August 1, 2021

The Lie of Office Productivity

Employers want their employees back in the office and are pulling out all the stops to convince people to return. In May, Washingtonian CEO Cathy Miller wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post suggesting there are risks to continued remote work, like employees losing their full-time status and health insurance. Washingtonian employees felt threatened and went on a day-long strike to mark their protest. Since then, bosses have tried to appeal to workers’ sense of empathy by reminding them local businesses are suffering and need their support. That’s not really working either, as people add up how much money they’re saving by not commuting or buying lunches or going to impromptu after-work happy hours. Employers are even suggesting that remote work is not as productive, but let’s be honest: office productivity is already a scam

A UK survey found that office workers tend to be productive roughly 3 hours in an 8-hour day, and a more recent study found that people who worked from home had a 5% increase in productivity. There’s clearly a gap in employer expectation and employee reality, especially considering the 8-hour work day, as we know it now, is a labor movement success intended for industrial workers, not those of us in desk jobs. Even before the pandemic, people were calling into question how productive office life is. Our bosses are pushing the idea that face-to-face interaction is the key to the best work performances, but “when firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interaction fell 70%.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lie of office productivity and recently tweeted a joke schedule of what it was like working in an office:

Office life works for many people. Having a clear separation between work and home is important, and for many, it’s an escape from a hectic home life. For those of us living in major cities in tiny apartments, the past year and a half has been a struggle finding the physical space to designate as a workstation. And some people need the social interaction of work… unfortunately, that social interaction is also what often contributes to a poor productivity model. 

When I worked in more traditional offices, I had jobs I was not passionate about so I very much wanted to go in, do my work, and leave. Add in the fact that I was often the only Black person, or one of very few, AND I was single and childfree, I didn’t have much in common with most of my coworkers. I kept to myself and at every one of those jobs, there was always a person who made it their mission to get me to talk because they thought I was shy. I just hated my job. 

Or there was the extroverted storyteller who needs a full audience as they regale us with their weekend plans. Or the person who constantly needs help and ignores your headphones. Or the person who sends an email then walks to your desk to talk about the email they just sent. 

Office life is full of distractions, not to mention the busywork so we all seem like we’re being productive– the meetings that could’ve been emails. I think a lot of bosses are realizing how little work they actually do if they’re not able to micromanage (plus they’re probably also feeling the financial pinch of paying leases for offices that have turned into ghost towns). 

Home is also full of distractions, especially if you live with other people and/or have pets. There’s no denying that, but I think working from home has been good for people who are night owls, who are easily distracted by the commotion of office life,  for those of us who experience microaggressions, and for those who need disability accommodations, although there is still much work to be done. There are always exceptions and nothing will be perfect, but it has become clearer that current expectations of office life have to change.