropping. “Productivity rates have plunged to the lowest level on record since 1947 according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving employers across the country worried – and more vocal – about workers getting less work done,” says Emily MacIntyre, Director of People Operations at Catalant Technologies.
“Combine that with economic uncertainty, an increase in burnout among employees and managers, and a renewed push by companies to get employees to return to office, and we’re left with the resulting phenomenon of productivity paranoia.”
Trust is key
Overall, productivity paranoia leads to the breakdown of trust between employees and managers from both ends.
“When there is a strong sense of trust between employers and employees, teams are naturally more productive. Employers who assume positive intent and trust that their employees are delivering what’s needed, rather than assuming they are slacking off or are taking advantage of a hybrid or remote arrangement, help contribute to an overall sense of trust,” says Monique McDonough, Chief Operating Officer at WorkTango.
Employers aren’t trusting that employees are doing their work. On the flip side, employees are worried that their employers truly believe that they’re doing good work.
“Employers need to trust that their employees can execute on the responsibilities they have delegated to them based on the skills that made them hire the person in the first place,” says MacIntyre. “Without this level of autonomy, there’s a fundamental culture problem that’s rooted in distrust and micromanagement, which ultimately turns off top talent and leads to turnover.”
The breakdown of trust may lead to a disengaged workforce, which can directly impact productivity levels, creating a vicious cycle of paranoia and distrust.
How managers can handle productivity paranoia
Managers who are experiencing productivity paranoia can be fueled to make decisions that will end up hurting the employees and the organization in the long run. Not to mention, managers who are pressuring employees to be more productive are probably feeling that pressure from upper management themselves.
“Productivity paranoia can quickly ravage a company, leaving a disengaged and unhappy workplace in its wake. It’s the job of managers and executive leadership to find effective and productive ways to communicate the health of the business and areas that need attention without falling prey to productivity paranoia,” says McDonough.
Here are three ways that managers can curb productivity paranoia and foster a healthy, trusting relationship between employees and managers.
Put a focus on employee well-being. “Employees who feel overwhelmed at work, or even in their personal lives and trust that their managers care about their well-being, are more likely to speak up when they need help,” says McDonough.
Focus on output rather than input. MacIntyre suggests taking the emphasis off the process and focusing more on results. “Giving employees the freedom and autonomy to determine how they spend their day can lead to much better results, engagement and long-term loyalty.”
Remember one size does not fit all. “Instead of focusing on physical presence in an office, clicks or other arbitrary measures, managers should focus on evaluating the results produced by the team,” says McDonough. “By assessing output and the subsequent impact on the business, it becomes easier to assess if employees are spending their time in the right areas.”
Overall, combatting productivity paranoia is about balancing autonomy with management. “If leadership does a good job of communicating goals, setting expectations and working with employees to maximize their strengths and deliver results, the conversation around productivity paranoia becomes irrelevant and employers’ and employees’ well-being is protected,” says McDonough.