You may not know the term "productivity theater" but you almost certainly know the behavior it describes. It's the employee who quickly switches tabs from a YouTube video to the report she's supposed to be working on when the boss walks by, or the guy who always makes it a point to loudly boast (or complain) about how incredibly swamped he is whenever his manager is in earshot. And as we've covered here on Inc.com, if there's a lot of this going on at your office, you have a problem.

Constant busyness, as marketer Randy Murray explains, is a distraction from actually getting stuff done. "If your people are always, always busy, it's likely that they're not actually working. They're putting on a show. A special, 'look busy' show for just one audience member: you," he's said. "If that's the case, they're not working at all. 'Looking busy' isn't getting work done. Your staff is wasting time to make you feel good."

Murray isn't the only one to notice and document the phenomenon. Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein documented the same phenomenon more scientifically in a Chinese mobile phone factory, showing that looking busy for the boss actually cut down on how much employees accomplished.

Which is all well and good, but if you're a boss who is convinced of the harm of productivity theater, you're still left with one essential question--how do you stop it? Janet Choi recently offered three suggestions on the iDoneThis blog.

Measure Productivity, Not Face Time

Every time an employee turns up five minutes late or you happen to notice a team member handling some sort of personal chore at work, how do you handle the situation? If you look grim or make a comment, you could be largely to blame for your office's productivity theater problem. Your staff isn't stupid after all. If you send out signals that you're watching the clock, they will pick that up and internalize the message.

"Stop measuring things in terms of hours and mere presence, and look instead at results. Relying on face time as a way to measure performance incentivizes presenteeism over efficient, effective work," suggests Choi.

Offer 'Zones of Privacy'

Productivity theater isn't always the fault of managers. Office design can contribute, too. "In his study, Bernstein found that creating smaller zones of privacy--blocking off certain assembly lines with curtains, for example--actually allowed transparency to do its work. Since the workers felt safe to experiment and not put on a show, they became more productive and were more comfortable sharing their improvements," Choi reports. "In open offices and transparent work cultures, make sure there are physical and mental spaces where managers aren't hovering."

Help Your Team Manage Its Energy

Most people don't work on an assembly line these days, so the old "X hours worked yields Y amount of output" equation no longer holds. The key to getting more done for most knowledge workers isn't putting in more hours, but finding ways to recharge their creative and emotional batteries. Outside of the factory, productivity is generally more about managing your energy than your time. Recognize this as a leader and you've already taken a big step toward eliminating "productivity theater."

"Find out what people need to manage their energy. Willpower, productivity, and motivation wax and wane during the day, so doing your best work means having the autonomy to recharge when you need to, without having to put on a show of looking busy," suggests Choi.

Are you guilty of pushing your team into "productivity theater"?

Published on: Sep 23, 2014
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