The Pandemic Productivity Problem

Juggling work, kids, and pandemic stress means that working from home may not be the most productive time in a company’s history, but given the circumstances, employers may want to consider cutting their employees some slack-- for employees’ benefit and for the company's, too.

First, some good news: On December 11th, the FDA approved an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, and approved Moderna’s vaccine just a week later.[1][2] At the time this article was written, 30.6 million doses had been distributed with 11.1 million people across the country having received at least one dose, including 1.3 million people who received a second dose.[3] However, upon publication millions more may have become inoculated. That said, while the first vaccines are intended for medical professionals and the most vulnerable, experts estimate that the general populace won’t be able to be immunized until spring 2021 at the earliest, and it may take even longer than that. [4]

Knowing this, some companies are making significant investments to support long-term work from home operations by expanding ecommerce options, investing in cloud computing, digital tools, and other information technology that may give them an edge in the expanding digital marketplace and better adapt their business model to long-term remote work and online collaboration.[5] However, as companies and organizations across the country exit crisis mode and settle in for the long(er) haul, it’s important to note that the pandemic-related stressors that impacted their business operations and employee productivity haven’t gotten better—in fact, they’ve gotten worse.

One of the biggest questions that employers have been asking is how productive employees have been during the pandemic. We saw a spike in productivity initially, but that may have simply been because people were afraid of losing their jobs as widespread layoffs hit the job market. Regardless, once considered either impossible or a luxury, it looks like remote work is here to stay. A study conducted by Enterprise Technology Research of over 1,200 CIOs from around the world found that remote work population was expected to double in 2021 due to increased productivity during the pandemic. According to Reuters, “48.6% reported that productivity has improved since workers began working remotely, with only 28.7% of respondents indicating a decline in productivity.”[6]

However, as noted above, while many businesses reported increased productivity, more than a quarter also reported a decrease. Information on productivity can still vary widely, simply because there are so many moving pieces. “The key difference between the best and the rest is how successful they were at managing the scarce time, talent, and energy of their workforces before Covid-19,” explain Eric Garton and Michael Mankins for Harvard Business Review.[7]

From an employee perspective, balancing work, kids, and pandemic stress means that working from home may not be the most productive time in a company’s history, but given the circumstances, employers may want to consider cutting their employees some slack-- for employees’ benefit and for the company's, too. “There’s a huge push of people thinking that because we are home right now, we can be productive and that we’re all going to be able to stay as focused as we were a month or so ago,” productivity expert Racheal Cook said in an interview with The Washington Post back in April. “We are going through a collective trauma experience . . . Anxiety is up, depression is up. From a productivity standpoint, it’s challenging, because we’re navigating these huge emotional hurdles with an uncertainty that most of us have never really experienced in our lifetime.”[8]

This is as true (if not truer) in January more so than it was in April; now ten months into the pandemic, we can add pandemic fatigue, holiday stress, further political upheaval, and online education woes to the laundry list of mounting difficulties employees are facing in addition to work-related stress. It’s likely that employees know of someone who has had covid, contracted the virus themselves, or, more tragically, passed away, and they may even have been responsible for caring for sick loved ones. The emotional toll is truly enormous; this isn’t a normal remote work situation; this is remote working during a global emergency.

Work can feel more taxing too; the “meeting that could have been an email” joke feels particularly relevant these days— both the number of meetings and attendees have increased by 12-14%, and the workday has elongated by nearly an hour, according to a study by Harvard Business School, so it’s no wonder that some feel that their days have been less productive than usual.[9]

So what actions should employers be taking to ensure their employees’ needs are being met while also working toward business goals? One way is to set clear boundaries to improve work/life balance and prevent that “living at work” feeling many employees are currently experiencing by being constantly on-call. Though it may not be feasible to set a company-wide standard, managers can allow their teams to set their own “dark hours” where they are not expected to, say, respond immediately to 2 AM emails, or rotate on-call duties if such policies have not already implemented. Employers can also conduct anonymous surveys to better understand employees’ needs and areas of business operations that require improvement. Lastly, assuming employees can meet the pre-pandemic productivity standards is, frankly, absurd. Setting longer, more reasonable deadlines on projects, offering additional vacation days, more flexible schedules, and other accommodations for this unique and stressful time prevents employees from burning out. After all, a temporary productivity decline during a global pandemic is understandable; but if mismanaged, it could become a more serious, long-term issue that impacts employers for years to come.










These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.

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