Why Lower Productivity Isn’t The End of the World, and How to Respond

Avatar by Chelsea Olson Published Jan 12, 2021 Last updated Jan 12, 2021

No one’s experience of 2020 has been quite the same, but many companies, especially those relying on remote work and knowledge work, are seeing some decreased productivity even from high achieving workers. There are practical concerns that create these issues, such as a lack of available childcare in a dual income family with children, and emotional concerns, such as the fears of what the COVID-19 pandemic was going to look like. Others who haven’t worked remotely or who fear an impending furlough or layoff may have productivity issues as well.

As a leader in your team, you’ll want to address any signs of low productivity with a holistic approach, because simply asking or telling teams to work harder may not produce the results you want at this juncture. While some of the concerns mentioned here are heightened during a public health crisis, others can crop up from time to time for any workplace. Use these thought processes to help you address and improve productivity without discouraging workers.

Factors Impacting Productivity

In any work environment, at least three elements are influencing the worker: their outside life, the work itself, and the work culture. While many would argue that your work and your work culture are too intertwined to be separated, it can be helpful to think about them separately in order to understand what your team may need.

Outside Life

These concerns are some of the ones that have been the most challenging over the past 10 months: illnesses, worries about families, increased isolation, childcare changes. Many professionals will experience a loss of productivity during times when they are dealing with health or family concerns. Because these items can be resolved over time, it is often valuable to give team members leeway during their low productivity due to outside life factors, since they tend to return to their old productivity eventually.

Work Issues

For many companies, the actual work being completed got more complicated, precarious, or frustrating during 2020. Supply chain issues, inconsistent demand, and new regulations that attempted to keep people safe from virus spread all impacted how people felt about the work they were doing and how effective they could be. These work issues have to be parsed in the same way that any team would evaluate and solve problems: are they within the control of the professional or is the low productivity external to them? Answering this question helps you decide how to respond.

Work Culture

There are many elements of work culture, and they also weave into actual work issues as well, but some could be things like the shift from in-person office work to remote work or to a new schedule, new ways of communicating with one’s team, frustrating management or coworkers, methods of management that require a lot of administrative tasks outside the work itself, and more.

Do an Output Analysis: What is Needed Now?

When your team experiences low productivity, the first thing to consider is what the impact of that low productivity may be. For a high-achieving team, there may be no actual consequences to moving at a slightly slower pace, especially if clients or other stakeholders are still happy with the results and deliverables. Letting your team know that the lower output is noted can allow you to caveat what might actually be a problem, such as continued low output during a crucial busy time, or persistent low output over a certain amount of time.

Because many of the factors impacting low productivity now should not continue forever, this output analysis allows you the freedom to see if some of the issues go away on their own without demoralizing team members who are in a rough patch but will reemerge. This is what we mean by lower productivity not being the end of the world: focus on the actual impacts created, rather than getting anxious about the productivity lag itself.

However, when you determine that there are material consequences to the low output, you can still address it in a variety of ways.

Address Remote Work Challenges

When team members are struggling under remote work conditions, it’s worthwhile to find customized solutions if the team believes it will change output and productivity. For instance, if one or two members of the team can safely work indoors on-site instead of remotely in order to gain their former productivity, you may want to make that exception. You’ll have to analyze on a case-by-case basis, but if your team has hunches about what is causing their work-from-home lag, consider making changes in response.

Engage Team in Self-Analysis

Beyond work from home, other factors may be impacting the productivity concerns you’re seeing. Spend some time either as a group or in one-on-one meetings (depending on the source of the low productivity) and talk through what has changed in the three arenas above that could impact productivity. The goal is to spend some time thinking about what changed to reduce their productivity in the first place and to ideate with you about what could help. This takes away some of the sting of a low output discussion by recognizing that factors other than personal motivation affect productivity, and modifying those inputs can affect the outputs.

Set Achievable Goals With Team Members

When your team finishes their self-analysis, ask them to come up with some of their own benchmarks for ramping back up in productivity. You can weigh in on the timeline based on the needs you know your team has, but having your team show some buy-in to the changes will have a positive result. These goals should be SMART goals, so that you have something to circle back to in the future and to evaluate.

Set Times For New Conversations If Now Isn’t The Time For a Ramp-Up

In the case of health concerns, childcare issues, or other major productivity changes that cannot be addressed immediately, focus on setting a time for a future conversation to discuss what, if any, new options have emerged. Because trying to solve low productivity in the midst of a personal crisis tends to be ineffective, this commitment to a future conversation holds you both accountable but avoids demoralizing a team member for things they cannot currently change. Not everyone’s circumstances fall into this category, but it’s an important option to keep handy.