Want to blend into a busy culture and show your boss you’re working hard? Don’t worry about results. Instead, follow George Costanza’s advice. The secret is to look irritated.  

Most of the time, it’ll work. 

Learning to spot performative work

The Economist labels this tactic “office theatrics.” With so many people working remotely, there are a whole bunch of new ways to signal that you’re hard at work:

  • Logging on
  • Filling up your calendar
  • Scheduling your emails for early mornings and weekends (best of all, early weekend mornings!)
  • Looking attentive and nodding in meetings (even if you’re not paying attention)
  • Participating in chat, especially with questions that don’t need answering or comments that aren’t really that important
  • Commenting on documents

None of this is productive. But people do it because one, they want to look busy, and two, they want to feel busy, even if they’re not actually getting much done.

What working all the time really looks like

All of this reminds me of an article I wrote a while back, “What’s Your Company’s Work Culture?” I observed that among my clients I saw two different approaches to “office theatrics.” In some offices, an atmosphere of calm prevails. People act as if the job is almost natural. Everything is under control, and everyone goes home at the end of the day. I dubbed these “sprezzatura” cultures, after the Italian word for effortlessness. 

They stand in contrast to “shvitz” cultures. Here, everyone makes a big deal about how hard they work. People rush around looking harassed and boast about the long, grueling hours they put in. Every day is a fire drill with energy and chaos everywhere. The more you sweat over everything, the more you prove your value. 

The interesting thing is that in both cases, people seem to be doing about the same amount of work. The difference lies in how they demonstrate it. Without the ability to show your output in person, I suspect remote work has led more of us to be “shvitzers,” striving to demonstrate our commitment to our employer in any way we can.

Who benefits from busy culture?

That’s a problem. All that energy we’re putting into “shvitzing” is energy we could be using to get meaningful work done. We know, intellectually, that it’s not about how many hours you’re logged on, but what you do with them. Still, when there are few other ways to gain visibility, clocking time and stressing out are ways to show you care. 

But if business leaders focus on measures of activity rather than performance, they’re going to encourage “shvitz” tactics — and lose out on optimum performance. As my accounting professor taught us, what you measure and reward is what you’ll get.

It doesn’t look as if virtual work is going away any time soon. So leaders need to figure out how to measure and motivate real productivity, not “shvitzing.” We can help you do that — get in touch with us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com.

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