Is your team engaging in productivity theatre? Warning signs and what to do about it
In this guest article, Jeremy Campbell, executive coach, behavioural science expert and CEO of Black Isle Group, explores productivity theatre, another recent trend found in the world of hybrid work, and explains how to identify it and what business leaders should do about it.
More and more people are faking it at work. The latest trend to haunt the hybrid world has been dubbed productivity theatre.
The term covers a range of dodges to make it look like you’re busy when you’re not. It has its origins in workarounds to dupe technology which monitors activity in the digital world.
The debate around productivity theatre opens a can of worms around much wider issues such as employee engagement, empowerment, and trust. It also highlights the dearth of inspirational leadership in corporate Britain. For business leaders it raises the age-old question – “Are we measuring the right things?”.
In a way, the human behaviour behind productivity theatre is nothing new. Many people may remember the day when a colleague would leave a jacket over their chair to suggest they were still in the office while they lingered at a lengthy lunch.
Now the post-pandemic equivalent, with so many hybrid workers out of sight, includes,
- Faking activity to fool digital surveillance.
- Sending a flurry of emails during out-of-office hours to suggest commitment above and beyond.
- Filling the digital diary with BD appointments that don’t exist.
Digital surveillance tools deployed by some can include software which takes grabs screenshots from the laptops of home workers. Other software solutions include monitoring mouse movements as a measure of screen presence. These Big Brother approaches beg the question, “What have we all become?”
Surely, the answer to productivity theatre is to go back to the basics regarding the purpose of work. While everyone is forgiven for not being 100% on it 100% of the time, the actors in this new theatre will all have a few things in common.
- They won’t be sure of their personal goal or how to achieve it through their own everyday actions.
- They will feel that they are not empowered and not trusted.
- They certainly won’t be motivated or inspired.
- They will regard themselves as judged by the surveillance tools rather than by the quality of their results.
- They will lack any proper coaching or feedback from their boss.
The answer is not to think of new ways of watching them. The answer is effective engagement, better leadership, and the re-establishment of trust.
Instead of spying on our colleagues, we should put in place the tools to truly measure their results. We should also engage them in solving the problems we face in maximising our performance.
The pre-pandemic approach was biased towards command and control rather than trust and inspire. COVID taught us that the more effective way of leading in the hybrid world is the latter genre of leadership.
Right now, across the corporate world, there is a widening gap between strategy and execution as we face up to a scale and pace of change which few businesses have encountered before. In this environment, it is no longer effective to push down the answers from the top. More and more organisations are using processes that help meet in the middle. The C suite agrees the strategy and the big goals and the middle of the organisation works out how to smash them.
At Black Isle Group, we are passionate about our six-step process to help everyone in the team to smash their goals:
Step one – First, define the goal and make sure that everyone involved is very clear on the goal. Then organize a ten-week sprint. Get everyone together and motivate and inspire them to smash that goal.
Step two – Sit down with each member of the team and be very specific about what they need to do to contribute to smashing the goal. Encourage them to act small and often. Encourage them to focus, not be distracted, and stick to the task.
Step three – We like to measure our progress and make sure that everyone can follow it as we go along. To do this, we devised an app called Nudge. It does two things. It Nudges people every day on their phones or PCs to carry out their key individual actions. It also gives the team access to high-quality tracking and insights about how they were getting on.
Step four – We encourage everyone to aim for progress and not perfection. It is consistency we are trying to achieve, not 100% infallibility.
Step five – We try to make everyone accountable and ensure they maintain momentum. Everyone gets a one-to-one peer coach. At the end of the week, everyone on the team has a coaching session to discuss their progress, their challenges, and their approach to the following week’s effort.
Step six – Finally, we make sure that each week we celebrate the small successes, and we call out the achievements of members of the team, especially where they have helped colleagues and worked in a collaborative way.
To solve the problems of productivity theatre, we need to drop the Big Brother approach and focus on how we bridge the gap between strategy and execution. We need to adopt a new approach. We will never make everyone in our companies a model A worker. But it must be the mission of senior leaders, especially finance professionals, to walk the path of motivation, empowerment, and trust.
Unless we continue to pursue these fundamentals, we will never maximise the potential of individuals, teams, and organisations.
Productivity theatre is a symptom. It’s not the problem.