How To Prove to Your Boss That You’re Doing Your Job While Remote—And Turn ‘Productivity Paranoia’ on Its Head

Photo: Getty Images/Xavier Lorenzo
Even as the number of people who work remotely rose sharply in response to the pandemic, growing from just 4 percent in 2019 to 43 percent by May 2020 and remaining nearly unchanged in 2021, something about the shift has still felt largely temporary up to this point, especially as many companies have touted return-to-office plans.

But now, two-plus years following the dawn of the pandemic, it’s undeniable that remote and hybrid work is sticking: Estimates point to 25 percent of jobs being remote by the end of 2022, and 53 percent of remote-capable workers expect to work a hybrid schedule in the future. But as employers are forced to reckon with this new normal, many have shown themselves to be reticent, adopting strategies like activity tracking to combat productivity paranoia—that is, the fear that their remote workers are not being productive (or, at least, not to the same degree that they would be if they were in an office). As a result, if you're a remote worker, it's becoming increasingly important to learn how to prove your productivity to a manager and nip unnecessary productivity paranoia in the bud.

Experts In This Article

How remote and hybrid work is changing perceptions of productivity

Just the rise in activity-tracking alone signifies a growing level of concern among leaders about the day-to-day output of their direct reports. “Some estimates suggest a 100 percent increase in the use of activity trackers from the beginning of the pandemic to now,” says Shonna Waters, PhD, vice president of strategic alliances at virtual coaching platform BetterUp. These include things like laptops with facial-recognition cameras designed to monitor whether employees are, quite literally, looking away from their work for extended periods, as well as monitoring software that tracks keystrokes or takes random screenshots of employees' desktops.

“Companies are still questioning how [remote work] will impact business long-term, and they're likely reevaluating employee productivity.” —Blair Heitmann, LinkedIn career expert

Though these interventions may seem at best unnecessary and at worst totally creepy (and in plenty of cases, they’re probably both), they all purport to answer a fundamental question of remote work: How can workers effectively “prove” their productivity when they aren’t (perhaps ever) working in the physical presence of a supervisor? “While remote work has been around for quite some time, it was never at this scale and for many, was a stopgap,” says LinkedIn career expert Blair Heitmann. “Years later, companies are still questioning how it will impact business long-term, and as they work against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, they’re likely reevaluating a number of priorities, including employee productivity.”

While there’s no reason for employers to automatically assume that workers will slack more in a remote environment, the “perceived loss of control” is enough to create fear in managers who are used to being able to see what their employees are doing IRL, says Dr. Waters. “In the absence of information, people ‘awfulize’ or imagine the worst.” Indeed, according to a recent report from Microsoft surveying about 20,000 workers, 85 percent of leaders said the shift to hybrid work “has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.”

Sensing this productivity paranoia, some employees have since taken to “productivity theater,” whereby they take extra steps to essentially quantify that they’re being productive. “This includes things like consciously managing around activity trackers by moving your mouse, updating your status repeatedly, and so forth,” says Dr. Waters. “The irony is that this can actually interfere with true productivity because energy is being reallocated from work to perception of work.”

In fact, a July report by software companies Qatalog and GitLab found that workers waste, on average, 67 minutes a day performing these tactics to demonstrate that they’re actually working, which can have effects beyond the immediate loss of productivity. “Taking this kind of time and attention away from the important aspects of your job can fuel overwork and burnout,” says Heitmann. This dismal reality, coupled with the rising fears among leaders about worker productivity, underscores the importance of learning how to effectively prove your productivity to a manager—without wasting time and energy, that is.

4 strategies to prove your productivity to your boss and gain their trust in a remote environment

1. Seek their guidance on how to prioritize

Proactively checking in with your boss on the things that qualify as your key performance indicators and seeking their guidance on major decisions and milestones will help reinforce that you will, in fact, ask for support when you need it, says Dr. Waters. This way, your manager will not be left wondering whether you feel comfortable communicating with them or whether you have a clear understanding of the goals you should be prioritizing and the definition of “success” for your role—all of which can help squash any would-be fears about your productivity.

The same goes for proactively communicating when a goal or deadline you’ve previously agreed to is no longer possible to achieve, adds Dr. Waters. The earlier you communicate that something is going to slip, the more time you allow for you and your manager to troubleshoot the problem, which demonstrates your commitment to finding a solution and builds trust.

2. Ask them how often (and how) they’d like to be updated on your progress

The best cadence for updates is whatever feels most aligned for both you and your boss. That means it’s important to have a conversation about it and level-set, so you’re not just needlessly updating them or leaving them hanging. “Depending on your job and your experience level, this might range from twice-daily updates to weekly recaps,” says Heitmann.

The content of those updates should also be something that you align on with your manager, she adds, so you know that you’re providing the information that they need to feel confident in your work. That could include things like a report of work done the previous week (with any related performance metrics) and/or a list of tasks you plan to do in the following.

“If you make this update a standard format so it’s predictable, it’ll also be easier for your manager to consume,” says Dr. Waters. And the easier it is for your manager to understand your progress over time, the more seamlessly they’ll be able to update their supervisor and communicate your wins, says Heitmann.

3. Ensure that you’re reachable within the hours you’ve agreed to work

One of the biggest differences between in-office and remote work is employees’ degree of reachability: In an office, of course, you can physically approach someone with a question or problem, whereas, remotely, you have to rely on them being online and at their computer when you ask the question. Because a manager can’t physically see you, it may be easier for them to assume that you’re slacking if you don’t respond to a message during a period of time when you’ve committed to working—whereas, in an office, they might be well aware that you’ve stepped out for lunch, are on a call, went to the bathroom, or the like.

As a result, part of proving that you're being productive is demonstrating that you are reliably reachable during the hours you’ve agreed to work, says Heitmann. That’s not to say it has to be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., necessarily; given the fact that remote work allows more easily for asynchronous work, your hours might look different from this norm or from the hours of your coworkers or manager. And given that it’s just as important to take breaks while working remotely as it is when working in-person, you might not be able to respond instantaneously to all pings or emails, and that's okay. But being mindful to respond to communications in a timely fashion does “reinforce that you’re available to help as needed and committed to the role,” says Heitmann.

4. Lend a hand to others on your team when you can

Your manager is more likely to trust you—and, in turn, less likely to assume you’re being unproductive—if you demonstrate benevolence, says Dr. Waters: “Make a point of understanding what success looks like for those around you and how you can help.”

Stepping up in this way generally builds goodwill, which can lead others around you to assume positive intent, she says. For example, if you’re often the one to offer support or lend a hand to someone else, and then one day, your manager can’t reach you for an hour, they’re less likely to jump to a worst-case scenario and guess that you’re slacking off.

If, however, you feel like your manager does seem to assume the worst about how you’re spending time without any real cause, “it might be time to reconsider if long-term, this workplace is the place for you,” says Heitmann. “It’s ideal to work in an environment of trust and respect.”

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