Remote Knowledge Workers Increasingly Engage in ‘Pretend Work’ Performances

Hours Wasted Daily on Elaborate Electronic Theater to Satiate Guilt Pangs, Traditional Bosses and Clock Watchers

Return to Work Effort May Make “Digital Clown Shows” Worse

For decades movies, tv and comics portrayed the elaborate masquerades created by office cubicle dwellers pretending to look busy in case the boss walked by.  Many were funny and some iconic because of how much truth they held. In one Dilbert comic, the Pointy-Haired Boss declares, “We need a sense of urgency.” Wally, in a moment of honesty, replies: “I spend most of energy pretending to work, but I can add a layer of fake urgency if you really need it.”

Pretending to work is not new.  However, elaborate presentations in what’s being called ‘productivity theater’ among the 20-30 million US-based remote knowledge workers is becoming an all-new art form in the digital world.  The purpose of these online work plays is to give the appearance of constant and conspicuously visible busyness. 

Favorited tactics of digital presenteeism include:

  • intentionally sending emails in the early morning and late evening 
  • remaining logged on Slack at all hours, 
  • blocking out big swaths of time on fake meetings in Google calendar and 
  • joining irrelevant Zoom meetings with the mic muted and the camera off while doing just about anything else outside the call.

Among those who have continued to work significantly or exclusively via remote, its estimated that an average of 67 minutes per day are spent on these performance antics, according to a new report by software companies Catalog and GitLab. 

Post Labor Day 2022, companies like Apple, Comcast, Prudential Financial and Peloton are nudging employees to return to work, if not completely than at least a couple of days per week. The Wall Street Journal called Labor Day a “line in the corporate sand” which is “the best chance to finally lean on workers to return to the office this year.”

“Pretend to Work Somewhere Else”

 Some companies are shoving rather than nudging. Recently, Elon Musk told employees in a memo they are expected to return to work or “pretend to work somewhere else.” His memo subject was “Remote work is no longer acceptable,”and he wrote, “anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

Is Work from Home More Productive?

Mr. Musk may have been operating from the old school perspective that working remotely from home is a way to loaf without being seen.

However, a study published in Nature looked at data from 60,000 Microsoft employees and found remote workers were actually more productive for short-term projects. The study did point out those same employees did not perform as well for longer-term projects. A potential cause for that dynamic may be the lack of team interaction and collaboration. 

Also, over time, distractions from family members to pets and errands may become more prevalent for those not accustomed to remote work.

Factory Mentality and Guilt Pangs

For their part, workers say they do feel pangs of guilt if they deviate from a 9-5 routine or take breaks from work with a walk, attending to personal business or just daydreaming.   To compensate for the insecurity that comes with working from home in casual dress, elaborate performances of appearing constantly busy ensue.

These feelings of insecurity or guilt stem from a factory mentality prevalent in the 1980s, according to Cal Newport, who wrote the best-seller Deep Work. The factory mentality attempts to achieve high production by constantly applying effort to a mechanical system, like an assembly line. A plurality of workers say they believe management and company leadership prefer a traditional in-office culture with lots of activity buzzing about.

Many knowledge workers are pushing back. They have come to enjoy benefits of work-at-home, including more work-life balance and quality time with family, and less commuting stress and wasted time.  Apple has again asked employees to return three days per week.  Some of the company’s employees have gone so far to form Slack channels of advocacy groups. Among the largest at Apple with as many as 2,800 members called “Apple Together”  are pushing back against return-to-office plans.

Solutions based in Remote Work Veterans

TechCXO, which provides on-demand executives and teams to companies of all sizes, has been leveraging remote and hybrid work models since its founding in 2003. Their interim and fractional executives  include CFOs, CTOs, CMOs, Heads of Sales, COOs and HR Executives.  These executives on demand are expert and building hybrid teams and delivery models that work for organizations who want flexibility for employees but also want projects and initiatives driven to completion. 

Project Management experts at the firm are frequently incorporated into complex product and IT deliveries that efficiently combine in-person and remote task deliveries and thus eliminating the need for pretend remote performances.