Work After Covid

There is a lot of speculation at present about how long the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will last. Many of us have had the realities of our employment instantly change, with remote work becoming the temporary norm rather than the exception. A lot of experts theorize that this may become the “new normal.” It seems clear that when all industries begin to re-open, they won’t immediately return to “business as usual.”

The good news is that what is normal has always been in flux. My mother recounted that, upon entering the workforce in the 1970s, sexual harassment was considered an inevitable aspect of employment. It simply had to be tolerated. Obviously this issue still exists, but it is not nearly as overt and acceptable as it was a mere generation ago.

Coming out of the pandemic, there are certain lessons to be learned in our approaches to work. Teaching remotely has forced me to utilize some tools that, frankly, I should have begun using years ago. I hope that these adaptations will be permanent improvements, not just done out of necessity until the pandemic passes.

With that in mind, I am hopeful that management will also be progressive in their approaches to how they handle employees’ future work. One of the old school mindsets that I would love to see go the way of the Dodo bird is that time is an effective measurement of an employee’s work.

During the industrial revolution, I could certainly see the value of measuring the number of hours an employee put in. In certain jobs, such as factory work, time is still definitively connected to productivity. However, increasingly our productivity and the time we spend working are two completely distinct categories.

I understand that there is a need to hold employees accountable. Some people are undoubtedly using “work from home” as an excuse to take a vacation. Workers need to earn their pay, whether at home or in an office. However, in monitoring employee performance, I feel like companies are focusing on the wrong thing—duration instead of results. This may be a consequence of the traditional model of pay that is based on an hourly rate rather than a yearly salary.

Every writer knows that the amount of time you spend writing (or attempting to write, in the vicious case of writer’s block) is in no way correlated with the quantity or, more importantly, quality of what you produce. I believe most 21st Century jobs are very similar. You can spend hours and hours working in order to fulfill your contractual obligation, but that is no guarantee of having succeeded in your role.

Like most employees who recently began working from home, I am required to send a Tracking Form each week to report what I did and how much time I spent working. Funny enough, if we were together in the same physical workspace, I would never need to justify my productivity, though my work process is no more transparent at the office than it is at home. Mere presence is enough to make everyone assume that things are getting done. The truth is that it would be far easier to waste time if we were working “normally.”

Many years ago, a poet friend of mine told me that human beings in hunter-gatherer societies were required to work approximately three hours per day to maintain their shelter and find food. This claim may be an oversimplification, not accounting for seasonal variations or activities that blur the line between leisure and work[1], but current trends are not all that different. Studies have shown that the average employee, no matter how long they sit in an office, is productive for less than three hours a day[2]. This supports the notion that companies should be tracking our effectiveness, not our time.

I understand that schedules are important. As an instructor, whether done in a physical classroom or a virtual platform, the students and teacher need to be together. However, I could hold my students captive for five hours a day and not accomplish anything, just giving them menial tasks. We’ve all been in classrooms where the instructor endlessly distributes useless crosswords, matching exercises and fill in the blanks activities, or just puts on a movie because they are too lazy to do anything else. The duration of a lesson is a poor indicator of its vibrancy or impact.

One of the items in my teaching philosophy is, “My foot is always on the gas, not the brakes.” It’s a promise to my students that I will not waste their time. I take that promise seriously. Stretching out a lesson that has been poignant, motivating, and dynamic for an extra fifteen minutes can undermine the positivity of what was already accomplished.

I recently attended a PD event about working remotely, in which one of the suggestions to avoid the distractions surrounding you at home was to list the things that distract you, then list easy and productive things you should be doing instead, and then to do the productive things. In other words, when you’re distracted, stop being distracted and do more work. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be distracted in the first place.

On resumes and job postings, we always talk about “time management.” Why don’t we talk about “productivity management”? You can force yourself to sit at a computer screen with nine windows open and push through your exhaustion to produce something coherent, sure. But if it’s not something that’s urgent, why not leave it for a day when you’re in the right mindset to excel?

Part of emotional intelligence is managing your motivation. Especially now, when we lack social contact and have terrible anxieties about the future, we are not always going to be motivated. Recognizing that you are not in the right frame of mind to be productive should be rewarded, not punished. Mandating an employee to work under those circumstances might get them to produce something, but it will probably be garbage.

As working from home becomes increasingly common and acceptable—possibly for the long haul—I would urge companies and managers to stop scrutinizing the amount of time an employee spends at a desk and start evaluating the quality of what they have produced. More importantly, if an employee who is usually highly motivated has gone quiet, check to see how they are feeling and make sure they are okay. If you want to keep outstanding people on your team, take Donn Draper’s advice by “letting [your] creatives be unproductive, until they are.”[3]

[1] Godesky, Jason. “Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time.”

[2] “How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes . . .”

Brierly, Ester. “The Average Worker is Only Productive for About Three Hours a Day.”

[3] “The Fog,” Mad Men. Directed by Phil Abraham. Lionsgate Television, 2009.

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