The pandemic productivity conundrum

“I’ve never been more productive!” With so many people getting their first experience of working from home, it’s a sentiment that we’re hearing more than ever. The speaker often credits the ability to concentrate on tasks without the usual interruptions of the office environment as a big reason for this boost.

Another reason they typically give is the time reclaimed from not having to commute. Some say this translates to more productive hours in which to get things done. Others talk about the luxury of sleeping later and not feeling exhausted before you even sit down at your desk. Related to this is the freedom to put in your hours when you feel more productive, either physically or psychologically, e.g. late at night or early in the morning, depending on whether you are an ‘owl’ or a ‘lark’.

It’s hard to argue with any of the above – if you consider productivity at a personal level. But there’s another perspective that’s frequently overlooked.

As researchers, we’ve spoken with a lot of business and IT leaders over the past couple of months, hearing about their responses to the pandemic. Time and again, when we ask at this senior level about productivity, we hear that it has actually gone down, not up. So how do we resolve this apparent conundrum?

Personal and collective productivity are rather different beasts

To make sense of the conflicting views, we need to separate the notion of personal productivity from that of collective productivity at a team, business unit or organisation level. One person’s interruption is another’s request for help or input into a decision, for example, and rightly or wrongly, making an explicit call can seem more intrusive than just swinging by someone’s desk.

There’s then the simple problem of availability. As one CIO said, “It’s great for our financial director to start work at six in the morning and clock off at 2pm, but when they can’t be reached for guidance or approvals during the afternoon, processes can be held up and customers let down.” The point is that many aspects of business rely on people working together, not just individually, and on them supporting each other in a timely manner.

That said, we also heard tales of an opposite problem. With their new-found love for videoconferencing, some have developed a tendency to call virtual meetings at the drop of a hat. This can be particularly troublesome when they realise they can invite anyone, regardless of location or whether their presence is really required. Some also report the loss of traditional meeting discipline – agendas, preparation, advanced circulation of briefing materials, and so on.

At this point, you might be thinking that even before the pandemic, some co-workers seemed quite happy to waste colleagues’ time as well as their own. That brings us to one last challenge, mentioned to us by managers: While people who are naturally self-starters tend to do their jobs well from home, those who previously needed close supervision in the office typically require even more management attention when working remotely.

A healthy ‘new normal’ will need planning

All these experiences underline the importance of taking the time to stand back and think about how our businesses are going to operate efficiently and effectively when the current crisis is over. With flexible and remote working anticipated to become an implicit part of the ‘new normal’, we need to develop policies and processes – and above all, habits and etiquette – to ensure that productivity is addressed at a collective as well as an individual level.

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