People & Leadership

Productivity paranoia: 6 ways HR leaders can help their companies beat it

Have you heard of productivity paranoia? Here’s what you need to know and six ways to help your organisation beat it.

An impressive 87% of employees say they’re productive at work. However, only 12% of CEOs agree.

So, which one is it?

Are workers not productive enough or are business leaders expecting too much?

In this article, we talk about productivity paranoia, what it is and how to tackle it.

Here’s what we cover:

What is productivity paranoia?

Productivity paranoia describes the disconnect between employer and employees’ perceptions of productivity.

It refers to company bosses and managers not trusting that their employees are productive, particularly when working from home.

UK output per worker between October to December 2022 was 0.3% above pre-pandemic levels but is coming out 0.3% lower than the same quarter the year before.

Given the current economy, it’s understandable that businesses are wanting to focus even more on productivity, especially if the numbers around productivity are dipping.

Right now, 93% of HR and C-suite leaders say they’re worried about the economy.

However, presenteeism doesn’t equal productivity.

Pulling employees into an office isn’t going to automatically boost how productive your people are. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

Hybrid working is part of offering great employee experience – and great experiences move the needle on productivity.

To enable hybrid working to truly work, trust must exist between managers and their employees. If some managers and senior leaders don’t trust their employees to get the job done away from the office, then that’s what organisations must tackle today.

Why does productivity paranoia exist?

The global pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the widening gap between how much organisations perceive their employees are working and how much they’re actually getting done.

The need for remote and hybrid working has significantly added to the disconnect.

While hybrid working is proven to boost productivity, because of a lack of presenteeism in the office, leaders can’t physically see exactly what employees are doing.

That’s created a problem, with many company leaders not trusting that their employees working from home are actually working as much as they should be.

However, with employee burnout and stress still on the rise and many still saying they want a better work-life balance, it’s time for the mindset of managers and the C-suite to change.

What can organisations do to reduce productivity paranoia?

HR leaders can play a significant role in managing productivity in their workplaces and restore the all-important faith the leadership should have in their workers and vice versa.

Here’s six things you can do to help.

1. Set the precedent around hybrid working with guidelines

For many companies with large portions of their workforce working from home at least some of the time, it can be just as easy to see the disadvantages as the advantages of working from home.

It’s about giving employees the autonomy to make the right decisions for them about when they need to work from home versus when they need to come into the office.

For example, those quick conversations that happen in the office can take several meetings when staff are at home.

Being in the office can also create a sense of culture and cohesion, boosting employee’s confidence and company network.

More than 70% of employees say they need a better reason to go in than just company expectation, so it’s vital to provide a clear hybrid working policy that encourages social connections at work and provides employees with a purpose for coming in.

Consider meaningful ways to encourage your people back into the office when needed.

Empower managers to create regular days for teams to get together in person and discuss with your people when and how often these should be and then review it to see if it’s working.

More than 50% of employees believe they’d be more productive if they had more access to leadership too, so arrange days for senior leaders to reconnect with their people and reiterate the ethos, values and goals of the company.

2. Align people priorities to business priorities

Employee productivity in your organisation might not necessarily be low. Instead, your employees may be juggling too much and not prioritising correctly.

That’s where effective performance management comes in, and highlighting the top business objectives and what employees can do to drive those.

HR technology is key in successful performance management. In fact, nearly all (95%) of HR leaders agree, but 43% of HR leaders don’t rate their performance management software as very good today.

When you have the right HR tech in place, you can show your C-suite exactly how your employees are contributing to the business goals that have been set.

3. Use data to manage up

Provide the right data to your C-suite. If there’s a belief that productivity is lower than it actually is, then there’s a knowledge gap that needs plugging – and you’ll only know if this is the case if you have the data to tell you what’s going on.

However, we found that only 23% of the C-suite actually get employee productivity data from HR despite the fact that 94% of them want it.

Unfortunately, a lack of technology and analytical skills among HR teams explains this but these are stumbling blocks that need to be overcome.

Having data on productivity and output means HR leaders can use it to quash any paranoia. And more importantly, they can provide actionable insights to the C-suite to boost productivity sustainably across the organisation.

4. Level-set expectations with communication

Provide clarity. Employees need to know exactly what is expected of them in order to be productive in what matters to the organisation.

A staggering 72% of employees don’t fully understand their company’s strategy and less than a third say their managers have ever given them clear guidance on prioritising their work.

This is probably because 80% of managers themselves say they’d personally benefit from more clarity from senior leadership and more guidance on prioritising their own work.

As HR leaders, you have your work cut out here to help the leadership clarify the business priorities to managers so they can in turn clarify it to their teams.

Moreover, you should encourage two-way communications. We know that 74% of employees are more effective at work if they feel heard.

It’s important that communication is meaningful, specific, two-way, and not excessive.

This is about helping your people find a happy balance and focus on the work that is most important to your business, so you can enable your people to prioritise those tasks.

5. Drive agility – lead by example

Look at your organisation, review your processes and ask yourself if they’re as efficient as they could be.

Are they saving employees’ time or are they unnecessarily adding to their workloads? If it’s the latter, simplify your work processes.

HR expert Josh Bersin describes it as the kitchen drawer problem.

He says: “You look down at the kitchen drawer, and you find out that there’s a lot of stuff in there. How did all this get here? Are we using any of this anymore?

“The answer is probably no, because every ‘new programme’ or ‘new idea’ is added to the pile of procedures, programmes, and systems we already have.”

He argues that we need to “focus on teams, not hierarchy”, adding: “Create accountability, not rules. Invest in growth, not promotion. And teach managers to listen, align, and support their teams.”

It’s fundamentally a cultural shift to a more agile way of working. 86% of HR leaders told us that they’re agile and speedy, and here’s a great opportunity for you to be brutal in simplifying your processes to make sure everyone’s time is being used as efficiently as possible.

6. Don’t forget to focus on wellbeing

Employees are over worked and already almost half have experienced burnout. If leaders don’t intervene, they really do risk putting productivity in jeopardy.

Signpost resources available to your people, whether it’s through counselling, exercise or mindfulness activities.

Other things you can do is to normalise flexible hours, enable workers to go to a quiet place in the office and promote regular rest breaks away from screens at home.

HR tech helps organisations to understand productivity

Hybrid work isn’t going anywhere.

But if organisations fight it and pull their employees back into the office on mass, it’s unlikely to positively impact productivity.

Instead, it’s vital for organisations to lean on HR tech. The people data can be communicated up to the c-suite, so they have visibility of what performance and productivity looks like across your entire workforce.

At the moment, just 46% of C-suite leaders say their organisation uses HR data to make decisions today.

Providing actionable insights to the C-suite will help to change that and enable organisations to take the guesswork out of productivity for good.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in March 2023 and has been updated for relevance.