How the pandemic could redefine our productivity obsession

by Hannah Hickok

Accelerated changes to work-life routines are leading some people to radically rethink their approach to productivity – and even change the quality of their lives.

Carol Tompkins’ weekdays used to look very different. Before the pandemic, the 38-year-old business-development consultant woke up around 0630, commuted to her job at an accounting software firm in London and worked 10-to-12 coffee-fuelled hours before going to bed after 0100.

“The pandemic helped me realise I was not as happy, fulfilled or healthy as I want to be,” says Tompkins. So, in the past nine months, Tompkins has halved her working hours, doubled her sleep, reduced her migraines – and even increased how much she accomplishes in a day.

Many of us can probably see ourselves in Tompkins’ pre-pandemic life. We live in a society obsessed with productivity – increasing it, hacking it and pushing its limits. And, in ways, this push for productivity has gotten even worse since the onset of the pandemic as people fret over how they’re ‘making the most’ of their newfound time at home. (That pressure to finally get fit or finish that home-improvement project doesn’t help, either.) Additionally, as companies have shifted to remote work, ticking off every single to-do has become a way for employees to prove productivity for supervisors who no longer sit within eyeshot.

As the pandemic carries on, we’re not going to become less obsessed with productivity. However, we do have a rare opportunity to reassess what productivity actually means.

Tompkins is one of many redefining productivity as a result of the pandemic, finding that the old definition of nonstop grinding hasn’t served their health, wellbeing or even success at work. Now, some are taking a critical look at their choices, and rewriting productivity to include caring for their holistic selves. Taking a step back hasn’t only helped these workers slow down – it’s also opened up the potential for a better quality of life.

Changing ‘internalised values’

If we feel programmed to be productive – in ways, we are. Our cultural obsession with productivity has deep roots.

“The importance accorded to ‘being productive’ goes back several centuries,” says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “But [particularly] over the last 30 years, [advocates] relentlessly beseeched us to improve our personal productivity, strive to become more efficient and effective and to get more done, faster. Many people have so internalised these values that change is no simple matter.”

This push for productivity has gotten even worse since the onset of the pandemic as people fret over how they’re ‘making the most’ of their newfound time at home means that even as conversations around work-life balance have increased over the years – and especially amid the transition to remote work – “the productivity discourse is still fantastically dominant in our society”, and it’s not easy to snap out of the mindset. “People resist trying new things because there’s comfort in the status quo,” says Grace Marshall, productivity coach and author of How to Be Really Productive: Achieving Clarity and Getting Results in a World Where Work Never Ends. “There’s a difference between knowing something is a good idea versus experiencing it.”

Now, however, workers haven’t had to opt into change. The pandemic foisted it upon us. “More people are actually seeing what it’s like to have the autonomy to choose where and when we work, rather than have arbitrary commutes and office hours. For some, simply stepping off the treadmill and having time to think has resulted in shifts in values,” adds Marshall.

“Pre-pandemic, my definition of being productive was crossing as many things off my to-do list as possible,” says 44-year-old Steve Waters, an entrepreneur based in Washington, DC. “I had the sense that I was spreading myself too thin, but I’d also [become] too busy to figure out how to change. If it wasn’t for the forced pause brought on by the pandemic, I’d likely still be working that way.”

Tompkins was caught in a similar cycle until it was interrupted by the pandemic. She noticed the imbalance in her productivity focus: work far outranked other aspects of life. “Before, only my professional goals mattered, and everything else, including my health, was pushed to the side,” she says.

Both Waters and Tompkins have changed their relationship with the traditional definition of productivity. They’re among the workers realising that productivity isn’t just output, but that it also includes doing things that move them closer to overarching goals. Simply, the time spent outside of working on their careers – and instead working on themselves – is productive, too.

For Waters, the pandemic-induced closure of the market-intelligence firm he owned led to a bracing wake-up call, and a new approach to productivity. “At first I felt shocked by the rapid change, but once I embraced the discomfort, I found a deep sense of clarity,” he says. “This led me to implement essentialism into my daily routine: the idea of doing less, but better. I went from being focused on a variety of things to being laser-focused on the most important thing.” He launched a new business: CONTRACE Public Health Corps, the first American organisation to nationally recruit individuals for contact tracing. Now, Waters wakes up two hours earlier than he used to and works a full day by 1400. He’s cut down on email, calls, social media and news, and spends less time over-analysing his decisions and proactively disengages with toxic people.

Pre-pandemic, my definition of being productive was crossing as many things off my to-do list as possible – Steve Waters

Tompkins slashed her hours without slowing productivity by delegating more and limiting her availability for meetings. With more sleep, she brings fresh energy to her work, which has helped her make more impactful decisions and hit her targets, so her manager is happy, too. In her new-found leisure time, Tompkins can be with her family, head outside or meditate. (Pre-pandemic, she considered the latter “a complete waste of time”.) “I’m committed to sticking to these positive changes, even when life goes back to some kind of new normal,” she says.

Will the door stay open?

This new holistic perspective on productivity is improving many workers’ lives, giving them satisfaction, balance and success at once. However, even as employees may have found the key to a better place, they’re not the only factor in whether the door stays open.

Companies that employ these workers have to buy into the new framing of productivity, too or things will go back to the way they were. To adopt long-term changes, most need the sign off from their employers. And even though research shows corporate productivity has, in many cases, increased since the onset of Covid-19, experts agree that even a global pandemic can’t reverse deeply ingrained corporate productivity paradigms in the span of a year.

“For organisations to make these shifts worldwide, we would need to see incentives change, increased regulation or enough leaders and companies exert social pressure and create norms,” explains Michael Parke, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and supervisor of the remote-productivity study. “Otherwise, my concern is that once things ‘normalise’, we will return back to pre-pandemic times.”

If that happens, it could lead to conflict between hiring companies and the talent pool. “The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from believing financial or productivity outcomes are the only outcomes that matter,” says Shoshana Dobrow, assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Yet change needs to happen at a systemic level, or we’ll see more mismatches between what individuals want and what organisations are willing to offer, and more people may choose to opt out [of the existing system].”

As a business owner himself, Waters agrees. “There will be a divergence between business owners who understand our new approach to productivity and are open to changes, and those who attempt to revert back to the pre-pandemic status quo,” he says. “Business leaders will have to empower employees that have discovered new mindsets that work better for them – or risk losing them to companies that do.”

For her part, Tompkins is looking to the future with a balance of optimism and realism. She plans to keep up her new approach and foresees potentially returning to the office on a more flexible schedule. “My boss is happy because the work is still getting done right, milestones are being met and productivity has not faltered,” she says. “I have the sense that management is happy with how things have changed, but [nothing’s been decided yet].”

Although it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen when work settles into its post-pandemic state, workers can always choose to tune into their relationships with productivity.

The pandemic has provided a rare opportunity to re-evaluate what it means to ‘be productive’ and given workers the chance to reset for better selves – and, hopefully, better workplaces, too.