A workplace full of busy employees poring over documents, or staring into their screens, crunching data and chasing deadlines is a treat to the eyes. After all, busy and seemingly engaged employees lead to high productivity and output for the company. But what if things are not really what they appear to be? What if the employees who ‘look’ busy are not really so? Yes, sometimes, there lies beneath the surface of this productivity culture a darker side called ‘productivity theatre’.
The presence of the word ‘theatre’ in the term is enough to tell us that it is all about putting on a show or an act. ‘Productivity theatre’ refers to the practice of appearing busy or productive without actually achieving significant outcomes or results. It can be a ‘put on’ show to fake productivity without genuinely contributing to the successful completion of tasks or projects. Naturally, the side effects of productivity theatre can be detrimental to both individuals and the organisations they are associated with.
Uma Rao, CHRO, Granules, says productivity theatre is a significant concern in the business world, leading to a waste of productive time and hurdles in the achievement of expected outcomes.
“Not only does productivity theatre discourage individuals who are genuinely engaged in meaningful work, but it also results in low levels of team engagement. When employees perform for the sake of appearances rather than connecting with the company’s purpose, it creates a disconnect between the workforce and the organisation’s mission,” shares Rao.
“Not only does productivity theatre discourage individuals who are genuinely engaged in meaningful work, but it also results in low levels of team engagement. When employees perform for the sake of appearances rather than connecting with the company’s purpose, it creates a disconnect between the workforce and the organisation’s mission”
Uma Rao, CHRO, Granules
Superficial work environment
The constant pressure to be productive and appear busy often leads individuals to portray an exaggerated image of their work efforts. The need to maintain this façade forces people to downplay genuine struggles, challenges and limitations they may face in their roles. As a result, authenticity in the workplace is sacrificed, making it difficult to address actual issues and find appropriate solutions. The culture of productivity theatre promotes a superficial work environment, hindering trust and genuine connections between colleagues.
Decline in creativity and innovation
Productivity theatre fosters a mindset where the appearance of busyness takes precedence over actual results. This emphasis on the quantity of output rather than the quality stifles creativity and innovation. Team members may shy away from experimenting with new ideas or approaches, fearing they may not yield immediate, tangible results. As a result, companies lose out on potentially groundbreaking innovations that require time and experimentation.
Burnout and stress
While productivity theatre may seem harmless at first, it inevitably takes a toll on individuals. Constantly pretending to be productive and overloading oneself with tasks leads to burnout and increased stress levels in employees. The fear of falling behind or being perceived as lazy creates an unrelenting cycle of stress that can negatively impact both physical and mental well-being.
Deteriorating work-life balance
By perpetuating the notion that one must always be busy to be considered valuable, productivity theatre blurs the boundaries between work and personal life. Employees may find it increasingly difficult to disengage from work-related thoughts and stress, leading to a deterioration in work-life balance. This imbalance can lead to strained relationships, decreased job satisfaction and overall dissatisfaction with life.
Reduced team spirit
In a work environment that thrives on productivity, individual achievements are often prioritised over collective efforts. This individualistic approach can lead to a lack of teamwork and cooperation among employees. When people are primarily focused on showcasing their own productivity, they may hesitate to collaborate or offer assistance to others, creating a fragmented and less cohesive work culture.
According to Rao, “The situation worsens when such performative employees are rewarded, as it severely damages the workplace culture, undermining genuine efforts and fostering an environment that values superficial appearances over substantive contributions.”
She further adds that addressing this issue is crucial to maintain a healthy and thriving work environment, where meaningful work is recognised and rewarded and employees are genuinely committed to achieving the company’s goals.
“The hybrid working model and work-from-home brought about significant changes in the workplace. With managers unable to physically supervise work, concerns arose regarding the potential impact on productivity”
Sujiv Nair, global CHRO, Re Sustainability
Productivity theatre may provide a temporary illusion of success, but in reality, it hampers genuine progress and well-being. As already mentioned, the repercussions in the form of burnout, lack of genuineness, loss of creativity, strained work-life balance and reduced team cohesion can eat away the very foundation of the business.
“The hybrid working model and work-from-home brought about significant changes in the workplace. With managers unable to physically supervise work, concerns arose regarding the potential impact on productivity,” points out Sujiv Nair, global CHRO, Re Sustainability.
However, Nair believe that productivity might have only marginally declined or possibly even improved. Which is why he suggest abandoning the idea of ‘productivity theatre’ and focusing on practical approaches to optimize remote work efficiency.
Instead of getting caught up in superficial measures, Nair opines that employees should now prioritise measuring outcomes and key performance indicators.
Nair suggests that the primary focus for leaders should be to find ways to enhance productivity and unlock the full potential of employees. “It is time to shift the emphasis towards fostering humane workplaces, where employees can thrive,” says Nair.
Emphasising open communication, encouraging creativity and innovation, and acknowledging the value of work-life balance will pave the way for a more authentic and fulfilling work experience for individuals and organisations alike. By unmasking productivity theatre, we can create workplaces that prioritise genuine achievements and nurture the well-being of all employees.