Watch Out for the Employee Productivity Pendulum 

A misguided sense of comfort is deluding executive leaders as they recognize that remote employees are actually productive. Yes, there’s ample evidence of such productivity. Yes, it may be satisfying to see employees work longer hours and get work done. 

But there’s a cliff up ahead, and workers’ productivity is about to go over it.

The Impending Productivity Drop

While remote employees are steadily crossing items off their to-do lists, they are increasingly feeling isolated, anxious, and stressed. What’s more, remote employees are struggling to juggle work, homeschooling, and caring for elderly parents — sometimes all at once. 

We recently published survey results on the realities of working from home: Wellbeing concerns dominated the findings: 

  • 57% of employees are experiencing social isolation. 41% of management experience it, too.
  • 50% of employees have anxiety about COVID-19.
  • 52% of management say they are tired from working long hours.
  • 77% of employees say establishing boundaries between their work and personal lives is a top skill for working remotely; however, 44% don’t know how to create those boundaries.

Such wellbeing concerns will undermine productivity gains. A mixture of loneliness, anxiety, stress, and pressure to perform can lead to depression and other health concerns. 

There is no positive outcome or path forward if companies don’t do something now. 

Companies Caught Flatfooted

Before COVID-19, the overwhelmed employee was a well-researched phenomenon. In a 2014 Deloitte study, 65% of executives said the overwhelmed employee is an “urgent” or “important” trend. A 2017 survey from Kronos also warned of the impending dangers of employee burnout. 

Why haven’t companies implemented proactive measures to address workforce wellbeing problems?

Negative Workplace Culture

In my conversations with executives who are effectively leading their company’s response to COVID-19 constraints, I hear one major theme: culture. 

Companies that have intentionally created a positive workplace culture have a groundswell of support and trust. This helps mitigate inevitable confusion and communication mishaps that are common when there’s sudden change. 

Trust helps leaders and their employees have difficult conversations, like those related to wellbeing. While the nature of the discussion is sensitive, it is easier to have them when people believe they are valued. When employees believe management has their back. When the company doesn’t treat workers like a means to an end.

Conversely, negative workplace cultures are riddled with toxic behaviors, politics that interfere with progress, fear and retaliation. Employees cannot have sensitive conversations when a negative environment triggers protective reactions: Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t give your boss a reason to think you can’t do your job.

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Over-Reliance on HR to “Handle” the Issue

HR oversees the management of employee benefits. However, relying solely on HR to handle wellbeing issues is short-sighted. While HR can have benefit providers teach employees how to use their insurance coverage to address wellbeing concerns, that won’t be enough. 

The most significant influence on the employee experience is the manager. 

The problem is that companies have failed to invest in upskilling managers’ social and emotional skills: empathy, coaching, listening. This barrier prevents managers from actively working alongside their teams to make sense of how these strange times influence performance.

Negative Stigma Attached to Wellbeing and Mental Health

As someone who struggles with anxiety, I learned that there is no shame in talking about it. In fact, I have made stronger connections with some colleagues by being transparent about my anxious predisposition. 

Nonetheless, in many workplaces there remains a negative stigma associated with mental health issues, which prevents candid conversations. Consequently, it’s difficult for managers to start a conversation when they suspect an employee may be struggling with depression or feeling lonely.

Traditional Management Mindsets

Traditional management mindsets look at employment as a contract, an exchange of money for labor. Along with this mindset are views that business is no place for friendships. Or that business is not personal. These dangerous mindsets alienate people from one another. Work becomes an economic transaction.

COVID-19 Has Overwhelmed Companies

Finally, a global pandemic has made it harder to deal with loneliness, fear, exhaustion, doubt, stress, and anxiety — especially as businesses get consumed by fighting fires to keep the business going. Nonetheless, it’s important for companies to address the employee holistically if they are to get through current tough times. 

Ultimately, ill-equipped companies can survive, but at what cost? It’s the workforce that bears the brunt: furloughs, terminations, pay cuts, unhappiness. Consequently, these confounded companies will struggle with employee productivity, matters of trust, and other complications. All of which will obfuscate executives’ abilities to see just how close the productivity plunge is. What’s worse, they won’t know that employee wellbeing is a significant cause.

Shawn Murphy is the director of organizational behavior and workplace trends at Bluescape. He is the author of two books, Work Tribes and The Optimistic Workplace, published by HarperCollins. He has an MBA from Drexel’s Lebow College of Business and a Bachelor of Organizational Behavior from the University of San Francisco. Shawn was handpicked to be part of IBM’s New Ways of Working futurists group. He’s also been featured on Inc, Fortune, Financial Times, USA Today, The Globe and Mail, and BBC.

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