Your boss still thinks you’re faking it when you’re working from home

‘Productivity theater’ and occasional cheating raise questions about remote work

Out of sight, out of mind? Try out of the boss’s control.

While many remote and hybrid workers fear being forgotten by supervisors, the current state of work has given managers a neurosis of their own: that employees could be up to anything — anything! — while working from home.

A lot of executives never liked pandemic-prompted remote work but figured things would be back to normal by now. Nationwide, office occupancy remains below 50%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks building-access card swipes. And though many business leaders have lauded their employees’ remote productivity, some also worry that it is unsustainable. 

Remote work

File photo of a remote worker. (Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images / Getty Images)


In short, bosses’ patience is shrinking and their misgivings are growing.

"Productivity paranoia," coined by Microsoft chief Satya Nadella, is the new term to describe the not-so-new concern that workers aren’t as effective (or honest) at home, and it appears to be intensifying amid recession forecasts. Some 85% of leaders in a recent survey by the software company said hybrid arrangements make it hard for them to know how productive employees really are. 

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The mistrust goes beyond doubts about effort and output, and follows two years of high employee turnover. In some places, it begins before hiring.

When tech recruiter Sean Slater conducts video interviews, he begins by asking candidates to pan their webcams around and under their desks.


"Prove that there’s no one else in the room with you," he says. 

He’s seen jobseekers hide interview coaches just outside the camera frame, he says. Some have lip-synced while someone more knowledgeable answers questions and tried to pass off the audiovisual disconnect as internet lag.

Mr. Slater, a vice president at the Brixton Group, says this kind of deception is pervasive in the remote and hybrid work environment. He and his team usually catch the tricksters, but some slip through and land jobs they aren’t qualified to do. By the time employers realize a new hire isn’t up to snuff, projects might be off track. 

It’s an HR nightmare and one of several kinds of deception — big and small, real and potential — that are intensifying some managers’ return-to-office desires.

In online meetings, it can be difficult to tell who’s paying attention to Zoom and who’s cruising Zillow.

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And those email and Slack time stamps? They don’t necessarily show when someone is working. Anyone can compose a bunch of messages in the morning, schedule them to be delivered later, and take the afternoon off. 

Measuring the frequency of such shenanigans is tough, and work-from-anywhere evangelists preach that managers ought to stop fretting about how and when stuff gets done — as long as it gets done. 

Still, a few horror stories can reinforce bosses’ feelings that workers are out of hand when they’re out of the office. In a Fiverr Business survey of 1,000 U.S. managers published this month, a third said they want employees to return full time because people are more motivated when superiors have eyes on them.

"The real crux of things is a lack of control," says Jerome Hardaway, who runs a nonprofit, Vets Who Code, that helps military veterans learn programming skills and get hired.

He notes that even in the tech sector, where a number of big players such as Twitter and Airbnb have made remote work a permanent option, many companies are leaning harder on employees to show up in person. 

Some, channeling Tesla Inc. and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, are stressing in-person collaboration. Businesses that invested in swanky buildings or expanded to new cities (hello, Austin) before the pandemic want those locations to be used. 

Elon Musk

Tesla CEO Elon Musk gives a speech on Monday, August 29, 2022. Elon musk sent an email saying "Remote work is no longer acceptable." back in May.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File / AP Newsroom)

Calling people into offices is also a strategy to ward off poachers, Mr. Hardaway says. Interviewing with other companies during the workday is easier to pull off when you’re remote. In the office, bosses and co-workers can peek over your shoulder or notice that extra-long lunch break.

In the Wilmington, N.C., office of Approve, a financial-services firm, Chief Executive Robert Preville has instituted twice-daily, all-hands meetings for his 22-person staff: one at 9 a.m., another at 4:45 p.m. He started the Zoom gatherings a couple of years ago to help his team stay connected, and decided to continue the practice when bringing people back to the office — which he did as soon as possible, in late 2020. 

The get-togethers build camaraderie, Mr. Preville says. They also make it tough to show up late or duck out early without being noticed. People can leave to tend to personal matters, he says, but he likes his employees where he can see them and they can see each other. 


"I am absolutely convinced that the innovative process is not as efficient at home as it is in person," he says.

Productivity paranoia gives rise to productivity theater, though.

For those who do have the option to work from home, there are ways to look more productive or appear to be putting in longer hours than you actually are, says Michelle Kaye, a freelance technology trainer. (I discovered her after she posted a video tutorial about scheduling email deliveries and tweeted, "Psst — you can look like you’re working late into the night.")

Ms. Kaye says she doesn’t promote slacking but rather offers tips to subtly rebel against the ever-more-common ways that businesses monitor employees —tracking how often their laptop screens go into sleep mode because of inactivity, for instance. 

It’s often possible to change a setting so that a work-issued computer waits longer to sleep, she says, buying the user more time to step away for a midday workout or other diversion. Messaging apps can be similarly manipulated, she adds.


With the messaging tool at one of her corporate clients, "the default setting is that after five minutes of not touching the mouse you become ‘inactive’ and then after 10 minutes, you’re ‘away,’" she says. "I could change that."