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Operational Excellence

How to Empower Employees by Tackling “Productivity Theater”

Written By: Ray Waldron
December 14, 2023
5 min read

There’s a misconception around productivity in the workplace. Just because a worker is busy doesn’t mean they’re getting productive work done. There’s a concept called “productivity theater” that bogs businesses down. Productivity theater is when employees perform highly visible tasks that give the appearance of being productive, but don’t achieve valuable results.

In practice, this can look like leaders making a big deal of employees staying up late, coming in early, working on weekends. Productivity theater has come in the forms of big-name leaders penning articles about “hustle culture” and the long hours it takes to succeed.

The problem is that this reinforces the mindset that you can only get results by putting in extra work. Busywork is not productive work, and this type of mindset can actually be indicative of major issues lying below the surface of an organization. This mindset focuses only on the time it takes to complete a task, not the overall financial, operational, and human costs associated with busy work.

Closing the productivity theater means taking a new approach to work – away from linear, structured workflows that rely on manual processes to get done, towards one that’s dynamic and can meet the needs of all stakeholders involved on a task.

Gray Work’s Role in Productivity Theater

One of the main issues with productivity theater and busy work is that it’s often comprised of slow, manual tasks that eat up time. At Quickbase, we call these processes Gray Work, or the ways of working “just to get by.” This includes spreadsheets, handwritten notes, manual data entry, etc. Gray Work is a productivity killer, and costs businesses in both dollars and time wasted looking for critical information.

Quickbase recently conducted a survey to get a pulse of where organizations struggle with productivity issues and how they get their work done. Our survey found hat over half of all respondents spend over 10 hours a week chasing people, systems and data that they need to get their work done. What’s more, 22% of those respondents spend over 20 hours a week – half of their work weeks – just searching for what they need.

Admin tasks like data entry, transfer and syncing across systems also bogs down employee productivity. When digital transformation began to take hold, it often came in the form of one-off point solutions and other tools with a single use. These helped businesses find time-saves and short-term solutions, but over time they began piling up for end users. A glut of disconnected systems leads to data fragmentation, and chasing data across too many tools. Respondents to the survey identified 77 different systems, apps and tools that they need to engage with, with an average of 10 tools per worker to complete their job.

With an overload of systems and data too fragmented, today’s enterprise employees are weighed down with too many busy processes and not enough productive processes.

Ending Productivity Theater with Dynamic Work

Tackling the Gray Work associated with productivity theater and system fragmentation can be a daunting task. Business leaders need to be able to spot instances of productivity theater cropping up to understand the best ways to address them.

Leaders can consider the following when trying to identify areas of productivity theater and Gray Work within critical business processes:

Technology investments: Look at the big technology bets you made. Are people using the tech you invested in? Or are teams still connecting people, data, and process over email and in spreadsheets? Why is that still the case?

Outside collaboration and communication: How are you interacting and collaborating with teams outside and beyond your company network? Are you relying on emails and spreadsheets, for example, to communicate and update the status of project work to contractors, suppliers, and partners? Is there a more efficient way to work?

Internal data sharing: What do your teams do to share data across different technologies when managing work, costs, projects, and people? Are teams downloading data into a CSV, and then stitching data together in Excel or PPT? Can that disconnected and siloed process be stitched together when decisions and critical updates are needed? Can you trust that disconnected data?

These questions and their answers will give leaders the strongest sense of where they need to ramp up process improvements to maximize employee productivity. After identifying these areas, business leaders then must take action to solve them

The majority of productivity theater sand Gray Work can be boiled down to workflows that are structured and not connected with others. The way business is done today is not linear, rather it’s dynamic, and multi-stakeholder, and must be interconnected with all other systems and workflows in the organization.

Quickbase’s Dynamic Work Management platform delivers on the promise of eliminating linear workflows by connecting each and every system in the enterprise. The platform allows for users to see, connect and control each facet of their toughest project management needs, giving a single view of the exact work needed to complete the next step in a workflow. This visibility is critical for leaders in cracking down on productivity theater, and can help them pinpoint areas that are still bogged down by inefficiencies.

By dynamically improving each workflow, employees are empowered to be their most productive selves, giving them the tools they need to get their jobs done efficiently. Once folks in the business are aligned on the most productive ways to do things, their workloads begin balancing, and each individual worker has the ability to deliver strong results for the organization.

The old days of the productivity theater are over. Busy work only hurts organizations in the end, and doesn’t deliver on the promise of their employees. Pulling back the curtain on that theater shows exactly how a business can improve, and how to enable employees to be their most productive selves.

Picture of Associate Content Marketing Manager Ray Waldron set against a lochinvar background
Written By: Ray Waldron

Ray Waldron is an Associate Content Marketing Manager at Quickbase.

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gray work