The Perfect Storm: Get Ready for ‘Productivity Anxiety.’

Photo by niklas_hamann on Unsplash

If you’ve done an MBA, you’ve probably seen something like this:

When we think of productivity, we usually think of efficiency. However, productivity is also influenced by the volume of work we actually do.

As an example: For a while in my early-20s, I did some temp work for a firm which processed workers compensation claims. As a hardcore gamer, I was an enormously efficient typist — around 120 words per minute. I could type at the pace the legal counsels spoke. I was so efficient that I got all my work done before my shift was over. However, I was not as productive as I could have been as there wasn’t a sufficient volume of work for me to do. Once I finished my work, I’d usually hang out in the break room for an hour or two — wasting my and my employer’s time.

The ideal situation for any individual or firm to pursue is one where you are doing a high volume of work efficiently. This is not only good for businesses, it is also good for individuals. This is also where a state of flow and mastery are likely to be felt.

COVID-19 Will Impact Productivity: But Not How You Think

COVID-19 presents unique challenges for firms and individuals trying to remain productive. So far, most of the dialogue has been around how to maintain efficiency — how can people get as much work done remotely at home as they do in the office? This concern makes sense as firms are concerned about being resilient in the face of global shocks.

This is a fair concern, but in the long run, remote workers seem to be more efficient than office workers. They’re also healthier and less stressed. Once we settle in to this long period of disruption, remote work will likely be a net-positive for productivity for many firms.

At the same time, COVID-19 presents a high possibility of a protracted global recession. This means, quite simply, less work to be done. We will all be consuming far less and focusing on families and communities — non-economic life.

For workers, this represents a perfect storm for productivity anxiety. Put simply, many workers are going to be much more efficient with much less to do. Going back to the original model of productivity, this means many full-time workers may be able to complete their work in only a few hours each day.

Many full-time workers may soon be completing their work in only a few hours each day.

Efficiency gains from remote work and volume reductions from a recession will tip workers towards Productivity Anxiety. Productivity Anxiety is a state of restlessness, a feeling of purposelessness and deep boredom. It also leads to a feeling of imposter syndrome, People think: “If people found out how little time I spend actually doing work, I’d lose my job.”

This isn’t a nice place to be.

Productivity Anxiety Will Become The Norm This Year

It’s hard to say exactly how it will play out from here.

One possibility is a sharp rise in the number of bullshit jobs (or bullshit tasks) workers will be expected to do. Productivity anxiety is unpleasant and inventing unnecessary jobs is a bandaid fix. Calls for stimulus are likely — not because we need the actual products and services generated by the stimulus, but because we can’t handle boredom.

The solution is to re-centre the role of play and voluntary activity as the purpose of productivity. This is why Google allows it’s engineers free time to work on side-projects. If we are able to meet all of our work needs far quicker than usual, we can choose to use that time for priorities we consider important. COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to reconsider what matters.

Productivity is great, but we need to ask: What is it for?

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