productivity theater

How much time do you spend proving to others that you’re working when you’re not in the office? This sounds silly, but my long-time colleague, Jessica Stillman wrote an article for recently that gave a name to that behavior: Productivity Theater.

Productivity Theater is engaging in behaviors that aren’t terribly productive but give the appearance of working hard. A simple example is making a point of letting everyone know how busy you are but that team Zoom  meeting was important enough to pull you away (even when it’s not).  A worse example (and shockingly large numbers of people admit to doing this) is jiggling your mouse every 15 minutes or so in order to keep Teams fooled and appear online, no matter what you’re really doing. Anyone looking at your status sees you hard at work.

Why do smart people engage in Productivity Theater?

We always have done it. Is this really that new? Let she who has never kept the company intranet tab open on their computer or switched to it quickly when people passed their desk so it looked like they were working on something important, cast the first stone.

We do it because we don’t want people to think we’re slacking. In the most positive light, we want our teammates and the organization to know they can trust us to get our work done and that we are there for them. Usually, it becomes a kind of “CYA” behavior that means we spend time pretending to be working at times when we are really walking the dog or doing something else.

We’re playing by antiquated rules. The real problem is that too many organizations still insist on work being done at specific times of the day, usually in synch with the home office. One of the benefits of working remotely is the flexibility if offers to balance your personal and your work life.  If you are told you have that flexibility, but you’re still expected to check in every morning at nine eastern and be available for that standing meeting Tuesday at noon, how flexible is your work really?

Embracing a new reality

As the article points out, until we become more accepting of asynchronous work, this behavior will be common. If you’re told your work can be done “anytime, anywhere, as long as it gets done” but the metrics associated with your performance evaluation and career track are tied to being connected at the same time as everyone else, and available when they want you, the work won’t truly be flexible.

There’s plenty of fault for this behavior to go around. Individuals might fail to set boundaries around their time (working when it’s right for them AND working when they shouldn’t for the “good of the team”). Sometimes that’s out of habit, sometimes out of fear.

The majority of the fault lies in leaders, both at the team and organization level, who aren’t comfortable with the concept of working untethered to the clock and still evaluate people more for “presenteeism” than the work they do.

Action steps for more successful remote work

This is not to say that synchronous meetings aren’t sometimes necessary, or that your job may require being available to teammates or customers at certain times. There are two things that must happen for remote work to be truly successful across organizations:

  1. We must get better at examining what tasks have to be done synchronously, what is “nice to have,” and what truly doesn’t require everyone in the same place at the same time. Be honest about work flow and expectations.
  2. We have to get comfortable with the idea that “remote” work is not simply where work gets done, but when.

If you tell people they can work from a beach hut in Bali, but they’d better be available when the boss in New York wants them, you’ll get people gaming the system.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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