Pre-pandemic, being seen as visibly “busy” at work — behaviors such as arriving early, staying late, and generally being seen as on the move — was a predominant (albeit flawed) marker of status and productivity. With the move to remote working, those performative markers of how hard one was working were removed, leading us to re-evaluate standard performance metrics. It also led to a loss of status in some that got their validation from the hallmarks of being seen as “always on.” With more workers returning to the office, will “busy culture” creep back in? If so, what impacts will that have on promotions, status, wellbeing, and collaboration?
The psychology behind busy culture
Being busy at work can suggest that someone is in high demand, which comes with its own set of associated positives and negatives. On the positive end of the spectrum, if there is work that only one person can complete due to their specific skill set, that does ascribe a feeling of status. On the negative end of the spectrum, if there is so much work and someone feels that no one else can do it, that suggests poor delegation skills, a lack of setting personal boundaries, and/or gaps in properly upskilling other members of the team to better share the workload.
There can also be a misperception that the busier one is, the more impact one will have — but this could lead to someone simply being a busy fool. Sometimes, the need to be busy isn’t just about self-worth. Some people struggle with how to say “no.” Some are bored at work and use being busy as a distraction or coping mechanism, even if they aren’t adding much value. Figuring out the reason behind the perpetual busyness helps employers find solutions. If someone can’t say “no,” for example, that may require some coaching or counseling. Whereas if someone is bored, asking for different work challenges or tasks can add much-needed variety.
Unpacking being busy at work
We need to understand what people mean when they say that they are busy. Are they using the word as a proxy for other feelings such as fatigue or being overwhelmed? Is it a silent plea for recognition for their hard work? Are they saying they need help to prioritize? Sometimes, it can be easier to lump these more nuanced expressions of emotion under the umbrella term of “busy.”
Organizational trust and outdated performance management models could have a role to play here, as well. If people don’t feel they have the trust from management to do their jobs, they may compensate by being busy — ensuring that they are visible. That could manifest as increased meeting attendance, holding their hand up for lots of projects, answering email early in the morning and late at night, etc.
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With performance management still trying to catch up to remote work, for those who do start to return to the office, there are still ingrained perceptions that a body in the chair for long hours means someone is busy and adding value — when, in fact, the opposite could be true.
Defeating busy culture
Busy as a status symbol — in all parts of life, not just work —is starting to fade away. Performance metrics are shifting to be much more results-focused — with an understanding that one does not need to be busy to get good results. One just needs to work smart, and on a core set of priorities that add value versus spreading oneself too thin in an attempt to appear busy.
But the most important tool in defeating busy culture comes from the top. Leaders should model the behaviors they want to see in their employees. Teams can incentivize boundary-setting. When people feel safe to take the breaks and rest they need, as needed, versus powering through, the quality of the work undoubtedly goes up. Perhaps that will be the result that finally breaks the cycle of busy culture.