Future of Work

The paradox of 'productivity paranoia'

Productivity paranoia is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to describe leaders' concerns hybrid or remote workers are not doing enough.

Productivity paranoia is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to describe leaders' concerns hybrid or remote workers are not doing enough. Image: Pexels/olia danilevich

Jean Brittain Leslie
Senior fellow and director of strategic initiatives, Center for Creative Leadership
Kelly Simmons
Global director of consultative solutions , Center for Creative Leadership
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Future of Work

  • Productivity paranoia is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to describe leaders' concerns hybrid or remote workers are not doing enough.
  • Two experts explain their approach to managing the situation – as a paradox rather than a problem with a one-time solution.
  • Their latest research suggests that virtual teams focused on building trust and verifying results have higher ratings of team effectiveness.
  • Here they offer tips for leaders to help strike a balance in teams, including learning from isn't working and fostering growth and development.

Workers say they’re more productive when they work remotely or in a hybrid arrangement, but many bosses are not confident in their workers’ productivity levels when they can’t see them.

The obsessive suspicion that remote and hybrid employees are not working as efficiently as they would be if they were observable in the office has been dubbed “productivity paranoia” by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Workers and organizational leaders are at an impasse—one group wants trust, and the other wants to verify productivity. Instead of choosing one approach or the other, we recommend leaders try managing this as a paradox.

Paradoxes are not problems that can be solved with one-time solutions; instead, they require a both/and approach to integrate divergent behaviors into elegant solutions.

Our research has found that virtual teams focused on building trust and verifying results had higher ratings of team effectiveness. Here are our tips to strike a balance at your own company.

Ask powerful questions and listen to understand

Managers often fail to hold employees accountable when they don’t deliver. To build a culture of accountability, leaders should create paths to trust and verify. This starts with smart questions that align everyone on the goals.

Ditch the leading questions and opt for open-ended questions: What will it take to succeed? Do you have what you need? By when? This engages your employees in ownership of their objectives and outcomes. Better still, you can anticipate potential roadblocks that might emerge along the way.

Good questions also can create space for employees to be reflective and transparent. Try asking: What’s working? What isn’t? On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you of hitting the target? By asking the same question in the affirmative and the negative, you also acknowledge and normalize that not all things tried will work.

Pay attention to your employees’ responses to your questions. Notice their feelings and values, as well as the facts themselves. Check for understanding and avoid premature judgment. This type of listening builds trust and signals that candor and truth-telling are welcome.

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Encourage learning from what isn’t working

Everyone makes mistakes. Treat them as opportunities to learn, grow, and change. Freely share your failures and how you’ve learned from them. Don’t try to cover them up or blame others.

Invite employees to follow your lead. To ensure they do, keep your tone neutral and positive to promote psychological safety—you don’t want anyone to worry about being punished or humiliated for speaking up with mistakes or what isn’t working. The faster we learn, the quicker we all achieve the desired outcomes.

Instill a sense of purpose

As a senior leader, you help ensure your employees’ work drives meaningful impact for the business. Can you articulate how your team’s work aligns with your department or function’s targets? Can they?

For more purposeful leadership, connect those dots for your direct reports so their work feels—and is—aligned with organizational objectives. Start staff meetings by sharing big-picture topics and invite your team to discuss how their work fits into overall business goals. Ask employees for input on where they feel they can make their most significant contributions.

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Promote agency

You want your employees to feel confident speaking up, sharing their perspectives, and reaching out proactively, whether working from home or in the office. You do that by deemphasizing hierarchical leadership. Encourage your colleagues to give feedback freely and share their voices with you and other leaders in the organization as much as is reasonable. Consider telling them that they matter to you and let them know that you are here for them.

Create (virtual) connection

What is the geographic and home/office spread of your team? There is a way for all different team configurations to build connections through social events–from remote team-building activities to periodic in-person gatherings. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and peer learning networks promote relationship-building and make your organization the place employees like to be. And when they are where they want to be, they will give their best.

Foster growth and development

Promote ongoing learning. Seek opportunities for your employees to receive (or give) mentoring, either formally, as part of their development plan, or tactically, to get more knowledge for a specific project or initiative that is new to them.

Provide opportunities to apply new knowledge ​ in specific role-related tasks or other initiatives. Don’t worry that an organizational project will eat into their productive work time.

Jean Brittain Leslie is a senior fellow and director of strategic initiatives at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Kelly Simmons is the global director of consultative solutions at CCL.

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