Productivity Paranoia: Experts Explain the Challenges

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What is productivity paranoia? What problems does it cause? How can we overcome it?

While 87% of employees in hybrid jobs feel they’re working productively, only 12% of leaders agree. Experts claim that productivity paranoia is driving this discrepancy, causing employers to rely more heavily on tracking software to monitor workers’ every move.

Read on to learn more about productivity paranoia and the challenges it presents, according to experts.

Productivity Paranoia, According to Experts

The expansion of remote and hybrid work during the Covid-19 pandemic introduced a new type of work anxiety: A 2022 study revealed that 87% of employees in hybrid jobs feel they’re working productively, but only 12% of leaders agree—which leads some bosses to monitor workers’ every move. What’s behind this discrepancy? Chalk it up to “productivity paranoia.”

What is productivity paranoia? How does it impact managers and workers? Are there ways to fight back against it? We’ll explore experts’ opinions on these questions. 

What Is Productivity Paranoia? 

Productivity paranoia is when leaders and managers in hybrid and remote work structures believe workers aren’t being productive enoughdespite the fact that employees are working more hours and attending more meetings than ever.

  • 85% of leaders lack confidence in remote workers’ productivity.

Experts attribute productivity paranoia to several factors, including

  • Faulty productivity beliefs. Many people believe that being productive is about getting more done in less time—but they should instead think of it as getting the right things done in less time
  • Inadequate support. Workers and managers say they need more help from superiors to be productive:
    • 81% of workers want managers’ help with workload prioritization, but just 31% say they get clear guidance.
    • 74% of managers want more guidance from leaders on work prioritization.

The Rise of Employee Monitoring

Because of productivity paranoia, some companies are using tracking software, surveillance cameras, and GPS data to monitor employees’ locations and online activity. There’s some evidence that monitoring software increases productivity. In one survey, 81% of employers reported immediate productivity increases after implementing the software, and another found productivity increases of between 26% and 32%. Employers also report that the software has helped them to crack down on time theft by showing them which workers are wasting time on the job (“cyberloafing”).

However, experts say this is a misguided attempt to regain visibility of workers, when companies should instead adapt to a new work world defined by less visibility and the need to trust. Additionally, monitoring software has been shown to decrease morale, increase turnover, encourage rule-breaking, raise privacy concerns, and fail to truly capture job performance.

Tracking Damages Morale

Monitoring has been shown to increase employee stress and decrease job satisfaction. It also weakens trust in workplace relationships and undermines worker autonomy. It’s not surprising, therefore, that monitoring increases employee turnover.

The Productivity Benefits May Be Overstated

Though many employers see monitoring software as a silver bullet for remote work productivity, the reality is more complicated. The productivity findings are mixed at best, with one recent study finding no relationship between monitoring and productivity and another finding a negative relationship. Some of the reported increases should also be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism: The 26%–32% figure was reported by Workpuls, a monitoring software company that was studying its own product.

Employee Tracking Can Backfire

Tracking software can make employees more—not less—likely to break the rules. Employees who know they’re being monitored may take more breaks, ignore directives, dawdle through their work, and cheat on tasks. Monitored employees also figure out ways to game the system: They might use a mouse jiggler, have multiple windows open, use a decoy monitor, figure out the intervals between screenshots, or even find and modify the program’s source code. 

Tracking Software Doesn’t Measure the Right Thing

Tracking software measures time in front of the computer, keystrokes, and onscreen work progress. But the software is blind to time spent thinking, planning, working with pen and paper, and exercising soft skills like leadership. 

There are also some jobs it’s clearly not suited to. One health organization, for example, now registers its social workers as idle when they’re talking with patients or visiting rehab centers, which reduces their salary. In an even more macabre twist, another organization forced its hospice chaplains to earn “productivity points”: 1 point for visiting a dying person; 1¾ points for attending a funeral; ¼ point for calling bereaved family members.

There Are Privacy Concerns

Fourteen percent of employers say they’re monitoring workers without their knowledge. While this is legal in some places, governments are increasingly requiring employers to disclose monitoring

Bosses also need to be careful about when they choose to check up on employees. If they do it outside of working hours, they face lawsuits. Companies with international workforces can run afoul of country-specific privacy laws: A Dutch employee, for example, sued his American firm in a Netherlands court for requiring him to keep his webcam switched on. He won.  

Fight Productivity Paranoia

Experts say that leaders, managers, and employees in remote work settings can take several steps to combat productivity paranoia and boost productivity.

Managers must build trust and create safe spaces for remote workers, even when stuck with tracking mandates that stress employees out. Toward that end: 

  • Set clear expectations about work and non-work times, model these hours for workers, and recognize that people’s workflows differ. 
  • Encourage employee breaks. Give workers permission to recharge, let their minds wander, and daydream to support the brain’s creativity and problem-solving abilities.
  • Focus on quality, not quantity. When holding virtual meetings, address pressing issues. Once you’ve done that, end the meeting to avoid wasting workers’ time, which fuels burnout.

Employees can alleviate tracking-related anxiety and productivity paranoia with the following tips

  • Set a clear workday start and end. It can be difficult to mentally and physically unplug from remote work when your computer is always within arm’s reach. So, adhere to a strict workday start and end to curb the urge to constantly check emails. 
  • Be clear about when you’re unavailable. Being perpetually “on” in a remote job can create unnecessary stress. So, inform colleagues when you are and aren’t available (including on Slack and your calendar). 
  • Take breaks. Even a 10-minute break can help you recharge. Adults’ attention span is between 90 and 120 minutes and peaks at 45 minutes, so take a 10-minute break every 90 minutes you work to stay focused.
  • Compartmentalize. When you’re working, focus only on work. When you’re not working, focus exclusively on your personal life. To more easily distinguish between the two situations, block out work and personal life tasks on your calendar.
Productivity Paranoia: Experts Explain the Challenges

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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