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How COVID-19 Will Affect Worker Productivity

To limit transmission of COVID-19, workplaces across the United States (and the world) have closed their doors and asked employees to work remotely. And with so many workers suddenly teleworking, the Internet is replete with guides on how to work from home.

But what implications does this situation have for productivity, and what should employers reasonably expect from their employees?

At first glance, you might expect worker productivity to stay strong and perhaps even improve. Working from home, in general, is often very successful at boosting productivity. One study of a thousand workers found that those who chose to work from home were 13% more productive. Even better, turnover fell by half!

However, that same experiment also found that the benefits of telework evaporated when the policy was extended to everyone. The reason? The sense of isolation and loneliness workers experienced eroded their productivity. Success in remote work is highly situational and typically requires the right mindset, the right workers, and the right external conditions. The current pandemic does not provide for any of those.

·        Most people now working from home did not volunteer; they were forced into it.
·        Many workers do not occupy roles well-suited to the isolation of telework.
·        Everyone is laboring under high-stress, low-control conditions that erode focus and motivation.

The most important step that employers can take here is to manage their expectations.

Unfortunately, many bosses bear down harder than ever on their teams under these kinds of conditions. According to a Time Magazine review of what happened to employers after the coronavirus outbreak in China forced them into remote working situations, “bosses unused to employees working from home are putting them under extreme pressure, believing only increasing workload can ensure productivity at home.”

In this kind of environment, it’s very easy for measures designed to boost productivity to backfire. Putting pressure on employees to meet objectives that are no longer practical – and maybe no longer even be under their control – could induce feelings of learned helplessness, a sense of powerlessness that can lead to “performance deficits.”

Instead, it’s better to focus on achievable tasks and goals that can help workers feel in control. As Fast Company says in its own take on successfully working from home, “Self-efficacy is an antidote to learned helplessness.”

It’s not all bad news. Humans are adaptive creatures, and one of the contributors to a sudden fall in productivity is simply the unfamiliarity of the new situation. As workers become accustomed to remote working and create new routines and carve out their own success strategies, productivity is likely to bounce back. That has happened with China’s newly remote workforce as well: many employers have found that productivity rebounded after initial dips.

Flexibility will be key. “A lot of companies will be forced to go remote because of the virus, but won’t change their practices,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, told Axios. It’s not just a matter of adjusting expectations to account for reduced productivity; employers need to adapt to how their teams work in order to better support the new normal of working from home. Productivity will follow.

CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.  

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