If an employee works at their desk but no one is around to see it, are they actually working? 

It’s a twist on the age-old philosophical question about a tree falling alone in the forest, an enigma that questions existence and observation, reality and perception. And it’s one that leaders and employees are grappling with more than ever. 

As we settle into hybrid work, it’s clear that there’s a disconnect between employers and employees. People are working more than ever—the number of meetings has exploded, and nearly half of employees say they’re burned out—but managers aren’t seeing it. According to Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index pulse report , 87 percent of information workers report that they’re productive at work. At the same time, 85 percent of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that their employees are being productive.

This is productivity paranoia: when leaders fear that employees aren’t working enough, even though all signs point to their people working beyond the point of exhaustion. What’s behind this managerial angst? 

It’s all about perception. “Often, we take presence in the office as information that the person is working,” says Francesca Gino, an organizational psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School who advises executives on their changing workplaces. “A lot of leaders are struggling with the lack of visibility and not knowing what people are actually doing with their time.”  

Experts call it input bias: the assumption that the more one puts into a task—time, effort, sweat, tears—the better the end result will be. Say two employees are working on end-of-year presentations. One of them tells you they spent four hours on theirs, and the other says they spent an hour. It’s only natural to assume that the first presentation is better than the one that took only an hour to slap together, whether or not that’s actually true. 

The same goes for the cues that tell us people are working. The furious clack of a keyboard? That has to mean someone’s working hard. Long hours in a focus room? They must be annihilating their to-do list. It’s a kind of productivity theater , a way for employees to prove they’re working. Employees have felt the pressure to replicate these theatrics while working remotely, chiming in to conversations they don’t need to be a part of, and even using mouse jigglers to make sure they stay green-dotted. 

Underpinning the disconnect, says Microsoft researcher Shamsi Iqbal, is a lack of consensus over what being productive means. In some professions, productivity is easily quantifiable: a baker makes four cakes in an hour, a textile factory employee dyes 200 shirts in a day. But for information workers, measuring productivity isn’t as straightforward. “Because it is very subjective,” she says,“there’s a mismatch between employers and employees.” 

In our new world of work, it’s impossible to have constant visibility into whether your people are doing meaningful work. That’s why it’s essential to recognize our inherent input bias—then redesign our metrics for success so they instead favor outputs. Objectives and key results, or OKRs , help ensure employees put their energy into outcomes that matter, rather than ostentatious busywork like attending meetings they don’t need to be at to prove they’re working hard (who among us?).  

The expectation should not be that, if someone is in a meeting they are somehow being more productive than people who are not in the meeting.

Shamsi Iqbal, Microsoft researcher

For hybrid work to be sustainable, those norms have to change. “The expectation should not be that, if someone is in a meeting they are somehow being more productive than people who are not in the meeting,” Iqbal says. That’s the antidote to productivity paranoia: judging performance based on the quality of the outcomes and the impact of the work—not by how many emails were sent and how early in the morning they started. 

To do this, leaders need to help their people focus on the work that’s most important. Employees desperately need clarity on what work is essential and what can wait for another day—because when everything is urgent, nothing is. It helps with retention too: people who have clarity about their work priorities are four times as likely to say they plan to stay at their current company for the next two years. 

Leaders also need to be proactive about listening to employees’ needs. The disconnect between employees and employers, Gino says, results partly from a lack of opportunity for open dialogue. The research bears this out: 57 percent of companies rarely, if ever, ask and hear about employees’ experiences at work. The people who are thriving at work, she says, are usually those who are having open conversations with their direct boss. 

When employees are working more than ever, doubts about productivity erode employer-employee trust.

Given how fast work is changing, manager fears are understandable. After all, we’re all navigating the nuances of flexible work and what it means for our daily lives. But when employees are working more than ever, doubts about productivity erode employer-employee trust. That trust is foundational to empowering employees to do their best work—and to building a successful, thriving organization. 

Gino recalls a recent moment when she brought in the CEO of a major company to answer executives’ questions about moving to hybrid work. One leader asked, “What is the biggest risk that you’ve ever taken in giving employees more control over their work life?” 

“He was silent for a few seconds. And then he said, ‘I don’t think I can answer that question because you’re making an assumption that I don’t believe to be true, which is that empowering others is risky.’” 

So if an employee is working but no one is around to see it, are they actually working?  

Only if you trust them.