What even IS productivity anyway?

A full year into this pandemic thing, and we are still having discourse about who should be productive, who doesn’t need to be productive, how to be productive in the plague times, and it’s all very confusing. While there are some Objectively Bad Takes, there are also just a lot of conflicting views that are mostly confusing because they all assume we know what productivity is and what it looks like… and I’m really not sure we do.

Productivity is most often conflated with ‘getting your job done in a timely manner’, but it’s actually a technical term.

Wikipedia has a clear explanation: productivity is usually expressed as the ratio of an aggregate output to a single input or an aggregate input used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input, typically over a specific period of time.[1] The most common example is the (aggregate) labour productivity measure, e.g., such as GDP per worker.

Hmmmmm, so when we talk about productivity during a pandemic, do we mean to measure how much value each worker is putting into the economy, or do we mean to measure how efficient each process is in your job?

Let’s look at value being put into the economy. Your home is now an office (or two), a school room (or three), and you are juggling your paid employment and emergency teaching assistance for any children learning from home. You might be an childcare worker (looking after a child during working hours), you may also have taken on extra roles like cleaning service. So adding that all together, you are maybe continuing to produce as much value, or even more value, even if the volume of paid outputs in your normal specialised role were reduced.

In this post I’ll talk about ‘specialised outputs’ to mean the things that researchers and lecturers usually need to produce—chapters, publications, lessons, marking, conference papers, student emails etc. These are our measures in our performance reviews, they are what we might think of as ‘our job’. However, there are many other things we might need to do to get through this pandemic beyond the narrow scope of our position description, and we’ll explore some of those too.

Secondly, technology and equipment are essential to productivity. When I work on campus, I have access to a full scale desktop computer, purpose-built classrooms, professional recording equipment and high-speed reliable internet. At home, I have my laptop, a spare room and some moderate wifi. So my productivity suffers: it takes much more time and effort (ie work) to produce similar volume and quality of outputs.

Productivity is also hugely impacted by sickness and death in your workforce and potential workforce. So avoiding unnecessary sickness and death is vital to maintaining productivity into the future. The extra tasks and precautions around keeping you, your colleagues and your students safer from infections, directly contributes to aggregate productivity, even if it means your current specialised volume of outputs is reduced.

If you are already impacted by an underlying condition (whether physical or mental), the work of being a carer for yourself, and the extra challenges of keeping yourself safe, will also be part of what you are putting out. (And will not go away when the pandemic is over!)

***

So how might this help us to reframe ‘productivity’?

First, we see that challenges to productivity require workarounds while they are being disrupted by the pandemic : things will take longer, be more tiring, or cost more money.

There are limits to what extra work can be produced at the individual level: we only have 24 hours in the day, lack of rest and sleep is proven to be detrimental to productivity; and everyone is on a tight budget.

This means all of us need to decide what aspects of work we focus on, and which we decide contribute less to our aggregate production.

Your decision will likely depend on your financial situation. If you are a casual academic or freelancer, paid by the hour or output, you probably need to focus on outputs that you get paid for.

However, if you aren’t being paid much, or your work keeps being cut or interrupted, you may decide that the overall value to your household is greater if you take on more caring, assisting and cleaning work. (This is particularly a challenge for women with younger children.) While this might be sensible for your aggregate production as a household, it’s not great for your degree or career. *
*Also not great for any casual workers whose work you have replaced, obviously!

If you are a salaried worker, you might have already increased your productivity, for example by replacing your commute with extra working hours. Many professional workplaces have become more productive (got more work for the same money) by moving to working from home—if so, you might want to think about getting off the ‘we need even more productivity’ bandwagon, because you are already achieving at that level.

If you are a manager, you might need to be flexible about the ‘how’ of work, but consistent about the ‘what’. My teaching staff still need to be available and prepared, when and where students have been told to expect them to be. We worked out options around technology, changing the advertising, changing the time, informing students, adjusting numerical expectations around attendance etc. We therefore worked out which of our productivity measures were no-longer-useful proxies (time in a classroom, class attendance) and which were the actual thing we wanted to measure (access for students to learn with experts and with each other).

Alternatively, you might want to question the whole ‘productivity drive’. Eternal financial growth is supposed to help raise the standard of living, but workers have become exponentially more productive in the last 30 years but seen essentially flat wage growth. Academics in the UK pointed out they had effectively been suffering an annual pay cut for years due to wages not going up even as inflation did, while also being more productive (teaching more students, producing more research outputs).

Even so, we are also consistently seeing the drive to work for yet more hours. There are many work cultures where the drive is to work more hours to the extent that it reduces your productivity. (This point is made eloquently in one of my favourite talks on work/life balance by Pam Selle, ‘Go the Fuck Home’)

If productivity is supposed to drive an improvement in the standard of living—then we might want to start there and work backwards. What would it mean to live as well as possible during a pandemic? What does a ‘good life’ that contributes to the general good, look like in these times?

The safety and health of ourselves, our households and our communities is surely high on the list. Contributing to the general good through the extra tasks involved in working from home, or complying with all the rules when I go into work, are hugely productive uses of my time.

But we can also contribute through the tasks that make up our specialised roles too. While we cannot meet together in person in the same ways, universities can still offer intellectual communities. While there are many places and experiences we can’t explore, teaching and research offer chances for us to be curious and discover new ideas. While our research is made more challenging, the challenges it seeks to address remain as urgent as ever, or may even have become more urgent.

For me, pulling apart ‘productivity’ to understand what it is and why we value it, helped me to have a traditionally-looking ‘productive’ year, accept the invisible aspects of the year that were absolutely ‘unproductive’ and resist the siren-lure of eternal productivity growth fuelled by individual hours.

Ironically, taking a technical view of aggregate productivity helped me to balance my time and energy working for my job versus the other parts of my life. The ‘good life’ under COVID is not my dream life, but I can help others, grow myself, and keep my community safe and alive. That’s more than good enough.

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