Fraser Communications

How will productivity be defined in a post COVID world?


“What good shall I do this day?” is how itinerant do-gooder Benjamin Franklin defined productivity. He awoke at 5am, kept busy until 10 at night, and filled his days with such accomplishments as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, updating his Farmer’s Almanac, and making sure Thomas Jefferson and John Adams didn’t strangle each other over the formula to the great American experiment.

Later, factories measured productivity by industrial output. Early Titans of Capitalism cared not a whit about their workers as long as they met the production quota needed to build their gargantuan mansions on the Long Island Sound. Productivity was measured by the amount of products that came off the assembly line divided by the time it took to make them, regardless if an arm was lost in the process. Productivity was brutal. Most of the mansions were ugly.

The post-WWII office place was no less brutal. GI Bill-educated white-collar workers were expected to be in their seats at nine and leave no earlier than five. Productivity was measured by attendance, typing a lot, being visible to everyone, and staying past the boss. Pensions and insurance were perks of the job, as companies wanted employees to think of them as family so they wouldn’t care too much about seeing less of their own.

In the 80’s and 90’s, software was invented to make us so efficient, productivity would skyrocket, even though productivity was still loosely defined by vague factory criteria, which didn’t exist in most of the jobs of the late 20th century. But layer upon layer of software had the opposite effect, as those who toil in noisy open office spaces and spend three hours a day going through old emails can attest. Efficiency on mundane tasks is not productivity. Being productive figuring out the software that’s supposed to make you more productive is not productivity.

The pandemic unleashed a welcome conversation about work and life, and what it means to be productive. The remote work experience unleashed the technology that untethered the worker from the office. Companies saw the savings in lower electric bills, less square footage of office space, and fewer harassment lawsuits. They reinforced their glee with the rationale that productivity was skyrocketing. But recent employee surveys report that 42% of women and 35% of men feel burned out more this year than last. Even though workers are getting more done, they have never been more miserable. This doesn’t mean remote work has failed. Two-thirds of the women in a Flexjobs survey said they want to work remotely at least three days a week. Well over half the men said the same. But we need to redefine what it means to be “productive.”

In our post COVID world, employers and economists are going to have to cobble together a much better definition. It’s time for the worker to go back to what Ben Franklin asked, “What GOOD shall you do this day?” Productivity devoid of accomplishment is empty. Work that doesn’t reward with accomplishment is drudgery. Drudgery is unhealthy. Unhealthy workers are less productive. See how that works?

In 2022, let’s figure out how to accomplish more, and work less.

Written by Bruce Dundore, Creative Director – Fraser Communications

Share This: