Coronavirus Pandemic

Productivity: just common sense?

By Lizzie Richardson

Working lives have changed quite dramatically since the social distancing measures implemented in March as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the privileged minority who can continue to work from home, this period has in some cases provided an opportunity to get stuck into a backlog of working tasks that have built up amidst the distractions of a busy office. In other situations though, getting work done has been much more challenging for a whole variety of reasons. As a result, a barrage of advice is now available to address these challenges “at” work, either giving instructions on how to be productive, or indeed the opposite – how to ignore “productivity pressure”

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash.

But what exactly is productivity and why do we turn to this to make sense of our working lives? The answer to the first question is, on one level, relatively straightforward. Productivity is a macroeconomic measure used for modelling and forecasting the efficiency of enterprises and national economies. Very basically, it is a means to express the rate of output per unit of input. It is therefore an indicator that foregrounds the importance of time, calculating how quickly a specific yield can be produced given a certain level of input.

If we were to trace a backstory of productivity then, it might begin with the containment of time into a standardised unit of measure through scientific techniques (“clock time”[1]), measures which then allow the contents of these units of time to be managed. Famously credited with the development of such “scientific management” is Frederick Taylor, whose theories originated in the USA at the turn of the twentieth century and diffused, somewhat inconsistently, across Europe. Although scientific management is normally associated with commercial production and thus the workplace outside of the home[2], it was from the beginning “a front advanced jointly in public and private spheres”[3] that recognised the difficulties of clearly defining working tasks both spatially and temporally. From the late nineteenth century, guidebooks for housewives in the USA provided strategies for managing a range of time-related issues in the home such as interruption, distraction and the challenge of juggling competing tasks.

As well as being closely tied to domestic spheres, the techniques developed in scientific management also paved the way for the more individualised notions of productivity seen today. Taylor and colleagues developed methods for calculating exactly how long it should take an individual to complete a single task so that the efficiency of an entire production process could be improved. These methods were not only used in manufacturing, but were also adopted in offices of the 1920s and 1930s to deal with the paperwork arising from mass production and consumption, meaning that offices were often strictly divided and laid out according to specific clerical roles.

Photo by Agto Nugroho via Unsplash

The self-help guidance for productivity emerging in response to the increased prevalence of home working as part of social distancing draws on these earlier attempts to calculate and manage time but with one significant difference. The impetus to be productive is embodied in the worker themselves, rather than occurring as an external directive from managers. Indeed, productivity has become the common sense way for people to relate to work, either in conversational exchange (“I was so productive today!”) or through the cacophony of competing instruments for “getting things done”[4], each of which claim to be able to shut out the noise and provide quiet space and time for knuckling down, which is particularly important given the sociality of office environments like co-working spaces that have been a focus of my research. And in case there was any doubt, the new familiarity with home working has made it obvious how these technologies for engaging the self with its performance extend beyond work to also manage a productive social life.

But as with any claim to a universal truth, the “common sense” of productivity should be challenged. In its current usage, productivity is a license to individualise measures of work limits so that it becomes difficult to formulate a collective politics around working practices. Further, productivity also proposes that output rather than process is of prime importance in how people relate to their work. Of course, this is not to say that productivity is inherently bad. It provides an important narrative for people to stitch together episodes in what are often, or perceived to be, uncertain working lives. But rather it is to caution against privileging productivity as the primary way of approaching the entwinement of work and life at this time, and indeed any other.


[1] The significance of clock time for industrial rhythms of work-life in the UK is set out famously by E.P. Thompson’s (1967) essay “Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism.”

[2] On the constitutive role of women’s work and feminist politics to critique of technologies, see my essay (2018) “Feminist Geographies of digital work.”

[3] From Melissa Gregg’s (2018, 23) Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy.

[4] Adrian Mackenzie (2008) discusses how productivity is both internalised (as personal mantra) and externalised (through techniques and technologies) in his essay “The affect of efficiency: personal productivity equipment encounters the multiple.”

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

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