Burning Up and Burning Out. Productivity during the pandemic

I’d expected productivity to decline during the pandemic. As a psychologist who studies focus, I predicted people would be distracted by homeschooling, exhausted by technology and interrupted by anxiety. It should be harder to focus and get work done amid the noise, constant change and heighten stress. But as reports came in, I saw in productivity didn’t decline. It was maintained and, in some cases, even increased. But how? And at what cost to wellbeing, collaboration and learning?

Burning the midnight oil

You know this because you felt this at the end of every long workday in your home office. You’re working longer and longer. A study of 3 million workers showed that they averaged nearly an hour more a day than when they went to work at an office.

Productivity is a simplistic measure, the total cost of output divided by the total cost of input. The highest input cost in knowledge work is called in economic terms “labour”, meaning paying for people’s brain power. But as most knowledge workers receive a salary, it didn’t cost your company anymore for your long hours. However, we see the real cost in burnout, lack of innovation and less collaboration.

Some are thriving, some barely surviving

Dig below the simplistic productivity statistics, and we see the story is not the same for everyone. It’s no surprise to find that working moms, new employees, singles and Gen Z are surviving while their leaders are thriving. Unfortunately, most business leaders are middle-aged men with the resources to have a larger living space, childcare and groceries delivered. These leaders are well out of touch on how exhausted their people feel, the impact on their engagement and workforce turnover. Working parents are struggling, with 23% of female and 13% of male parents considering leaving the workforce. And when people are not engaged, their brain power is not being applied to solve the big challenges.

Innovation interrupted

Digger even deeper, and I’m not surprised to find that productivity varies by the type of work. Going solo works, but collaborative work doesn’t. Over three-quarters of people felt they maintained productivity in individual tasks like analysing data, writing report or administration. However, for collaborative work, people thought they were less productive. Discussing topics with colleagues, interacting with clients and making decisions together is so much harder virtually. And this collaborative work is where creativity and innovation begins.

Honey, I shrunk my network

Innovation also runs on the broad network of connection inside and outside the organisation to get new ideas and see things from a different perspective. And it’s the broad network that has suffered. Microsoft’s study of how people used MSTeams and other collaboration tools found that teams became isolated. The close team stay connected, but people in the distant network were less frequently in contact, i.e. isolated teams, more silos, and less innovation.
For new people, it has been hard to build a network in the organisation. They struggle to find their place in a complex organisation and get engaged with their work. It’s the social connectivity, or social capital, that makes an organisation work.

Burning the candle at both ends

The positive productivity statistics are masking the real issues of an exhausted workforce, lack of innovation and social connection. At the moment, organisations are running on goodwill from employees to work additional hours, using their established networks to keep things happening as they were.

Moving to a hybrid workplace isn’t going to solve these problems. Instead, organisations need to address issues of long hours, support collaborative work, and re-build strong social networks to re-engage their people in solving the new challenges their customers face in the post-pandemic era.

Bio

Jane Piper is an Organisational Psychologist and bestselling author of Focus in the Age of Distraction – a book looking at the impact of digital technology on our wellbeing and ways of working. She is interested in the intersection of humans and technology. She challenges us to look at the impact that technology is having our work and non-work lives, well-being and happiness. She’s very much looking forward to speaking at the Collab Summit in November-December 2021 live!