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After a few years of unsettled working due to the COVID-19 pandemic – which required employees to work from home, if possible – employers globally are now deciding whether to return to the office.

According to a recent report, 90 percent of companies announced they will require employees to return to the office at least part of the week in 2023, with 77 percent admitting they will change their hybrid working policy in the next year.

For one-fifth, employees will be required to return to office-working full-time, whereas 40 percent said they want staff in the office four days a week and 31 percent said three days a week.

Many people have highlighted the benefits of working remotely in the past couple of years, such as reduced travel expenses, increased energy from not having to commute, and the flexibility to make work revolve around your life, rather than the other way around.

So, what has led employers to pivot back to office-based working? Productivity Paranoia could be at least partially to blame.

What Is Productivity Paranoia?

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index: Pulse Report found that while employees have embraced a new age of hybrid working, 85 percent of employers aren’t confident that they are being as productive outside of the office – leading to ‘Productivity Paranoia’.

The tech giant defined Productivity Paranoia as where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, the number of meetings and other activity metrics have increased. Their survey found 87 percent of employees reported they are productive at work, but only 12 percent of leaders stated they have full confidence their team is productive.

There is a clear disconnect here, with some employers seemingly struggling to trust their staff and putting employees under pressure to prove they’re working efficiently when not in the office.

To discover which of the US’ largest cities have the most and least paranoid employers, The Digital Project Manager has conducted a study into the topic.

We analyzed state laws around employee monitoring, the volume of relevant Google searches, and the percentage of Indeed job adverts recruiting remote employees. By normalizing the data, we have worked out and assigned an overall paranoia score to each city studied.

Check out the table below for the full data, and read on for our detailed analysis and top tips for navigating the situation smoothly:

The Cities Most Affected By Productivity Paranoia

Our study found that the US city where employers are most affected by Productivity Paranoia in Atlanta, Georgia – with a paranoia score of 8.9 overall.

We discovered that employers in Georgia don’t legally require consent to monitor emails or calls, or to have employees switch on webcams. They are also allowed to track their employees’ location.

comic strip of a team member typing at their laptop then looking concerned and asking "who do I always feel like my boss is watching me"

Looking at Google search data, Atlanta has had an average of 602 Google searches per capita (per 100 thousand people) related to employee monitoring in the past year alone. This includes queries like “monitor webcam” and “monitor employee software”.

Additionally, just six percent of Indeed adverts for jobs hiring in the area offered ‘remote work’ (3,003 out of 49,885 ads).

Wichita, Kansas, is the second city most affected by productivity paranoia, receiving a paranoia score of 8.6 overall.

Like in Atlanta, employers living in Kansas are allowed to monitor their employee’s emails and can legally require them to switch on webcams during virtual meetings.

However, one slight difference is that Kansas is a one-party consent state. This means that it is illegal to use any device to listen, amplify or record communications without consent from at least one person taking part in the conversation.

While this sounds better, it means that an employer can consent to these activities without their employees’ agreement – this is arguably just as bad as having no restrictions at all.

There have been 332 Google searches per capita related to employee monitoring in Wichita in the past year, and just over two percent of Indeed job adverts in the city allow ‘remote working’. This works out as 229 ads out of the 10,463 live at the time of the study.

In third place for the US city with the most paranoid employers in Louisville in Kentucky, with a paranoia score of 8.3 overall.

map highlighting atlanta georgia, wichita kansas, and louisville kentucky as the 3 cities most affected by productivity paranoia
The top 3 cities that are most affected by productivity paranoia.

Again, Kentucky has a much more employer-friendly approach to email privacy. Employers can read emails sent to email addresses they have supplied to an employee, provided they have notified them of their intention to do so.

The same approach is taken with monitoring calls made on work telephone devices. Employees can also be dismissed for refusing to switch on webcams due to ‘at-will employment.’

Despite these regulations, there were far fewer Google searches around employee monitoring in Louisville, with just 246 searches per capita taking place in the last year. And just 2.1 percent of Louisville’s job ads are classified as remote, which equates to around 500 ads out of the 24 thousand on Indeed.

Completing the top five US cities most impacted by Productivity Paranoia are Kansas City in Missouri (paranoia score: 8.2) and Indianapolis in Indiana (paranoia score: 7.7), with employers in both locations advertising ‘remote’ work in just three percent of adverts, and the state laws not restricting email, call, or location monitoring.

The Cities Least Affected By Productivity Paranoia

The study found that San Francisco, California is the city home to the least paranoid employers, with an overall paranoia score of 0.7. Compared to Atlanta, Georgia, which we identified as the most paranoid city with a paranoia score of 8.9, this is a huge improvement.

Over 10.5 percent of Indeed job adverts located in San Francisco were classified as remote working, indicative of the city’s more trusting employers towards its 887,000-strong population.

This is significantly higher than other cities in the state such as Bakersfield, where just one percent of ads offer remote work. San Francisco workers will likely welcome the remote work on offer, as a recent survey found over 53 percent wanted to reduce the number of days they spend in the office.

comic strip showing a team member looking at their phone in bed and receiving an email from their boss and asking themselves whether it counts as working and if they should reply from their desk

Additionally, the state of California operates a ‘two-party consent’ law - it is therefore a crime to monitor employee emails and calls without consent from all parties involved.

