What does productivity mean in 2021

Productivity has become something of a cult in modern society. From factory origins in the 1800s, the quest to hack the pace of labor has since crossed from knowledge work into our personal lives. And it has become all-consuming: despite our best efforts, productivity seems to remain a teasing ideal just out of reach. No matter how hard we try, we still wish we had more time and capacity – to get more work done, to see more friends, to read more books, to do more exercise.

While our lust for productivity remains strong, the concept has undergone a tangible shift in recent years in line with a new focus on corporate responsibility, values-based culture and employee experience. A slavish commitment to unattainable super-production has quickly become unacceptable in today’s work culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend, by forcing people into frank reflection around the structure and purpose of their work. So what does productivity mean in 2021? What makes new productivity “healthy”? Is it something managerial tied to operational efficiency, or is modern productivity the property of employees, built to serve new emotional expectations around the function of work?

Our problem with productivity

The unending struggle to be more productive isn’t new. According to Sally Maitlis, professor of organizational behaviour at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the importance of the idea of productivity goes back several centuries – but it’s only in the past few decades that we’ve been hit over the head with just how vital it is to be productive. As a society, we’re obsessed with productivity – and it isn’t just about doing more; it’s about doing it faster, too. We do everything we can to increase our productivity. We push it to its limit. We maximize it. We hack it. We get an app for it.

One of the big problems with this approach to productivity is that we tend to focus almost all of our efforts on our professional lives. In the quest to get more done at work, we neglect other important parts of our life, like our health or personal development – and over the past decade, the barriers between our work life and home life have slowly been erased. Work communication tools have moved onto our private devices. We check work email first thing in the morning, and send messages last thing at night. Our leisure time is continually interrupted by vibrating phones and work notifications. We spread ourselves too thinly, then wonder why it seems that in spite of how busy we are, we’re still not getting enough done.

In some ways, this obsession with feeling productive got worse when the first lockdown hit in 2020. Faced with so much extra time at home, many of us felt like we had to “make the most” of it. It wasn’t enough that we were adapting to a strange new way of working, while simultaneously navigating the upheaval of a global pandemic; we should be writing a novel, baking banana bread, or starting a new side project. And of course, all this pressure is compounded by the fact that time moves very differently at home. Trying to face the ups and downs of remote life from a place of isolation is challenging, and in the quest to feel visible and prove we’re working, many of us started working longer hours, and ploughing through those “urgent” tasks with renewed vigour.

Redefining productivity

But along the way, something shifted for many of us. Stepping away from the 9-5 confines of office life, with its exhausting commute and harried desk lunches, gave us an opportunity to reflect on how real productivity looks to us. Is it really about crossing as many things off a to-do list as possible? Or is it about doing more of the work that actually matters to us – and in the process, taking steps towards achieving our larger goals? Productivity is massively impacted by how we feel, and perhaps for the first time, many of us have started focusing on the emotional side of productivity – believing that instead of being exhausting and stressful, it should feel uplifting and rewarding.

The pandemic gave us the space and time to redefine what productivity actually means to us. We might have had an inkling that our work/life balance was uneven before – but we were all too busy to figure out what we could do to change it. Millions of people are seeing for the first time what it’s like to have autonomy at work – to pick your own hours, to block low-value requests and interruptions, to opt out of unnecessary meetings, and instead of prioritizing the rate of production, prioritizing the quality and meaning of what we’re working on instead.

What does productivity mean now?

So what are some of the specific shifts we can expect to see more of in 2021? Firstly, it’s likely that many people will take proactive steps to set more boundaries between their personal and professional lives. When you work from home, setting boundaries is just as crucial for your mental wellbeing as it is for your productivity – and if you can’t physically leave the place where you work, you need to figure out new routines that signal work time is over. The harmful culture of “always on” is no longer viewed as the ideal, and being unavailable at work doesn’t have to be viewed through a negative lens anymore. It’s up to us to decide what justifies an interruption of our time; do we really want to break a flow state to attend an unnecessary Zoom meeting, or reply to a comment on Slack?

Hopefully, we’ll continue to see focus placed on identifying the work that actually matters, and then clearing mental space and energy for it. We’ll need to protect conditions for productive deep work – reducing pointless meetings, curbing our context switching habits, and shelving the futile concept of multitasking once and for all. We will also need to continually qualify which tasks are actually important to us, so we can deprioritize those that aren’t – even when they claim to be “urgent” – and automate unproductive tasks. If new productivity is about spending more time on the right work, instead of trying to make our time go further, we need to be pickier about how we choose to spend it.

For these changes to be permanent, they’ll need to be backed by employers, not just employees – but the pandemic has altered more than just our approach to productivity. It’s also changed what we expect and demand from employers – what we think we deserve. The past year has seen a shift to more human-centric ways of working, with a new focus on wellbeing and remote-first policies. Many companies now recognize that for employees to be happy, motivated and engaged, they need agency above all else. Allowing people to decide what productivity means to them may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employee autonomy, but it’s a good place to start.