UK workers waste a third of their time on ‘performative work’. Are managers to blame?

Too many employees are sinking time into meaningless tasks. Dominic Ashley-Timms, CEO of Notion, lays out how managers can help keep workers engaged by putting the focus back on more productive work

Businesswoman At Desk Using Mobile Phone

Across the globe, surveys consistently show that a significant portion of the workforce is disengaged. According to Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report, only 23% of employees on average are engaged in their work. In the UK that figure falls to a miserable 10%, causing profound concerns for Westminster because the UK lags behind its G7 competitors in just about every measure of productivity. 

Coupled with low levels of engagement, organisations everywhere are wrestling with correspondingly low levels of productivity, which have largely failed to bounce back since the global pandemic. A study by workplace communications platform Slack shows that UK workers spend approximately one-third of their work day on unproductive tasks labelled ‘performative work’. The question is, are managers to blame for the lack of productivity? And, if so, what can be done about it?

What is performative work?

Performative work refers to tasks or activities performed by employees primarily to be seen by their managers or colleagues, rather than to contribute directly to the organisation’s goals. It’s often driven by the need to appear busy or productive rather than focusing on meaningful work that adds value. This issue isn’t unique to the UK; it’s a global concern that affects workplaces everywhere.

But in some ways, managers today are navigating uncharted territory. They are facing rapid technological advances and fundamental changes in the workplace. They must also be aware of and promote a healthy, psychologically safe environment in which employees’ mental wellbeing is paramount. To top it off, they must balance the demands of a diverse and multigenerational workforce whose values have forever been changed as a result of the pandemic. The pressure on managers has never been so great.

What can managers do to encourage more productive work?

Although managers are expected to play a pivotal role in shaping workplace dynamics – including matters of productivity – they can easily be distracted by an impossibly long list of tasks and priorities. The people-engagement aspects of a manager’s role are often deprioritised. But encouraging line managers to refocus on five basic pillars of good management can help to re-engage employees. Effective managers must:

  • Set clear expectations: Managers who prioritise clear, outcome-focused expectations can help employees understand what’s truly important. When objectives are well defined, employees are less likely to engage in performative work to showcase how busy they are.
  • Provide feedback and recognition: Regular feedback and recognition for meaningful contributions can deter employees from feeling the need to overperform or engage in tasks merely for visibility. Acknowledgment of effort and achievement fosters a sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Foster open communication: Managers need to maintain open channels of communication. This is especially important in remote work settings, where misunderstandings can easily arise. Encouraging transparent, honest dialogue can help to identify and address any issues leading to performative work.
  • Embrace flexibility: The modern workplace demands flexibility and managers should recognise that employees may have different peak productivity hours or work preferences. Allowing for flexibility can reduce the pressure to constantly appear busy during traditional office hours.
  • Lead by example: Managers who model a healthy work-life balance and prioritise meaningful work over ‘busy work’ can set the tone for their teams. When leaders prioritise quality work and wellbeing, employees are more likely to follow suit.

Creating a culture of productivity

Managers play a crucial role in combating performative work. Focusing on the basics of good management will certainly help cut down on performative work and other unproductive tasks, but managers can’t be expected to take on the challenge alone. Employees must be responsible for their actions and behaviours in the workplace. Creating a culture of accountability, where meaningful work is valued, is a joint effort. For managers, one way to encourage accountability among the workforce is to ask better, more powerful questions.

Asking powerful questions can become an infectious habit

Purposeful enquiry – asking questions for the benefit of the other person’s thinking – is the missing superpower that managers everywhere can learn to develop. 

By adopting an approach that engages others more proactively in solving day-to-day problems, and learning not to step into every problem all of the time, managers can begin to share accountability more equitably across the team, giving team members more of a stake in the successful resolution of day-to-day issues. This provides meaningful opportunities for the manager to provide feedback and acknowledgment for the contributions made by team members. At the same time, team members themselves feel that they are being trusted and that their manager is interested in their development.

By displaying trust in the capability of others and openly sharing the credit for accomplishments, managers can begin to foster a healthier and more engaged team that is growing in confidence and resourcefulness. Asking powerful questions can become an infectious habit.

Managers hold the key to combatting the employee engagement crisis and turning performative work into more meaningful tasks. By setting clear expectations and developing more of an open and proactive style of management that favours the use of an enquiry-led approach, managers can create an environment where employees are engaged in meaningful, productive work rather than wasting a third of their day on appearances.