Productivity Paranoia: Stop Managing Your Remote or Hybrid Team This Way

Elliot Chan, Digital Marketing Manager8 min read

What is productivity paranoia? It sounds serious.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , the amount of goods and services an employee can produce in an hour has dropped significantly in 2022, which is perplexing because workers are putting in more hours. With more pressure on management to get their employees to perform, anxiety turns into fear and fear into… paranoia.

Productivity paranoia is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to describe the irrational suspicion managers have toward their employees' effectiveness.

This suspicion has increased during the rise in remote and hybrid work — with 85% of leaders saying it’s been a challenge keeping track of employees when they cannot see them at their desks. Meanwhile, 87% of employees express that they are productive.

This disconnect between reality, expectations, and how managers feel is something to be concerned about. Why?

There is a puzzle piece missing: productivity is declining while hours of work are higher than ever. Opinions aside, digital work analytics is necessary to offer an objective conclusion and develop a plan to address this problem. Without data to back up a manager’s decisions, emotions can take over. Accusing employees of ripping you off will damage your entire work culture.

The dangers of productivity paranoia

“Paranoid” is never how you want your employees to describe you.

Paranoia is a mental health condition that causes one to mistrust others, believing that people are lying, acting unfairly, or trying to harm them with no hard evidence. Paranoia can cause people to act aggressively, be hostile, and be uncompromising. We can all agree that these qualities have no place in any work environment whether it be in the office, hybrid, or fully remote.

But why is this word associated with productivity?

Because when it comes to productivity, only 12 percent of managers said that they have full confidence that their team is productive working remotely compared to when they are sitting in the office.

According to Ergotron , those fears are misguided, as 40% of employees work longer hours at home than when they are at the office. Additionally, Reclaim reports that remote workers’ hours increased by 13.2% . These extra hours can add up quickly over weeks and months.

Productivity paranoia is two-sided. On one side, you have employers who feel their workers are slacking off. On the other side, employees are putting in longer hours than ever and experiencing burnout. They feel pressured to always appear online for fear of being perceived as not pulling their weight. This creates a vicious cycle. Managers want their employees to be more productive, the workers work harder to prove their worth and in doing so hurt their productivity.

This symptom of mismanagement if left unchecked can lead to a toxic work environment and the denigration of human capital, and over time will erode your workforce.

Now that we understand the symptoms, how can we cure productivity paranoia?

Let’s address what we shouldn’t do first.

Monitoring your employees is not the solution

One month into the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the demand for employee monitoring tools doubled worldwide .

To remedy productivity paranoia, managers would do what any paranoid person would do. According to Digital , 60% of companies with remote workers are using employee monitoring tools, which allow employers to keep a close eye on surface-level performance. In general, they wanted to make sure their workers weren’t watching YouTube videos all day. But what if their jobs required YouTube for research?

Tracking keystrokes, mouse movements, and an active status by your employees' name on Slack and Teams puts focus on the wrong things. Jared Spataro , a Microsoft VP, has strong feelings:

“We don't think that employers should be surveilling and taking note of the activity of keystrokes and mouse clicks and those types of things because, in so many ways, we feel like that's measuring heat rather than outcome.”

If you are trying to protect the money in a bank vault, surveillance is great. However, if you want to increase productivity, it’s not going to provide the data that helps. While it might increase productivity in the short term, over the long term, it might cause more issues.

If you are tracking and monitoring your employees and you don’t share your data, you are violating their privacy and their trust. You are not managing, you are not coaching, you are not leading — you are spying. You create an us-versus-them work culture. When that happens, don’t be surprised if they find workarounds to deceive your monitoring software.

Paranoia begets paranoia. But there is a way to break this chain and regain productivity.

How to use data to create transparency in your workforce

Simple. Make the digital work data available to the whole team.

These data include:

  • How much time is spent on collaboration apps searching for detail or status updates?
  • How much time is spent on Zoom meetings?
  • How often are Slack notifications pulling team members out of focused work?
It’s time we understand the distinction between an employee monitoring tool and digital work analytics.

Monitoring tools give untrusting managers the ability to peek in on their employees' work so they can discipline them. Like a security camera, the spirit of the tool is to catch criminals in action. These tools will only heighten your productivity paranoia.

25% of employers who implemented monitoring software to track productivity habits terminated between 1-10 workers, as reported by Digital , and 21% terminated between 51-100 employees.

If you are looking for evidence to blame your workers, you will find it.

However, if you are looking for data to support your workers, then you’ll need to include them in the discussion with transparent digital work analytics — without any spying.

Include your remote team when analyzing data

Digital work analytics is a collective agreement. When a team agrees to work out loud , everyone — from the intern to the executive — will have full visibility of the team’s activities. All of this data is shared to better understand the workflow.

But even before any data is collected, the team together can determine how the data can be used. What can we improve on? What is the hypothesis? How can we take action and then measure those changes?

An area to address in terms of productivity is communication. You can use a digital work analytics tool like Produce8 to see

  • how much time a key team member is being pulled out of work by Slack notifications
  • how long Zoom meetings are eating away at everyone’s focused time
  • which apps are being used and which aren’t, and what’s the reason for that

Before you do any more finger-pointing, look at the workflow, the collaboration method, and the tools.

How to build trust with your remote teams

In a study conducted by Harvard Business Review , out of 215 supervisors, about 40% didn't feel confident in their abilities to manage remotely.

Productivity paranoia often starts with a manager being pressured by their managers. This multi-layered pressure sandwich smooshes down onto their team, and managers in the middle can feel alone. The anxiety can increase when the manager questions their relevancy. That’s why it’s critical for asynchronous and remote teams to get everyone on the same boat.

"What most leaders are not doing, however, is questioning their own part," said Paul Russell, the managing director of Luxury Academy, in an interview with Raconteur .

“Could it be we as managers are distracting our staff more than we realize and are we actually the cause of slower performance in the office?”

Don’t fret, managers, you are still valuable to your team. And there is time to get you back in the captain’s chair.

1. Help your team reprioritize.

Before you call them out for being unproductive, make it clear — very clear — what they should be focused on and when you are expecting the deliverable.

2. Apply a digital work analytic strategy to your workflow.

A tool like Produce8 will help you analyze where time is being spent. Share this data with your team and let them know you are all working together to create a more efficient work culture.

3. Simply let your workers work.

Get out of their way! Literally. Allow the data to accumulate and observe. When you book a meeting with your employee in the middle of the day, see how you throw off their whole work pattern. It can take up to 10 minutes for them to get back into the flow after context-switching between apps. What other abnormalities do you notice? Can you fix it?

4. Share the data.

If you need an update from a top performer then let them know that you can move the weekly check-in meeting to Monday morning before they get into the flow. Show them the data and ask them how they feel about the changes. Adjust if necessary, and apply this approach to any other discrepancies.

Being an effective manager for a remote team will take a new way of thinking, but the job is still the same. The manager’s job is to support their employees, making sure the assignment is delivered on time and with high quality. Digital work data and transparency—not surveillance and spy tools—allow you to do it better and with fewer interruptions. No longer are you a paranoid micromanager, you are now a confident coach.

Don’t let paranoia cloud your judgments and hinder your team’s success. At any point you feel mistrust towards your employees, ask why. Have they not delivered on something you requested because they are slacking off or is there a problem elsewhere? Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t spy. Get the data to back up your assumptions.

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