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Lessons From the Pandemic’s Unequal Effects on Productivity

The narrative surrounding productivity during the pandemic seems to be sending two opposing messages simultaneously.

Some are reporting significant gains in overall workforce productivity; many others are reporting the opposite. In reality, the answer depends on the organization’s handling of the pandemic from a managerial standpoint, and the distinction offers lessons that are applicable in any circumstance.

You won’t have to look very far to find reports of companies that were bracing for the worst, but ultimately found that their employees were more productive during the pandemic, often a result of the shift to remote work. A recent study conducted by Microsoft, for example, found 83% of leaders reported their teams were equally or more productive as a result of switching to remote work during the pandemic. It’s important to note that only 15% of those surveys had flexibility work policies prior to the pandemic, compared with 76% today.

At the same time other reports warn of a mental health crisis that is directly impacting workplace productivity. In fact, a CDC study conducted between late April and late July of 2020 found that one third of Americans were coping with depression or anxiety symptoms in the wake of COVID-19. Another study conducted by Clutch in July of 2020 found that only 24% of workers feel more productive, while 39% experienced a noticeable decrease in their productivity.

In reality the pandemic increased the corporate productivity gap, furthering the gulf between the companies that are managing their staff effectively, and those that are not, according to a recent report published by the Harvard Business Review. The article suggests that a majority of organizations are experiencing declines in overall productivity, while others are experiencing a boom. “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,” wrote authors Eric Garton and Michael Mankins of Bain & Company. “Companies that were stars before the pandemic have continued to shine. Those with less stellar performance have struggled mightily.” The authors explain that those organizations that are in the top quartile of managing scarce time, talent and energy are 40% more productive than the rest.

Another recent study conducted by Microsoft suggests a few key differentiators between those organizations that are experiencing increased productivity and those whose employees are struggling. They include authenticity, strong workplace relationships, a feeling of inclusivity, and feeling like they can be their authentic selves at work. “Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly — inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today,” wrote Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in the report. “All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”

The pandemic had significant impacts on mental health and wellbeing, and those effects had the potential to dramatically reduce overall productivity. Organizations that were immune to those negative effects put a strong emphasis on supporting employee wellbeing. At the same time — and contrary to previous misconceptions regarding remote work — the majority of workers have proven themselves to be more productive when given more flexibility in regards to when, where and how they work.

As the pandemic nears its end the productivity gains offered by more flexible and remote work are still there for the taking, however, there will still be a strong need for emotional support and effective team management moving forward. Those organizations that take the lesson of this past year to continue providing flexibility coupled with an open and inclusive working environment will ultimately find themselves on the right side of the productivity gap.


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