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Performative Productivity – What is It and How to Avoid It In Your Company

Inefficient work often looks productive because it looks like you’re being busy. And being busy is good, isn’t it? You’ve come to the office to work, after all. That means you’re supposed to be busy all the time.


This mindset forms the foundation for employee tracking software that records how many hours a worker spends fulfilling tasks within a company’s database, what websites they visit during working hours, and other surveillance metrics. 

Yet there’s much that seems to be wrong with this approach. Is looking busy the same as being productive? What is performative productivity anyways—and is it what employers and managers should be measuring? We explore all this and more, and share possible approaches, solutions, and tools you and your team can begin implementing today to make that leap from busy-ness to meaningful productivity.

What is Performative Productivity?

Performative productivity is a term used to describe the practice of being productive for the purpose of displaying or showcasing it for others to see. This can be seen in many aspects of modern life, from people posting about their accomplishments on social media to students competing for top grades in a class.

Performative productivity vs. actual productivity

It seems that in today’s world, more and more people are focusing on creating an appearance of productivity, rather than actually being productive. 

In a powerful interview on the Modern Wisdom podcast, entrepreneur Anna Codrea-Rado discusses “The Danger Of Obsessing Over Productivity”, commenting on how in many office environments, you’re paid to have your bum on the chair for a certain number of hours each workday, not necessarily what work you actually create during that time. 

In that same episode, podcast host Chris Williamson makes the following observation:

“You’re genuinely disincentivized to be efficient. If doing more work more intensely, more efficiently just results in you being given more work, or having big [chunks] of time doing nothing…and when neither situation is being remunerated by either free time or more money, you’re being disincentived from actually being productive.”

That’s the dark side of performative productivity in a nutshell. Faking work because the end product isn’t the ultimate point—it’s all about how busy you seem to be. 

Examples of performative productivity in the workplace

Beyond the theories and concepts around fake productivity, what does it really look like in the day-to-day operations in a workplace?

  • Excessive meetings with little to no tangible outcomes
  • Constantly checking and responding to emails or messages, leading to distractions and decreased focus
  • Overworking and putting in long hours for the sake of appearances, causing burnout and decreased efficiency
  • Prioritizing tasks that make one look busy, rather than focusing on important, high-impact tasks
  • Regularly boasting about long hours, sleep deprivation, and the amount of work completed, fostering a competitive and unhealthy work culture

The Nannying Effect of Surveillance/Tracking/Monitoring Software

Surveillance technology, whether physical or digital, can have a profound effect on the way people work. From tracking the movement of a given employee to monitor their productivity, to tracking their internet usage and communications to ensure they stay on task, surveillance software can be a powerful tool to help businesses achieve their goals.

However, this technology can also lead to unhealthy levels of pressure on workers, and can create a culture of performative productivity.

How this affects productivity

The use of surveillance technology can lead to workers feeling that they need to constantly prove their worth and ability to employers, inducing stress and anxiety. This can lead to overly fast work and subpar results, as employees try to pump out as much work as possible in an effort to impress, or simply just to not be forgotten by the company.

Due to the constant pressure and anxiety that comes from being constantly monitored, the mental health of workers could suffer. The use of surveillance and tracking technology can lead to the development of depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to this, the use of surveillance technology can lead to an increase in stress, as workers have to be constantly aware of their surroundings, and of any activities that could be considered “not productive.” They may feel as though they are constantly being watched and judged, which can lead to further anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.

The impact on employee morale, motivation, and creativity

Employee morale, motivation, and creativity at work can be significantly impacted by the use of surveillance, tracking and monitoring software. Such software monitors and scrutinizes the activities of employees, which can lead to feelings of distrust and lack of privacy, as well as increased stress. Moreover, continuous tracking and monitoring can lead to a surveillance state, where employees are constantly watched and their movements tracked, which can have a further negative impact on employee morale and motivation.

As workers are kept under a constant spotlight, they may become more afraid to make mistakes or try new things, leading to a decrease in creativity and innovation. They may also start to fear going to work, or even dread the thought of having to interact with surveillance technology. This could cause the quality of their work to suffer, as they become too afraid to take risks or come up with creative solutions.

Employees may feel like they are not trusted and have no space for creativity and free thinking, as their work and activities are constantly monitored. This can cause them to become overly cautious in their behavior, depriving them of the freedom and autonomy to express their ideas. Additionally, the constant pressure to perform and stay on task can lead to burnout and reduced motivation.

To top this all off, Employees’ privacy can be violated in certain situations. For instance, the use of facial recognition surveillance systems or keystroke logging software can lead to sensitive information being collected without the employee’s consent, creating a sense of violation of trust. On the other hand, the installation of cameras and tracking devices can have psychological effects on employees, as they can feel like they are always being tracked and watched, leading to a further feeling of distrust and lack of privacy. 

The Antithesis of Actual Productivity

Performative productivity refers to the act of appearing busy or productive without actually accomplishing much. This can manifest itself in various ways, such as excessive multitasking, endless planning, and an obsession with appearances.

Performative productivity often compromises actual productivity in the long run. In its pursuit of the appearance of effort and achievement, employees may become trapped in a cycle of busywork and task-hopping, which is unhelpful to both the individual and the organization. This may also lead to burnout, fatigue and dissatisfaction as employees are unable to find relief from the endless list of tasks they are expected to accomplish.

Impacts on Mental Health

Aside from hindering productivity, performative productivity can also take a toll on mental wellbeing. By placing such a high emphasis on productivity, it may lead to a sense of guilt and shame when employees are unable to keep up with the ever-increasing expectations. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, feelings of being overwhelmed, and depression.

The Impact of Performative Productivity

Here are four of the more obvious impacts of “faking work” that might seep into any performance-driven workplace:

  • Time Perception: One of the most significant impacts of performative productivity, is how the pressure affects our perception of time. Working nonstop can lead us to believe that we’ve done much more than we actually have, which can cause us to be off-schedule and not properly allocate our time. 
  • Low Engagement: This focus on outwardly displaying how busy you are can lead to engagement that is low in quality. You may be busy, but it won’t be productive if you’re not actually getting meaningful work done.
  • Overcommitment: Due to the fact that performative productivity looks better when there’s more on your plate, it can be easy to find yourself overcommitted. While many people think this is a sign of success, it can lead to burnout, lack of motivation, and a decrease in productivity.
  • Stressful Environment: Finally, when everyone around you is focused on keeping up appearances, it can lead to a very stressful environment. People may start to feel inadequate if they’re not as active as their peers, which can lead to even further decreases in productivity.

Focusing on metrics and numbers can distract from important tasks and goals

Metrics and numbers can be great tools for measuring success and progress, but they should not be the only focus. 

As a manager, you probably already know that overreliance on metrics and numbers can take away from focusing on other important tasks and goals. 

When metrics and numbers become the primary way to measure success, it is easy for managers and workers alike to keep going after those measurables—how many clients were onboarded this week, how many articles were written, what the audience engagement was for months—while losing sight of the bigger picture and the goals of the organization. This can lead to an unbalanced approach and an inability to see the long-term impact of the work.

When organizations focus more on meaningful tasks and goals, such as making sure that each project is aligned with the company’s values and mission, all team members can experience a greater sense of success. By focusing on tasks that make an impact, organizations can create an environment of collaboration and creativity, and achieve greater levels of success. This can also lead to greater job satisfaction among team members, who are then a part of meaningful work that has a greater impact on the organization.

By using a balanced approach, organizations can avoid getting too caught up in metrics and numbers, and focus more on meaningful tasks and goals that create a greater sense of success and job satisfaction.

Performative productivity can lead to burnout and disengagement among employees

As the working day becomes ever longer for many professionals, the expectations of employers for efficiency, productivity and performance continues to increase. This can lead to employees feeling overwhelmed and burned out, with a lack of engagement with their work. But what can companies do to prevent and address the issue of performative productivity? 

Performative productivity is the concept of an environment in which workers are judged more on output than on outcome. It can create an unhealthy competitive dynamic in which employees feel the need to appear “busy” and productive, even if their work is not having the desired impact. The pressure to appear productive can become a self-sabotaging cycle, leading to disengagement, dissatisfaction and eventually burnout.

Overcoming Performative Productivity

The best way to mitigate the effects of burnout is to provide an environment in which employees feel safe to express their concerns and ideas. Leaders should be cognizant of the workload they assign, and ensure that employees are given time to rest and recuperate. Regular performance reviews should be conducted to ensure that employees are being treated fairly and given clear objectives. Additionally, employers should recognize the importance of a good work-life balance and provide flexibility in terms of hours and leave. 

Solutions: Freedom for Teams

As we’re working to uproot performative productivity from the workplace, there’s a need for the nurturing and development of actual productivity—the kind of work that’s effective and meaningful, instead of “work” being done just to look busy. 

That being said, we strongly believe that distractions and lack of mindful collaboration between team members are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to effective productivity. 

That’s why we created Freedom for Teams—a software that helps limit distractions for the entire team, makes it easy to schedule for deep-work sessions, and helps keep everyone on the same page on projects and tasks without micromanaging success

By taking the step towards enabling your team (and yourself!) to complete your work without distractions, you’re removing the pressure or need to participate in pointless busywork during working hours, and giving your team the freedom to focus deeply on the things that really matter, build trust and engagement with each other, and enjoy the creation process. 

Embrace Genuine Productivity with Freedom for Teams

Ultimately, the key to overcoming performative productivity is to focus on genuine productivity instead of how busy you can be.

Invest your time and energy into meaningful tasks, set achievable goals, and prioritize your employees’ well-being. By doing so, you’ll not only be more productive, but you’ll also experience greater satisfaction and fulfillment in your work. 

Remember, it’s not about how busy or accomplished you appear; it’s about the quality and impact of the work you accomplish.

Just like how notifications, workplace burnout, or that overly friendly co-worker at the office or on Slack (who just wouldn’t stop going on and on about how great God of War: Ragnarok is) can drain your team of their creative power and productivity, a performative mindset can be equally as deadly, if not more so. Tools such as Freedom for Teams are there to bridge that gap and guide your team toward mindful productivity, where what you create matters more than how many hours you’ve spent staring at the screen.