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We need to talk about productivity in the age of COVID-19

5 May 2020

News and media


a woman working productively at home.

By Dejan Jotanovic

A king tormented by familial tension and crippling loneliness. It’s no surprise that Shakespeare purportedly wrote King Lear in quarantine. It was the beginning of the 1600s and the bubonic plague was rife across Europe, causing the closure of theatres and other public entertainments. In looking to inspire the theatre community during today’s uncertain times, The Atlantic published “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague” and Shakespeare’s unfaltering (pre-Netflix) work ethic quickly became the poster child for productivity during the age of COVID-19.

Will we be writing our own Lear? Is the time finally ripe to complete those menial tasks and activities we have avoided for so long? Could COVID-19 offer the perfect productivity boom?

Perhaps quite the opposite. In fact, it is fair to say that even asking these questions is evidence of privilege, in the face of a pandemic which is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities and put even more pressure on people marginalised from society or the workforce.

For many, simply keeping up with the demands of work and showing their value at a time when employers are looking at cost-cutting to survive, will be a priority. For others just keeping their mental health intact in the face of money worries and isolation will be a more valuable goal than progressing a creative project.

There may be unexpected benefits and gains for individuals, but a focus on productivity is likely to be counter-productive and damaging.

Psychological impact

A recent study from The Lancet (2020) outlined the wide-ranging symptoms of the psychological impact of quarantine. These included low motivation, frustration, insomnia, emotional exhaustion, confusion and anger to name but a few.

ANZSOG has prepared some guidance for managers whose staff are currently under self-isolation or quarantine.

Flatten the curve, lower the bar

It is important that during these unprecedented times we follow expert public health advice in order to minimise the harm from COVID-19. The next few months will likely be a wax and wane of social distancing and isolation. Stay-at-home orders have forced us to reimagine the way we interact with each other and public spaces. Our private domains, too, have dramatically refocused in scale and scope, becoming the epicentres for all our productivity.

But as our homes transform into makeshift classrooms and workspaces, so too must our deliverables, achievements and outputs. A new way of working and cohabiting needs to be accompanied by a whole new set of workplace expectations. We must flatten the curve but also lower the bar.

Public managers are skilled in understanding the needs and nuances of communities, as certain social and cultural pressures mean that citizens may need access to a host of differing and tailored support services.

A home-based work design needs to incorporate a similar level of understanding: not everyone has access to the same workspaces (e.g. a lofty study, a child-free kitchen, a suite of ergonomic equipment and technology). Our understanding of productivity must adapt itself to these individual circumstances and limitations. Just as we reallocate services based on individual needs during a crisis, so too do public managers need to reallocate working expectations. The level-playing field of the office has been replaced with a world where social inequities, or the demands of unpaid caring work, are having direct and uneven impacts on productivity.

“Being more productive is actually made harder by the disruption in daily routines, or by having no way to escape from roommates or family” Kiran Misra reminds us in The Guardian.

We must learn to expect less, be more flexible, heighten our empathy and compassion for our colleagues and – importantly – ourselves.

Run the marathon, not the sprint

We know that a global pandemic has devastating impacts on our economy and employment. Reserve Bank governor, Dr Lowe, predicts that the unemployment rate in Australia will likely sit at 10% by June. We also understand the impact that economic anxiety and insecurity has on one’s mental health. Those that have lost work are prone to depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Those with work are made to feel a different type of pressure: to keep performing, excelling, to show their worth and value to their employers at a time where austerity and job cutting seems like a quick organisational fix.

But pumping the work accelerator pedal during this time can have adverse effects to both mental health and productivity.

Public management literature has long detailed the effects of burnout within public services. Research on Australian nurses has found that burnout is most likely to occur when demands on workers are too high and work resources are too low. This can lead to emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a reduced feeling of personal accomplishment. Another study focusing on nurses and police officers found that burnout can lead to emotional dissonance and workplace negligence.

Much of the literature’s understanding of burnout is attributed to the demands of emotional labour: the ability to induce or suppress feelings to sustain an outward appearance appropriate for a given role or duty.

For public managers and frontline staff made to work under new conditions and in new spaces, while responding to an unprecedented crisis, juggling additional carer responsibilities, unable to unwind through their typical social interactions and leisure activities, this level of emotional labour can build up.

Not only do executive management teams need to communicate effectively and be transparent about changes to future working arrangements, they also need to lead with flexibility, support and positivity. Read our seven steps to leading an effective team from home.

Who’s doing the heavy-lifting?

Helen Lewis wrote, “The Coronavirus is a disaster for feminism” for The Atlantic, citing that while the virus seems to be physically affecting men more readily than women, it’s the women that will wear the long-term effects of the pandemic.

“Look around and you can see couples already making tough decisions on how to divide up this extra unpaid labor,” she writes, “for others, the division will run along older lines. Dual-income couples might suddenly find themselves living like their grandparents, one homemaker and one breadwinner.”

In Australia, women earn an average of $200 less a week compared to men, while contributing substantially more on unpaid care work. “There may be a growing risk that women’s jobs in heterosexual households will be sacrificed so the man can continue to work,” asserts Yolande Strengers for ABC News.

Additionally, Strengers argues that single-parent households – of which 82% are headed by women – “may find the new working from home arrangements particularly difficult.”

As Heejung Chung from the University of Kent warns, “So much like the 1950s housewife, women will not only be expected to make exciting meals, keep the house clean and tidy and the children entertained – but she’ll also have to do all this while working from home.” However, Chung remains optimistic that the current situation opens opportunities for households to have new and honest conversations about unpaid labour and gendered expectations, using her piece in The Conversation to offer resources for books/websites to help split the load.

Public managers need to ensure these nuances and social inequalities are top of mind when setting expectations for their staff, particularly at a time when workers are fighting to demonstrate their value.

The present might be an opportunity to try new projects, to fail fast, to reimagine the way we’ve been working – but everyone’s experiences of the pandemic are invariably different. While some with compromised immune systems are taking extra precautions to remain safe, others with demanding carer responsibilities are safeguarding their mental health and emotional labour.

“We are going through a collective trauma experience,” says productivity expert, Rachael Cook, to The Washington Post, “We’re at a point where foundational self-care is one of the first things everybody could implement to ensure that when things settle down, when the rubble is cleared a bit, we are able to be productive because we didn’t try to just grind through this whole situation. We need to be sure we’re doing things that will help us navigate this not just from a productivity standpoint but from a human standpoint.”

It’s certainly impressive that Shakespeare managed to write King Lear (and Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra) during such a grim time in Europe’s history – and it’s no surprise how stories like this become championed into workplace mantras. But less pedalled is how the plague ravaged London’s theatre district, how it killed many of his friends and family – including his 11-year-old son, Hamnet, in 1596. Less told are stories of how people like Anne Hathaway, a playwright, poet, actor – married to Shakespeare – managed the crisis on her own terms and in her household. Now’s not the time for a productivity boom, but a re- prioritisation of our core values and a re-imagining of how we work and who it’s working for.