However, employees are required to turn their webcams on at the request of their employer, and there are an average of 288 Google searches around employee monitoring annually per capita; this shows that despite being the best state of all those analyzed, employers are still interested in monitoring employees, to some extent.

Chicago, Illinois, is the second city least affected by Productivity Paranoia, with a paranoia score of 1.2. Around 5.5 percent of Indeed job adverts in Chicago allow remote working and there has only been an average of 162 Google searches per capita about employee monitoring in the last year.

Over 27 percent of Chicago’s population work in professional and business sectors. And, like  Californian law, consent is required from all parties before employers can monitor emails and phone conversations in Illinois.

In fact, it seems employers in these cities have done their research before returning to office life. A survey revealed that almost six in ten workers reported being more productive working from home during the pandemic, which likely led to increased trust from senior management.

map highlighting san francisco california, chicago illinois, and los angeles california as the 3 cities least affected by productivity paranoia.
The top 3 cities that are least affected by productivity paranoia.

In third place is Los Angeles, California, with a low paranoia score of 1.4 and 142 Google searches per capita in the last year about employee monitoring.

Although LA is home to the third largest business district in North America, just 4.3 percent of job adverts allowed remote working (2,167 ads out of over 50,000 live at the time of this study).

Completing the top five are the Californian cities of San Diego and San Jose, taking fourth and fifth place with paranoia scores of 1.6 and 1.9, respectively. 3.7 percent of San Diego job adverts and 3.8 percent of San Jose adverts offered remote work options.

Californian cities claimed nine of the top ten places least impacted by Productivity Paranoia. It is clear from this data that California is home to the least paranoid employers in the US and could be something for jobseekers to consider if open to relocating.

This is particularly interesting as California was also found to be the US’ ‘happiest city’ in a recent study looking at income and employment.

How To Avoid Productivity Paranoia And Navigate Hybrid Working Successfully

When employees are working remotely, it may be easy to assume they aren’t working as hard as they did when you could physically see them in the office. However, many people find working from home suits them better than an office environment, which can be loud or distracting at times.

The best way to encourage productivity in a remote workforce is to foster happiness. This is because happy employees are more likely to work hard for you, and are also more likely to be physically able to do so (not burn out or become overly stressed, leading to increased time off).

Establish trust with your employees by making them feel heard when they raise concerns, giving them the flexibility to work where and when suits them best, and involving them in decisions that affect them, where appropriate.

An invasive approach to employee privacy is likely to result in an unhappy workforce, which could lead to employees choosing to look for other, more accommodating, opportunities.

When done right, employee monitoring can be seen as a positive by all those involved, but this will only be achieved with open communication, a strong trust to begin with, and a shared desire for the company to hit targets.

comic strip with team member asking "do you think my boss thinks i'm working" and "am i working"

Check out our reviews of the best employee time-tracking tools to see how you could implement this practice in your company without breaking your employees’ trust.

However, it’s natural that some employers will want to see their employees back in the office. If not due to productivity, then due to the social and cultural impacts it can have, or the cost of paying for an office nobody is using.

If you do choose to require employees back in the office, whether full-time or on a hybrid set-up, it’s important to listen to them and encourage feedback at all stages of the transition.

When employees have been working entirely remotely for a long time, the change can be extremely unsettling. Follow the tips below for how to navigate this:

  1. Take it slow: a gradual transition, increasing the number of days employees are required in the office over a period of months, gives them the time to accept the change without becoming overwhelmed. For example, it allows the body to adapt to commuting again, or to a new sleep schedule.
  2. Motivate, don’t pressurize: managers should focus on making the transition as easy as possible and motivate their teams to return through incentives, rather than by applying excessive pressure.
  3. Be flexible: employees will have grown used to working from home, and it may take some time for everyone to feel comfortable in an office environment again. Use one-to-one sessions to identify what employees may be struggling with during the transition period and offer some degree of flexibility when possible – this will pay off down the line with your staff viewing you as an understanding and approachable employer, making them less likely to look for something new.

Methodology

We ranked the top 50 US cities by population (2020 census data) using five data points:

  1. Can employers monitor employee emails? (state-wide law data)
  2. Can employers monitor employee calls? (state-wide law data)
  3. Can employers track the location of employees using GPS? (state-wide law data)
  4. Cumulative average annual Google searches for relevant queries per 100k people, collected between November 2021 and October 2022 using Google Keyword Planner (city-level data)
  5. Percentage of all live job ads filtered by “remote” on Indeed (city-level data)

For the full list of Google search queries analyzed and the sources for the state-law data, please see this spreadsheet.

Each data point was normalized to give a score from 0-10, with 10 meaning high levels of paranoia and 0 meaning low levels. The only exception is the remote jobs data point, which is inverted (10 means low levels of paranoia).

For the state laws, we assigned a value of 10 to those that could do the activity under all circumstances, and a value of 0 to those that could only do it in certain specific circumstances, for example with consent.

The five scores for each city were averaged to give an overall paranoia score.

By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.