Don’t mind the productivity gurus, stay in bed as long as you like

Structural changes not motivational quotes are needed before we go back to the office

More than 80% of leaders with a suddenly remote workforce said their companies were at least as productive as they had been before, a study in Europe found last year. Illustration: iStock

More than 80% of leaders with a suddenly remote workforce said their companies were at least as productive as they had been before, a study in Europe found last year. Illustration: iStock

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Last week it was Goldman Sachs. The week before it was JPMorgan Chase. It won’t be a shock if next week another Wall Street bank tells workers they should be ready to return to the office on a regular basis by June or July.

In places where the pandemic is showing signs of easing, it is fast becoming possible to imagine the resumption of some semblance of normal working life. Or is it?

I had not realised how much Covid had changed my view of normality until an unsolicited email wormed its way past my spam filter the other day to announce the best ever time management trick.

“Start a habit of waking up before dawn,” chirped someone calling themselves a “growth mindset hacker” from Silicon Valley.

Before 2020, I would have calmly hit the delete button and carried on with the day. This has been my general approach to almost every productivity-boosting idea to have come down the pike.

People I admire swear by bullet journals, time-boxing, time-chunking and other things that promise to transform useless, Solitaire-addicted sloths into hard-charging models of efficiency. I have never been able to convince myself that any are worth the faff, though I make an exception for the principles behind the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer to induce intense spurts of work through the day.

Either way, the sight of that Silicon Valley email set off an unexpected surge of exasperation. Who has time to think about time management at a time like this, I found myself mentally spluttering.

My working day typically passes in a Zoom blur of meetings and interviews, and mine is far easier than others. I am not trying to fit it in around caring for toddlers or school-aged children, unlike some exhausted friends.

“I don’t know how I’m ever going to find the time to recover from this year,” one with a big job said the other day. Considering both of us are glad to still be employed, it is no surprise to see that productivity levels seem to have risen at many businesses, including those where Covid sent people home to work.

More than 80 per cent of leaders with a suddenly remote workforce said their companies were at least as productive as they had been before, a study in Europe found last year. More than 40 per cent said they were somewhat or significantly more productive.

But that was 2020. As the pandemic has worn on this year, some are starting to worry. “We have started to see a dip in employee engagement. You just can’t sustain these types of levels of productivity,” Sunil Prashara, chief executive of the Project Management Institute, a professional group, told a conference last month.

In other words, a lot of workers need more than a bullet journal to help them deal with burnout. That is why it is frustrating to be told now is the time to get up before dawn to cram even more into our overloaded days. Indeed, the Covid crisis has exposed a fundamental flaw in the whole idea that we can pomodoro our way to productivity by changing our routine. Millions have now seen for themselves that it takes wider systemic change – like everyone being ordered to work at home at the same time – to make a lot of efficiency improvements possible.

Squeezing my daily commute from a frazzling two-hour morning rush down to a seconds-long stroll to the kitchen table means I start work earlier, and calmer, than ever before.

Once there, I don’t need to download any apps to help deal with the distractions of a busy open-plan office, because those diversions no longer exist. As US academic Cal Newport showed in his recent book, A World Without Email, the monumental time-drain caused by work email is a systemic scourge that cannot be fixed by merely fiddling with spam filters or writing better subject headings.

Like so much else in modern working life, the problem requires a far more serious structural overhaul than anything one person alone can achieve, no matter how early they spring up out of bed each morning.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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