Performative Work: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Advice From Employers / July 21, 2022
Table of Content
  1. What Is Performative Work?
  2. The Damage of Performative Work
  3. How to Avoid Performative Work

If you’ve been out in the workforce for a while, you know that not all work is created equal. There’s the work you were actually hired for, where you make your highest contribution to the organization. Then there’s the administrative work that no one is ever hired for but can take up a great deal of time, like checking emails, preparing reports, and attending meetings. 

This second class of work includes those tasks that are meant to make us look busy even while they contribute very little to the company’s goals. While communication is important, it’s easy to focus so much on appearing busy that we neglect what’s important. It’s the dilemma of performative work. 

What is Performative Work?

You could call it performative work or a busy culture

Employees are so concerned with appearing productive that they invest all their time in the optics of work while producing very little actual value. An employee rushing to-and-from meetings and sending emails at all hours of the day or night appears busy busy busy. But when does that person actually have time to contribute? Better use of their time could be a morning of deep thought and long-term planning in their office with the door closed. But that doesn’t look like work—at least not how we’ve come to envision it. 

This problem has become more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees working from home felt they had to be constantly connected in order to prove that they were at their computers. The rapid flow of emails, proliferating Zoom calls, and the constant ping of Slack or Google Chat messages prove that employees are busy, but leave little time for deeper, more meaningful contributions.

The Damage of Performative Work

This proliferation of visible but unimportant work can have real consequences for an organization. Multiplied across all employees, it can add up to thousands of hours of lost productivity in a year.

But it can be damaging to an employee’s mental health as well. The pressure to always be seen as “on” or “available” can make staff feel they have to respond to all messages in real-time, whether it’s the evening, weekend, or even their vacation. And the need to appear constantly active can lead to real stress, as the to-do list builds and the time to complete it shrinks. Employees may burn out more quickly and could even leave the organization altogether. 

How to Avoid Performative Work

It can be very hard as an employee to refuse to engage in the “on all the time” visual aspects of this kind of work. You may fear that doing so will make you appear unengaged with your work or damage your standing with your boss. 

But in truth, you may find that freeing up your time and focus for more intensive thought and productivity could actually improve your work and reputation. If you can skip some non-essential meetings and stay out of unnecessary chats, can you spend more time making that big marketing presentation for your hotel really special? After all, you were hired to help the hotel make more money, not to engage in meaningless online back-and-forth.

You could also ask yourself how useful your contribution will really be to this conversation. Does that Slack back-and-forth really need you? And if so, does it need you now? Consider closing the app and your email entirely while you work on more important tasks, and check those messages just a few times per day.

This kind of shift may require buy-in from top management. If you don’t feel that you have the autonomy to decline meetings, perhaps you could approach your boss about the percentage of time you’re currently spending doing these unproductive tasks. 

Track your time for an average week, including meetings and time spent responding to emails and messages. If you can show your manager that you’re currently spending 30%, 40%, or more of your time on these tasks, they may give you more leeway to only attend vital meetings and to stay out of unnecessary conversations. 

The purpose isn’t to avoid all non-productive interactions. A short catch-up with colleagues can give your brain a much-needed break, and even help contribute to the company’s culture as a pleasant place to work. But a 15-minute dedicated chat is a far cry from a 30-second Slack interruption every five minutes.
When you’re free to focus on what matters, you may find that you become more indispensable to the business, not less, and start a trend away from performative work.