As I See It: Ghosting Productivity
December 12, 2022 Victor Rozek
Recently, the Department of Labor announced that worker productivity fell to a level not seen since 1947. Like the proverbial fart in the elevator, it got everybody’s attention but no one could identify its source. Economists, CEOs, and government officials were all frantic for a fix but, speculation aside, nobody could identify the precise reason for the precipitous drop.
All the usual – and some unusual – suspects were trotted out. The pandemic, the shift to working from home, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and, when in doubt, blame the wobbly work ethic of Gen Z. But these unusual factors were rivaled by unprecedented ones: Strippers were unionizing, as were baristas, as were Amazon employees. In large companies and small, union activity was up. From titty bars to Twitter, worker compliance was fracturing. Elon Musk’s answer – firing half the company and expecting the remaining half to do twice the work – was not going to win any popularity, or productivity contests.
It’s all the more odd because productivity soared during the worst of the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, it was up 4.3 percent. Some experts opined that it might rival the tech boom of 20 years ago. But as Master Po might have cautioned his student: Not so fast, Grasshopper.
The problem is that statistics are bloodless and therefore often misleading. At best they only tell part of the story. By design, workers frequently have nothing to do with productivity – and sometimes impede it. Automation, robotics, and AI all boost productivity but have little to do with worker effort or commitment beyond eliminating their jobs. Regardless, productivity is defined as the measure of how much output in goods and services an employee can produce in an hour – a metric more suited to manufacturing than knowledge work.
And how do you measure the productive value of so-called “side hustles” which, for over 40 percent of working people, either augment or comprise their entire income.
So, worker dissatisfaction, a desire for flexibility, and a demand for more say in the workplace, are possible contributing factors to productivity decline. Or perhaps it was some perfect storm of events ushered in by the pandemic. But how, then, to explain the unexpected rise followed by a sudden fall in productivity during the same time period? Sometimes the answers can be found not in the things we pay attention to, but the things we ignore.
A curious trend began to emerge five years prior to Covid and amplified during the pandemic. Americans were spending more time alone. And that – potentially – is a very healthy practice with the power to influence a variety of behaviors and choices, including our relationship to work.
By 2019, there was already a 37 percent decline in the amount of time we spent with friends. While isolation is not surprising in the context of a pandemic, it’s counterintuitive when alternate choices are available. But the trend continued even as much of the world moved on from pandemic restrictions. Here are the numbers courtesy of the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey, as reported by The Washington Post: “The average American spent 15 hours per week with friends a decade ago, 12 hours per week in 2019, and only 10 hours a week in 2021”. And here’s the head scratcher: By and large, “Americans did not transfer that lost time to spouses, partners or children. Instead, they chose to be alone.”
It was French philosopher Blaise Pascal who noted: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Apparently it has been that way for a very long time. Pascal had this insight in the 17th century. (Incidentally, the IT community can proudly claim Pascal as one of its own, and not just because of the computer language named in his honor. As a teenager he did pioneering work on calculating machines.)
Americans do actually sit in a room alone on a near-daily basis. But the room has wheels and the activity is called commuting. It’s one reason we have been reluctant to give up our automobiles in favor of mass transit: for many, commuting is the only time of the day when they can actually be alone.
The pandemic both amplified and shattered our cultural propensity toward addiction and distraction. Drugs, alcohol, shopping, exercise, sex, social media, work, pick your compulsion. Billions are spent on perfecting the addiction process. Tech companies research how best to addict us to their social media platforms. (Crazy and angry are more successful than thoughtful and well reasoned.) Food companies research some combination of sweet, salty, creamy, and crunchy to make junk food irresistible. It’s not that any of these addiction providers necessarily want to kill us; they just don’t care if we die. That became clear in the alarming rise in violence and mental health issues during the pandemic. For a portion of the population, the need for temporary relief found in addictions intensified.
But for others, the limits of self-medication became more obvious. There were fewer daily distractions, and what was left wasn’t enough and wasn’t healthy. For many, their personal scaffolding collapsed. Whatever their get-me-through-the-day strategy was, it no longer sufficed. The more thoughtful among us seized the opportunity. Once the constraints of what Primo Levi described as “Compressed Identity” were loosened, authenticity emerged and began to assert itself. People lost a degree of connection to work but reclaimed long-neglected dreams and visions. Covid provided a time for reflection, for re-remembering who we are, what is important, and what gives life meaning and texture.
And all the while life expectancy in the United States dropped by an astonishing two years; a grim reminder of mortality. The clock was ticking for all of us. To be sure, many ignored the warnings and opportunities for change. But many others understood what the pandemic was telling us: (1) Figure out what you want to do and, (2) Remember you don’t have an infinite amount of time to do it.
If people craved alone time it may be because creativity is valued at work but often does not allow for the time it takes to be creative. There is great value in individual happiness and fulfillment, and an under-appreciated connection between alone time and productivity. As Paul Newman once observed: “You only grow when you are alone.”
Alone time is an opportunity for deep reflection typically not available in the workplace where the assessment of productivity is still wrongly measured in widgets per hour, not the health and happiness of employees which ultimately makes productivity possible.
IT is the connective tissue of society. There is not a single sector of the economy that is not reliant on IT. If the object is sustained productivity, it is vital that IT professionals bring their full, uncensored selves to work, aligned with and in integrity with their values.
The silver lining to this sudden decrease in productivity is that it will perhaps give us time to rethink what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And that may be the most productive thing of all.