New ways of working imposed by the pandemic have forced professionals to radically rethink their approaches to productivity, according to a recent column at the BBC’s own future-of-work portal. (BBC Remote Control, 7 January 2021)
In the piece, 38-year-old business development consultant Carol Tompkins explains that, prior to the watershed of lockdown, she tended to work between 10 and 12 hours a day – typically rising at 6:30am and going to bed after 1am.
However, in the past nine months, Tompkins has made a series of changes to halve her working hours and double her sleep. As a result, she has seen a reduction in the number of migraines she suffers – and an increase in how much she manages to accomplish in her working life.
Similarly, 44-year-old Washington, DC-based entrepreneur Steve Waters says: “Pre-pandemic, my definition of being productive was crossing as many things off my to-do list as possible. 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.”
Waters’ market-intelligence firm closed in the wake of Covid-19’s arrival in the US, leading him to set up a specialist contact-tracing logistics firm – a new dawn that also included a reassessment of his working habits. Waters now rises two hours earlier than he used to, and typically completes a full day’s work by 2pm.
“At first I felt shocked by the rapid change,” he says, “but once I embraced the discomfort, I found a deep sense of clarity. 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.”
Author and productivity coach Grace Marshall notes in the piece: “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.”
London School of Economics and Political Science assistant professor of management Shoshana Dobrow adds: “The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from believing financial or productivity outcomes are the only outcomes that matter. 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].”
What should leaders learn from this about how to manage productivity in the post-Covid world?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “On 30 September last year, our chief executive John Mark Williams joined Columbia Business School professor of management Rita Gunther McGrath and London Business School professor of management practice Lynda Gratton in a discussion on the future of work. During the event, Gratton made a brilliant observation: that the conclusions people are arriving at about productivity, amid lockdown and the switch to home working, essentially amount to anecdotal evidence – based on a sample of one, and influenced almost entirely by the personal experience of the individual who’s speaking.
“The BBC column is exactly that. We have examples of how individuals have adapted the ways in which they work, and have found that they are more productive. If that is indeed evidence for anything, it would appear to support advocates of innovations such as the four-day week. But in the main, what these individuals are pulling from their own, personal experiences may work only for them.”
Cooper notes: “What I find particularly interesting about flexible working is that people flex not necessarily to maximise their productivity, but to manage the pressures that stem from other demands on their time. For the subjects of the BBC column, their chosen methods of flexing their working days are delivering better outcomes.”
She points out: “As long ago as the 1930s – when Allan H Mogensen exhorted us to ‘work smarter, not harder’ – we have felt a constant pressure to think about what we are doing and the way we are doing it. But in the wake of more recent technological advances, two interesting things have happened: i) the idea of multitasking has become more dominant, and yet ii) some business leaders have said that we can’t multitask.
“During last year’s International Leadership Week, Australian performance expert Mark Dobson said, ‘Show me your calendar, and I’ll show you what’s important.’ He divides work into three categories:
- Stimulus Enquiries or events we must respond to;
- Obligations Tasks we must attend to, and
- Drive Activities that drive value for the wider organisation
“But overarching those categories – and the broader debate around what sort of things we should be doing to boost our outputs – the most vital point to bear in mind is: what are we actually measuring? Are we able to track our progress and demonstrate an improvement in our productivity? And, as Dobson would ask, are we helping to drive organisational value through our ‘busy-ness’? If we can get the answers to those questions right, individuals will be able to maximise their own productivity much more effectively.”
Cooper reflects: “Dobson challenged all sorts of assumptions. At one point, he focused on how people often say they are more productive either first thing in the morning or late at night. His argument was that you are probably not physiologically more productive at either of those times of the day – but that you are less likely to be interrupted by other people (see Stimulus, above), and that you are therefore able to have a much clearer run at your various tasks (see Obligations).”
She adds: “If we turn to the debate about work-life balance, we have the resource-allocation view, which sees balance as a matter of parcelling up and properly apportioning time; and then the resource-creation view, which states that if you manage your work, health, nutrition, sleep and social life holistically, you will create synergies of energy from one sphere of activity to another.
“So, by all means, let’s read and absorb these personal accounts of productivity that are emerging in the ongoing pandemic, and let’s allow those accounts to intrigue us. But to me, the important points are: what are we measuring? Is our activity driving value for our organisations? And can we honestly say, as a result of our behavioural shifts and subsequent analysis, that we are in fact more productive?”