Constant activity when you walk around your office isn’t a sign of maximum output; it’s a sign of productivity theater.
You’re the boss so it’s obviously in your interest for every dollar in compensation to buy the maximum amount of output. That means when you walk around your office, you want to see a lot of busy beavers engaged in a flurry of work, right?
Nope, says marketer Randy Murray. Everyone being busy every time you look is more likely to indicate your staff is putting on an Oscar-worthy performance than putting in a hard day’s work, he suggested on his blog recently. With a background as a playwright before he joined the business world, Murray is in a unique position to argue that what bosses are often looking at when they take a stroll around the office is “productivity theater.” He writes:
Here’s a simple test that may be revealing: when you walk around, do the people you manage ALWAYS look busy?
Even on a factory floor there are pauses, lulls, and interruptions. In the cube farms of the modern office (which I detest), real work isn’t accomplished by the constant pounding on keyboards.
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. I call it “productivity theater.”
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. Great managing there, Bucky.
Busyness, Murray insists, is a terrible measure of productivity. He’s not alone. Monty Python comedian John Cleese has called busyness the enemy of creativity, while efficiency experts routinely beg managers to get over an outdated assembly line-inspired hours-in-equals-widgets-out mindset. Scientists have even found that looking at the occasional kitten picture helps us get more done.
The bottom line is the vast majority of work is lumpy — you’re productive in fits and starts and require time to recharge your brain between each push forward. If everyone is hard at work every time you look that just means they’re wasting time and mental energy trying to placate your out-of-date notions of work.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spontaneously mix and mingle with your staff, Murray says. It just means you should adjust your expectations and objectives. “I’m not suggesting that you stop walking around. What I am recommending is that you let your staff know that you don’t care about how busy they look. Talk openly with the people you work with and find out how they best work and what they need,” he writes, concluding:
“Get rid of the productivity theater. It’s not that entertaining. It’s a symptom of a broken workplace.”
Does your team feel the need to perform productivity for your benefit?