Some groups have found being productive particularly challenging during the pandemic. Half of parents working from home with children under 18, and nearly 40 percent of all remote workers ages 18 to 49, said it had been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents were also more likely than those without children to say they had difficulty meeting deadlines and completing projects on time while working at home.
It is possible that people who are working from home — a relatively small percentage of workers compared to those who cannot do their jobs remotely — also have a false sense of how much they are working. In effect, people who are working at home may be using the wrong denominator when calculating the portion of their time they spend doing work, Mr. Syverson, the University of Chicago economist, said. That could make them feel as if they are working less when they are really working the same amount. (This may not be the case for those working remotely in jobs where their output can be more quantified easily, such as sales representatives.)
“I think there is something to the fact that a lot of workers who work at home are never sort of on the clock versus off the clock,” he said. “Rather than dividing a day’s work by eight hours in the office, they divide the day’s work by the 16 hours they are awake.”
As employers continue trying to figure out how to engage their employees and entice them back to empty offices, how to get the most from their work force has become a management puzzle with wide-ranging economic implications. Already, some have announced plans to give employees more flexibility — a nod to the idea that total output and how people feel are intertwined. Twitter said that employees who are able to do their jobs remotely could work from home forever.
Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” said American culture has long believed that working longer means working harder and being more productive, despite the flaws in that way of thinking. She noted the idea that there is a “productivity cliff” — workers are only productive for a certain number of hours, after which their productivity declines and they may begin making mistakes.
“We’ve long had this really erroneous connection between long work must mean hard work and productivity, and it never has,” she said.
Productivity may also no longer be the be-all end-all it once was.
The pandemic has prompted a collective awakening, borne from a constant and immediate fear of contagion and death, over cultural priorities. For many people, especially the percentage of workers who remained employed and are able to work remotely, personal productivity — at least in the sense that it means producing the most at work, in the most number of hours — is no longer necessarily even the goal.