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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, Early April, 2022

The experiment

Way back when Covid was sweeping through our lives for the first time, we had no idea what to expect. We were sent home in large numbers, teams pulled apart and projects implemented in a vacuum, in the two-dimensional digital space. We all assumed that we would get fat and lazy, that productivity would go down, and that chaos would reign.

But the opposite seemed to have happened. While we all got a bit fatter (15 pounds on average) we were anything but lazy[1]. We found ourselves working during the day and into the evening, taking breaks to go for walks, do a bit of online yoga and pick up our carryout.

The world’s workforce responded to the unprecedented amount of trust given to them, rose to the moment, and exceeded all expectations for productivity. Output per hour per person surged by nearly 5% over 2020, which is more than twice the average annual 2.4% we saw between 2005 and 2019[2].

During the pandemic we saved time commuting, found our focus and got stuff done. Productivity levels increased 5%. When we return to the office, we’re back in traffic again, chatting with colleagues, subject to unplanned interruptions and new impromptu mini-projects. Our office days stretch well into the evening as we catch up on missed mails. Is the next step a conscious workload reduction as we return to work?

The results

There are many theories explaining the details. As we gained control over our workdays, removed from the many distractions that punctuate a normal day at the office, we found ourselves able to focus and execute on tasks according to how we work best[3]. Some 90% of respondents in a recent study found that working at home made it easier to concentrate on a single activity for longer than at an office[4].

We got used to our focus and leadership also got used to higher levels of productivity, which. Remain high even as we return to the office two or three days a week.

This is possible in the inter-variant downtime because offices are still no more than 50-60% occupied. It’s still possible to find quiet corners, empty meeting rooms and places to make a call without disturbing others. The unplanned interruptions, new spontaneous projects that pop up, the impromptu pull-asides that we experienced pre-pandemic do occur when we’re physically present but not at the same rate as when the full complement of workers are present.

The bargain

A clash of ideas might be on the horizon. On the days when we’re at the office, we have our daily commutes (averaging 1:40 minutes), the added unplanned interruptions that come with proximity, the lovely, small social interactions we missed so much. Not to mention the lunches, the coffee moments and the time to help a colleague figure out his VPN.

And while we are chatting and sipping our lattés with team members at coffee corners in the real world, our inboxes busy are filling up, still living in the work-at-home focusland with that 5% increased productivity. Up to 70% of us work to catch up on weekends or evenings to catch up on emails, social feeds and to finish our tasks for the day[5]. A full-time return to work with this type of load is a physical, mental and emotional impossibility.

If leadership is keen to see bottoms return to seats in the physical office on the other side of Covid, are they prepared to forgo the 5% productivity? Will there be a concerted effort to reduce workload, deliver less, as a tradeoff for a 3-4 day in-office week?

If not, we might be in for another wave of burnout, exhaustion, illness and a second wave of Great Resignations, the post-Covid variant.

[1] Bethune (2021) “One year on: Unhealthy weight gains, increased drinking reported by Americans coping with pandemic stress”. American Psychological Association. Accessed on March 28, 2022. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2021/03/one-year-pandemic-stress

[2] ILOSTAT (2021), “Why would labour productivity surge during a pandemic?” International Labour Organization. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://ilostat.ilo.org/why-would-labour-productivity-surge-during-a-pandemic/#:~:text=The%20impact%20of%20the%20COVID,registered%20between%202005%20and%202019.

[3] Gaskell (2021) “How Productive Have Remote Workers Been During Covid?” Forbes Magazine. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2021/05/31/how-productive-have-remote-workers-been-during-covid/

[4] Gaskell (2021) “How Productive Have Remote Workers Been During Covid?” Forbes Magazine. Accessed March 27, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2021/05/31/how-productive-have-remote-workers-been-during-covid/

[5] Thomas (2021) “After Hours Emails Are Worse Than You Think”. Forbes Magazine. Accessed on March 28, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maurathomas/2021/07/26/after-hours-emails-are-worse-than-you-think/?sh=fd84e366420a