A lot of pressure is put on employees to be productive in today’s fast-paced workplaces. It’s not uncommon for us to hear messages about how hard, long, and intelligent we should work. Furthermore, workers are gaining recognition from employers by engaging in activities that make them appear productive, despite growing fears about layoffs and job security.

The result can be a phenomenon called “productivity theater.” And, although it may seem harmless, it can actually be quite detrimental.

What Exactly is Productivity Theater?

The phrase “productivity theater” refers to tasks that employees perform to appear busy without actually doing any meaningful work, according to Visier, a workforce analytics company. Specifically, it involves hacking our digital communications to make ourselves appear more productive than we are.

It is possible to engage in productivity theater in a number of ways, but the most common ones are:

  • Even if it isn’t urgent, respond to emails immediately.
  • Attending unnecessary meetings.
  • Even when you aren’t working, stay online late.
  • Keeping your laptop screen awake to make it seem like you are working.
  • Maintaining the illusion of working by using a mouse jiggler.

According to Visor’s survey of 1,000 full-time US employees, 43% spend more than 10 hours weekly on “productivity theater” tasks. The survey also found that nearly half of hybrid workers – at home and in the office – spend over 10 hours on performative activities per week. The same is true for 35% of remote workers.

According to the survey results, nearly half of an organization spends 1.25 days on performative rather than meaningful work.

Among the most common performative activities are responding to emails or messages immediately, scheduling future emails or messages, or attending useless meetings. In the past 12 months, more than 80% of respondents reported doing one or more of these activities.

The Reasons People Engage in Productivity Theater

People engage in productivity theater for a variety of reasons. It’s a way for some of them to keep up with the Joneses. Others do it to impress their bosses or colleagues. Some perform these activities out of fear of being labeled lazy or unproductive.

Here are a few of the most common reasons:

Fear of appearing unproductive.

Many workplaces reward employees for being busy, even when unproductive, through a presenteeism culture. As a result, people may engage in productivity theater to avoid appearing unproductive.

A lack of trust between employees and managers.

In the absence of trust between employees and managers, employees may engage in productivity theater in order to show their worth. When managers constantly monitor employees’ activities, this can be particularly true.

There are no clear expectations or goals.

To cover their bases, employees may engage in productivity theater when they are unclear about what is expected of them. Workplaces with a lot of ambiguity about what constitutes “good” work are especially susceptible to this problem.

Having a desire to impress their peers.

Occasionally, there is a culture of competition among employees in some workplaces. As a result, people may engage in productivity theater to appear good to their peers.

In fact, according to the Visier survey, performing work is motivated primarily by the desire to look valuable to leaders and managers — regardless of whether the work is actually useful.

The need for recognition and approval.

In an effort to gain recognition and approval from their managers or colleagues, some people engage in productivity theater. The problem is particularly acute for those who lack sufficient positive feedback or feel insecure about their work.

Conflict avoidance.

People sometimes engage in productivity theater to avoid conflict with their managers or colleagues. Conflict-avoidants and people who fear speaking out are especially vulnerable to this.

They lack control over their work.

To feel in control, employees may engage in productivity theater when they feel powerless over their work. Micromanagement is especially prevalent in workplaces where employees are constantly monitored.

Fear of job security.

Gallup reports that at the start of the pandemic, a record-high 25% of workers said it was “very likely” or “fairly likely” that they would become unemployed. Currently, most people believe that losing their job is “not too likely” (30%) or “not at all likely” (55%).

Still, there are plenty of people who aren’t as optimistic. Therefore, workers also want to appear busy and boost their visibility at work out of fear of job security.

Consequences of Productivity Theater

Regardless of the reason, there is a lot of pressure these days to be constantly visible and productive, which can lead to productivity theater. Although it may seem productive, it’s not. It can actually be counterproductive, as it consumes time that could be spent on more meaningful activities.

In short, productivity theater can have many adverse effects on both individuals and organizations.

For individuals:

  • Stress and anxiety can result from productivity theater.
  • You may be unable to concentrate on the critical tasks at hand.
  • Employees may be unable to take breaks or vacation time, resulting in burnout.
  • Engagement and morale can be negatively affected.

For organizations:

  • In addition to missing deadlines, productivity theater can also result in poor decision-making.
  • There is a possibility that it will reduce innovation and creativity.
  • Spending time on tasks that do not contribute to the bottom line can increase costs.
  • Having employees who are perceived as lazy or unproductive can damage the organization’s reputation.

How Can You Avoid Productivity Theater?

