When you’re dealing with machines, determining productivity is easy.
If I have a piece of equipment that produces 100 widgets an hour with a value of $1 each and it costs me $50 an hour to operate, the machine is producing $50 of productive value every hour. That’s simple math.
With people, productivity isn’t as straightforward. People don’t have on/off switches. Some days they are on fire and their output is phenomenal. Other days they are sick, they get stressed, they become distracted. Often, it’s some combination of the two.
To ensure employees are performing to their full potential, employers pay attention to their people’s state of mind and their level of engagement. The smart, empathetic ones work to remove as many barriers to productivity as possible. They look to empower employees, support effectiveness and avoid the negatives associated with disengagement and turnover.
But, when the barriers to productivity are beyond anyone’s control—like we are experiencing now with COVID-19—it can be hard to figure out how to best support employees’ focus, efficiency and impact.
The reality is, there has been an unparalleled degree of disruption, and it’s been different for various types of employees.
For some, it’s been the ultimate disruption as jobs are lost and people navigate their post-employment future. Unemployment claims continue to rise as a record number of Americans find their work life upended. McKinsey estimates that the pandemic will impact 57 million US jobs.
While unemployment has skyrocketed, most people’s jobs have not gone away and they continue to work. But their lives and their livelihoods have been disrupted in new and unforeseen ways that can’t help but impact productivity.
- Working from home. Almost overnight, millions of Americans became telecommuters. Many weren’t prepared to work remotely, and they were certainly not ready to undertake this new style of working with kids, spouses, roommates and pets sharing potentially limited space and competing for attention, bandwidth and desk space.
For these employees, the prospect of returning to a physical location might be as stressful as the possibility of continuing to work from home in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Productivity varies depending on individual circumstances and even from day to day as people manage the reality of social isolation as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of telework.
- Doing essential work. These employees continue to work outside the home, ensuring continuity with essential services. This includes those in a retail environment like a grocery store or restaurant, people working at a utility or manufacturing plant, public servants like local, state and federal employees, transit workers, police officers and firefighters, among many others.
While retaining their jobs, essential workers have also undergone tremendous change and stress. They have not been able to stay home and avoid potential exposure. In some cases their workloads have increased and time off has been scarce. There have even been accusations that employers haven’t done enough to protect workers’ health and safety. So, while they have continued on the job, essential workers may be unable to be as productive as they were pre-COVID.
- Being a healthcare hero. Healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 cases in the nation’s ERs and hospitals are in their own category of essential. Their productivity in this crisis has been extraordinary, but it can come at a price. A number of healthcare workers have been infected with the virus, and some have died. And, there are mental health risks associated with this type of work including fear, stress and the potential for longer-term anxiety and depression.
So, where does this leave productivity?
Unlike the widget-making machine, people are subject to context, and that impacts how effective they can be at their job. Pre-COVID levels of productivity might not be possible across the board by every employee on any given day. We need to demonstrate flexibility, understanding and compassion for employees who are giving the best they’ve got.
Amid all the current uncertainty one key to maintaining as much productivity as possible is to be open and honest and to have a well-constructed plan that addresses employees’ real health and safety concerns. A laser focus on communication and engagement is key. Keep people informed about what’s happening today and what’s planned for tomorrow. Let them know you care. Be flexible, be real and be available.
Being a leader is never easy, but it’s less challenging when the economy is booming, employees are happy and business is good. It’s the difficult times that both test our mettle and enable us to rise to the occasion.
These times will likely redefine the nature of work and productivity and nudge us toward a new workplace reality. As HR pros, we have the unprecedented opportunity to help move to that new normal. We need to continue to think creatively about how to best empower people during these difficult times and demonstrate our ability to help maintain optimal productivity in the face of unprecedented head winds while setting an effective groundwork for what comes next.
For more discussion around this topic, check out our special round-table session, “Leading and Leaning: Employee Engagement in a Virtual Environment” with Cy Wakeman, our Chief Engagement Officer, Marcy Klipfel and myself. Watch it below.