What the buzz? Volume 4: Productivity Paranoia

Ghina Fahs
April 19, 2023
What the buzz? Volume 4: Productivity Paranoia
Employee experience
People management

Hey there, welcome back to alfii's What The Buzz series! Are you ready to dive into the hottest industry terms with us? We're on a mission to keep you in the loop with all the latest buzzwords that seem to be making waves on LinkedIn statuses, blogs, articles, memes, and more! Every month, we'll be breaking down one buzzword, giving you the inside scoop on what it all means.

Thanks to your votes on our LinkedIn page, this month’s selected buzzword is productivity paranoia. Coined by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in a recent report on workplace trends, the term is being used to describe the excessive concern or anxiety employers and managers may feel about employees being productive and maximizing their output. Especially since the rise of hybrid and remote working conditions, leaders have been fearing that decreased productivity is the result of employees not putting in enough effort, even when the number of hours worked, meetings attended, and other activity metrics have increased.

According to the report, while 87% of employees claim they are productive while working remotely, only 12% of senior leaders are fully confident that their team is indeed being productive.

In this month’s WTB, we’ll dive into how this term and the imbalance it refers to may impact the workforce today, how managers can work towards avoiding the trap of productivity paranoia, and how HR can step in to help managers and employees deal with this phenomenon.

Buzz it, let’s get started!

Here’s what productivity paranoia can lead to :

  • Anxiety and overwhelm in employees, as they feel increased pressure to “prove” that they’re working, perpetuating a culture of overwork and burnout.

  • Driving people to resort to digital presenteeism and “productivity theater,” which refers to the practice of employees trying to appear constantly available and engaged with work-related tasks and communication in an effort to constantly demonstrate their dedication and productivity.

  • A breakdown of trust between managers and employees from both perspectives, potentially straining relationships.

  • Making hybrid and remote work unsustainable.

  • A disengaged workforce, which is what actually does directly impact productivity levels.

  • An increase in employee turnover rates and difficulty in retaining talent, as employees might start to seek jobs where they feel less pressured and more capable of finding a good work-life balance.

  • Negative impact on the mental health of both employers and employees, creating a rise in stress levels, anxiety, imposter syndrome and paranoia.

  • Employees feeling like they can never meet their employers' expectations, and employers finding themselves stuck in a loop of always seeking more.

  • Unethical behavior from employees, such as falsifying data or cutting corners to meet unrealistic targets.

Here’s what productivity paranoia is not :

  • It does not necessarily lead to better output, quality work, or higher levels of innovation.

  • It does not guarantee long-term success for the company or its employees.

  • It does not foster a healthy work-life balance for employees.

  • It does not address systemic issues within the organization or its industry.

  • It does not create a positive company culture that values collaboration, empathy, and growth.

  • It will not necessarily lead to increased profitability or customer satisfaction in the long run.

“Productivity paranoia can quickly ravage a company, leaving a disengaged and unhappy workplace in its wake. It’s the job of managers and executive leadership to find effective and productive ways to communicate the health of the business and areas that need attention without falling prey to productivity paranoia,”

Monique McDonough, Chief Operating Officer at WorkTango.

So, what can people managers do to avoid the trap of productivity paranoia?

According to Microsoft’s report, although 81% of employees believe that their managers should assist them in managing their workload, just 31% say that their managers have given them clear guidance during individual meetings.

To tackle this issue, it's essential to start with top management since 74% of people managers think that getting more direction on task prioritization would improve their performance. Moreover, 80% of them say that receiving more clarity from senior leadership on essential priorities would be beneficial.

What this means is that instead of being preoccupied with employee productivity, leaders and managers should shift their focus on helping their people prioritize their crucial tasks in a structured manner.

McDonough adds the importance of putting a focus on employee wellbeing as well. “Employees who feel overwhelmed at work, or even in their personal lives and trust that their managers care about their well-being, are more likely to speak up when they need help.”

Emily MacIntyre, Director of People Operations at Catalant Technologies also adds that employers must have faith in their employees' ability to perform their assigned tasks based on the skills that initially led to their hiring. Without this level of independence and autonomy, a deep-rooted culture issue of mistrust and micromanagement arises, which ultimately disengages high-performing employees and results in increased turnover.

How can HR step in to lend a helping hand?

HR can take several steps to alleviate productivity concerns and improve trust in the workplace:

  • Encourage open communication: HR can facilitate open and transparent communication between leaders and employees. By fostering an environment where employees can voice their concerns and ask questions, HR can help to build and strengthen trust between both sides.

  • Clarify expectations: HR can work with managers to define clear expectations for employee productivity, including specific goals and outcomes. This helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and can help to reduce anxiety and uncertainty.

  • Provide training and support: HR can offer training and support to help employees adjust to new work arrangements and technologies. This can help employees feel more confident in their ability to work effectively and can improve overall productivity.

  • Use data to inform decisions: HR can use data to assess employee productivity and identify areas for improvement. By taking a data-driven approach, HR can help to ensure that decisions are fair and unbiased.

  • Review and update policies: HR can review and update existing policies to ensure they are relevant and effective in an unconventional off-site work environment. This can help to ensure that employees feel supported and valued, which can help to build trust and improve productivity.

We’ll leave you with some things to reflect on…

Productivity paranoia can manifest in various ways for employees, such as feeling guilty for taking breaks or not working long hours, frequently checking work-related emails or to-do lists outside of working hours, or feeling inadequate despite putting in significant effort.

If we know that this kind of work environment isn’t sustainable or healthy in the long run, what managerial ideologies do we need to unlearn? What kind of conditioning or habits can we all release in order to break the pattern of productivity paranoia and cultivate a culture that puts the people first?

Hungry for more? Check out our article all about leadership for the future of work to dig into what successful people management looks like 2023.

Finally, we’ll leave you with one last quote by Colette Stallbaumer, general manager of Microsoft 365 and future of work at Microsoft:

“Employees have embraced flexible work and its benefits, and are rejecting a return to hustle culture. At the same time, many leaders yearn for the office life of 2019. In this new world of work, it’s the job of every leader to balance employee interests with the success of the organization, and that means aligning everyone around the most impactful work.​”

Feature images sourced from

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