You can avoid productivity theater by following these tips:

Define your own productivity.

In your opinion, what does productivity mean? Do you have any goals in mind?

Identifying your goals will help you focus on the tasks that will help you achieve them.

Focus on outputs, not inputs.

The best way to measure people’s performance is to measure their results, not how long they spend working. As a result, people will be more likely to focus on getting things done in lieu of just looking busy.

Set clear expectations.

Everyone should know what to expect in terms of their work output. By doing this, people will not feel like they have to prove themselves by pretending to be busy to prove their worth.

Be honest with yourself and your boss about your workload.

Please do not hesitate to speak up if you are feeling overwhelmed. You might be able to reduce your workload with your boss’s assistance because they will appreciate your honesty.

Be mindful of your time.

As you are working on a task, take a moment to consider how your time is being spent. Do you actually accomplish anything or are you simply going through the motions?

Focus on quality over quantity.

Producing a few high-quality items of work is better than producing many low-quality items.

Create a culture of trust.

Employees who are able to trust their managers will be less inclined to pretend to be busy. Providing autonomy and open communication to employees can help managers build a culture of trust.

Encourage breaks.

Regular breaks can make people more productive in the long run. After all, when people are stressed or overwhelmed, they engage in productivity theater. Managers can keep employees focused and refreshed by allowing employees to take breaks.

Avoid distractions.

Whenever you are trying to be productive, avoid distractions. Finding a quiet place to work requires turning off your phone, closing your email, and closing your browser.

Use time-tracking tools.

Tracking your progress and identifying potential improvement areas can be done through these tools.

Celebrate successes.

People are less likely to pretend to be busy when they feel valued for their work. Managers can celebrate their successes by recognizing employees’ contributions and giving them positive feedback.

Set boundaries between work and personal time.

Establishing boundaries between your work and personal lives is crucial. During work hours, you should not check your work emails, or work on your personal projects while at work.

Delegate tasks.

If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t overload yourself with tasks; delegate them to others if you have too much on your plate.

The use of AI productivity tools can also help you do more, save time, and improve your workflow.

Take time for self-reflection and identify your productivity strengths and weaknesses.

By doing this, you will be able to develop more productive strategies.

Take care of yourself.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and enough sleep should be the key to a healthy lifestyle. The ability to concentrate and be productive is increased when you take care of yourself.

It is not a sign of weakness to seek help if you are experiencing productivity theater. Whether it’s your boss, a mentor, or a therapist, don’t be afraid to talk to them. By breaking the habit and becoming more productive, they can assist you.

Don’t let productivity theater destroy your life. When it comes to your health, your relationships, and your productivity, pretending to be busy isn’t worth it. Consider taking a step back, reassessing your priorities, and focusing on the most important things.


What is productivity theater?

In productivity theater, you pretend to be busy to look productive. There are many ways to do this, including checking email constantly, attending unnecessary meetings, and working on low-priority projects.

Often, productivity theater is motivated by a desire to impress others or a fear of appearing unproductive.

What are the signs of productivity theater?

Someone who engages in productivity theater may exhibit the following signs. Among them are:

  • Checking social media or email constantly
  • Taking part in unnecessary meetings
  • Prioritizing low-priority tasks
  • The avoidance of deep work
  • Responding to messages too quickly
  • Making excuses for not completing a task

What are the effects of productivity theater?

Productivity theater can have negative effects on both individuals and organizations.

Individuals may feel stressed, anxious, and burnt out as a result. Consequently, organizations may experience decreased productivity, missed deadlines, and poor decision-making.

How can I avoid productivity theater?

Keeping productivity theater at bay is as simple as following these tips:

  • Focus on results, not busyness. Rather than focusing on your busy schedule, you should measure your performance based on the results you achieve.
  • Set clear goals and priorities. Doing this makes you more likely to focus on the most critical tasks.
  • Delegate or automate tasks. You shouldn’t be afraid to delegate or automate dull and low-priority tasks if you have too much to do.
  • Take breaks. To avoid burnout, take breaks during the day.
  • Be honest with yourself about your work habits. How busy are you really? Are you just wasting your time on busy work?

What can managers do to prevent productivity theater?

Managers can take the following actions to prevent productivity theater:

  • Clearly defining expectations. Employees should know what is expected of them in terms of their work output.
  • Trust your employees. Employees should be trusted to work hard even if they aren’t always visible to their managers.
  • Encourage open communication. It is vital for employees to feel comfortable discussing their workload and challenges with their managers.

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