The Death of Productivity

Productivity Paranoia Doesn't Exist If You're A Real Manager
Ed Zitron 5 min read

Many remote workers have two jobs - their actual job, and the moronic sideshow of placating a manager that wants to think that you’re “busy.” It’s a new, stupider version of “looking busy” at work, where you say and do things not out of "being productive,” but to reassure someone who isn’t productive that they are productive and you are too. The real problem, of course, is that there is no really good way of looking productive virtually other than being on meetings and one’s appearance on Zoom, or Slack, or whatever workplace tool they use to evaluate anything other than actual outputs.

Career boot-licker Callum Borchers, a full two days after I lit up the “productivity paranoia” panic, added his own sleazy diatribe on the subject [emphasis mine]:

Productivity paranoia,” coined by Microsoft chief Satya Nadella, is the new term to describe the not-so-new concern that workers aren’t as effective (or honest) at home, and it appears to be intensifying amid recession forecasts. Some 85% of leaders in a recent survey by the software company said hybrid arrangements make it hard for them to know how productive employees really are.

The mistrust goes beyond doubts about effort and output, and follows two years of high employee turnover. In some places, it begins before hiring.

Alright buddy, let me stop you right there.

I will tell you, from writing about this subject for two years, from driving myself insane talking to people about it, that absolutely zero people that are experiencing productivity paranoia care about effort or outputs. To act as if there has been a fair enumeration of effort or outputs during this conversation isn’t just bad faith, it’s absolutely wrong, because at no point in these studies do these managers or executives get asked how they evaluate outputs or effort. It’s because they don’t care! They truly, honestly, do not care!

Thankfully, the Wall Street Journal is here to make them even more paranoid than before.

When tech recruiter Sean Slater conducts video interviews, he begins by asking candidates to pan their webcams around and under their desks.

“Prove that there’s no one else in the room with you,” he says.

Mr. Slater, a vice president at the Brixton Group, says this kind of deception is pervasive in the remote and hybrid work environment. He and his team usually catch the tricksters, but some slip through and land jobs they aren’t qualified to do. By the time employers realize a new hire isn’t up to snuff, projects might be off track.

First and foremost, there is no measurement of this phenomenon's prevalence. Mr. Borchers should have asked Mr. Slater how many times he’s seen this happen. I am going to guess that the answer is four times or less, because unless it is happening literally every single week, the problem is non-existent. In fact, one could apply this spurious logic in many ways - for example, I can extrapolate from this piece that every piece that Callum Borchers will ever write will be poorly-sourced and questionable because he seems incapable of a real investigation.

Let’s continue.

In online meetings, it can be difficult to tell who’s paying attention to Zoom and who’s cruising Zillow.

And those email and Slack time stamps? They don’t necessarily show when someone is working. Anyone can compose a bunch of messages in the morning, schedule them to be delivered later, and take the afternoon off.

Measuring the frequency of such shenanigans is tough, and work-from-anywhere evangelists preach that managers ought to stop fretting about how and when stuff gets done—as long as it gets done.

God damn. Callum, please, stop writing.

Sorry, I must take a break and clarify how vile that last sentence is. It’s the same insidious wording used to dismiss cryptocurrency critics as “skeptics,” suggesting that pro-remote people are some sort of irrelevant evangelical sect. Yes! You should only care if stuff is done! That’s all that fucking matters! Callum, get your head out of your ass!

Still, a few horror stories can reinforce bosses’ feelings that workers are out of hand when they’re out of the office. In a Fiverr Business survey of 1,000 U.S. managers published this month, a third said they want employees to return full time because people are more motivated when superiors have eyes on them.

Callum, quick question mate: why do you care what managers think about how employees feel? Is it because you don’t actually want to analyze anything? Do you care about the truth, or making managers feel happy?

Fire Every Manager Who Thinks In This Way

I am sick and tired of this conversation because there are really only two answers: you are either a business that evaluates what people do for work, or you are a vibes-based half-business managed by cretins that have no concept of reality.

This is because the business world has become obsessed with the concept of “productivity” while somehow entirely ignoring the meaning of the concept. Productivity refers to the production of an output - when someone is “productive,” it’s meant to mean that they are producing, as production is the direct result of productivity. Production produces outputs, which is why you know someone is productive - because they are producing.

However, I’d argue that as businesses have grown the gulf between the producer and the recipient of the majority of the capital in the business (bosses and managers), businesses have become distanced from the concept of productivity entirely. As I wrote last year for The Altantic, we societally “tend to consider management a title rather than a skill, something to promote people to” rather than something people do, and the net result of this degenerative idea is that companies no longer actually care about production. People are hired based on confirmed biases, aesthetics, charm, “culture fit” and anything other than “will they do this job well and make the business better without making everyone miserable,” because, realistically, so many people hiring and managing other people don’t know what the fuck it is they do.

While perhaps I am being crank-adjacent, I believe that this is one of the fundamental problems creating these stupid conversations. If businesses were fundamentally interested in “productivity,” they would be worried about the idea of aesthetically evaluating whether someone is busy, because both the evaluation and the busywork would be unproductive in and of itself - wasting time to measure whether someone is wasting time.

Managers who do not do the job they are managing are unproductive in and of themselves. They lack the ability to measure productivity - even if there’s a defined output, their lack of understanding of the production itself means that they are an unreliable narrator and incompetent manager of the process. Managers cannot manage, or motivate, or cheerlead work that they do not understand and actively participate in the production of, and thus they are unable to on judge what “productivity” is.

Productivity paranoia is the emperor feeling the breeze on his genitals despite his perfectly-appointed outfit. Anybody that has uttered or been concerned about this term acknowledges that they are not really interested in productivity, but in the warm feeling that they’re “getting the most” out of the people working for them. “Getting the most” out of someone without measuring their actual productivity - their production - is abjectly stupid, and yet appears to be how most business publications and managers evaluate their workers.

If you have “productivity paranoia,” you are a shitty boss running a shitty business. You have hired stupid people to manage people that should be managing them, and you do not measure the actual outputs of your business. I hope your day sucks.

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