Why WFH Has Become A Pantomime Of Productivity For Some

Published 1 year ago
Closeup shot of an unrecognizable woman using a laptop while working from home

Using the words “work” and “home” in the same sentence usually stirs up a mixture of delight and disapproval – in almost equal parts. 

On the one hand, those lucky enough to work from home tend to experience the sense of euphoria that comes from escaping the watchful gaze or sometimes intense glare of those in charge. 

In sharp contrast, a mere mention of the concept of remote work plunges an increasing number of bosses into a sense of “productivity paranoia”. 


Productivity paranoia refers to a boss’ heightened suspicion, scepticism or speculation that their employees are not being as productive while working from home, a local coffee shop or a co-working space.   

The trending phenomenon, which sits alongside a bundle of other buzzwords generated by our workplace behaviors so far this year (think: quiet quitting, quiet firing, loud leadership), was revealed in Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index. 

The index declared that 87% of workers thought they were just as productive – if not more so – when working from home. 

At the same time, only 12% of bosses felt fully confident that those working remotely were as productive as those sitting behind their desks in the office. 


While employees work harder than ever, bosses simply do not believe them. In fact, some bosses label the practice of working from home as nothing short of a pantomime of productivity. 

While the huge gulf between what managers and workers feel might come as a shock, the truth is some bosses have never truly embraced remote work practices. 

At the heart of the kerfuffle between managers and remote-operating staff is the questionable assumption that workers are more productive when they are under the watchful eye of their supervisor.  

Yet being in the office does not guarantee productivity.  


Some workers fake productivity by appearing busy online, staying back late to keep up appearances, participating in endless purposeless meetings, engaging in superficial conversations with colleagues or making mountains out of molehills to portray an essence of efficiency. 

Bosses’ productivity paranoia prevails despite remote workers claiming they tend to get more done from their loungerooms without the daily distractions of chatty colleagues and the frustrations of a time-sucking daily commute. 

You will realize your boss has a bad case of productivity paranoia when you work from home and are asked to account for how you spent a day away from the workplace, when additional “supervisory” type meetings suddenly drop into your calendar or when you receive a high volume of calls or texts to “check in” on your progress on specific work tasks. 

Perhaps worse, you will know your boss has an extreme case of productivity paranoia when they have some form of “bossware” installed on technology used in remote settings. It is a form of software that allows managers to spy on their employees’ online activity – or lack of it. 


It is hard to explain why productivity paranoia has risen to such highs among managers.  

A number of theories are emerging including that bosses feel they lack control when their employees are out of sight or miss the feeling of having team members running after them, looking up to them and paying them compliments. 

It is also a firm possibility that well-meaning bosses have not been given adequate training to be able to manage in a remote-working office environment.   

Organizations afflicted with productivity paranoia are likely to suffer the consequences. 


Fear around the lack of productivity of those working remotely might lead to valued and highly capable employees quitting, cause those working at home to engage in productivity theatrics to prove a point or contribute to the emergence of workplace cultures that are characterized by mistrust, disrespect and inequality. 

There will always be those who take full advantage of a lack of direct supervision while working remotely.   

Regardless of whether an employee is working in the office or virtually, we will never fully know exactly what every employee is doing 100% of the time. 

What every boss needs to realize is employees have fully embraced flexible work and that means remote work is here to stay.  


It will require those with productivity paranoia to shift their mindset from one locked into “I can’t see you so I don’t know what you are up to” to a different way of thinking which asks remote workers “if you have everything you need to get your job done”. 

Gary Martin- The writer and professor is Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA