We need to start prioritizing output over optics

woman at her desk overworked and tired in front of a laptop

Did you spend more time at your desk today than you got paid for?

If so, I have one question for you: why?

Was it for any of the following reasons?

  • Your co-workers are working long hours, and you feel you have to do the same.
  • Your boss has put pressure on you to produce, but COVID left your company resource-strapped, so you’re trying to do it all alone.
  • You’ve been chastised, directly or indirectly, by your boss or a senior team member for leaving after your 8 hours.

If so, then you’ve played into the optics game.

Prioritizing optics over output

Teams that prioritize optics — how things look to new employees, junior staff, and customers — place emphasis on you being present. This doesn’t mean that your presence equates to “getting shit done.” It simply means you’re…there.

In the COVID era, “there” means available. Reachable at any moment, by email, phone, or text. Regardless of the day or time.

A lot of startups operate with this expectation of their employees. In fact, many founders boast of the insane hours they put toward growing their business.

Yet, ironically, long hours may be counter-productive: a Stanford study showed that working more than 50 hours a week leads to a sharp decline in productivity.

If you’re putting in more than your 40 hours a week because you’re worried what your boss or colleagues will think, consider this:

  1. People who work overtime are more likely to make mistakes on the job.
  2. Working overtime leads to higher reports of anxiety, stress, and conflict at home.
  3. Companies that have poor work-life balance may have lower profits than those who don’t.
  4. Working long hours to stay aligned with optics can impair team dynamics, making us less likely to support one another.

Oh, and it’s also literally killing us.

People working more than 50 hours a week are shown to be at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Are you part of an optics-driven culture?

Not sure if your organization is prioritizing optics over what you actually produce? If any of the following has happened to you, it may be cause for concern.

  • Your coworkers regularly send emails late into the evening, with your boss(es) in cc.
  • Your boss jokes about how you’re one of the few employees that “actually use your vacation days.”
  • You’ve been shamed for leaving the office earlier than your coworkers (regardless of what time you start).
  • You’ve felt guilty about leaving work for an hour to go to a doctor’s appointment, or skipped going to the doctor all together.

Prioritizing optics is bad for employers, too

While the impact to employees is clear, it can also be incredibly damaging to businesses over the long term:

  • Employees are less productive.
  • It can lead to poorer health outcomes, which may cause more employees to quit or go on extended leave.
  • It can destroy culture by making relationships tenuous and employees afraid to speak up.
  • It rewards employees for the wrong reasons: instead of praising success and good work, it emphasizes presence.

Do you have a story about an optics-driven culture? I’d love to hear it.

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Brigitte Dreger

Brigitte Dreger

Talking about the things people are afraid to talk about. LGBT+, Startup Culture, Diversity.