Low Productivity During a Crisis: How to Understand it and How to Respond

Low Productivity During a Crisis: How to Understand it and How to Respond feature image

The COVID-19 crisis has created many concerns that had to be addressed immediately; from employee health to supply chain shortages, many companies began this pandemic in a scramble.

When the dust settles, our companies may look different: businesses have fewer staff doing different kinds of product delivery in order to maintain social distancing, for instance. Companies delivering services have transitioned to working from home, and businesses are adjusting their expectations due to many increased caregiving duties for parents in their employ.

What all of this boils down to is the fact that, even when business is ramping back up in many places, there may be persistent issues of low productivity, at least compared to pre-pandemic levels of production. This in itself may feel like a cause for alarm, but recognizing the sources of low productivity during and after a crisis can be key to understanding and responding to this change.

Factors Causing Low Productivity

While no crisis is identical, there are a few different ways that productivity can be affected during this time. To focus, let's look specifically at how low productivity applies to your employees, since there are at least three different sources of low productivity, each of which requires a different response.

Many companies rely on a variety of vendors, suppliers, and outsourcing along the process for creating their goods and services. During this time, lack of productivity in any of your vendors and outsourcing creates bottlenecks for your employees. The factors you need to address on this front include creating clear communication with your employees; if they can't get the external roadblocks out of their way, they'll feel discouraged. As a company owner or upper management, it's in your best interest to identify these issues early and work toward resolution. At the same time, set reasonable expectations with your team, since you don't want them to feel low morale over reduced productivity when they cannot change that circumstance.

External, Personal-Life Factors

Right now, as in other crises, many employees are splitting their time between childcare at home and working from home. This may create challenges for typical productivity, especially if your schedule is rigid to the M-F, 9-5 workday. Realistically, two-income households or single parents are going to have to care for their children during that time, and they may alternate as best they can to both do their jobs and care for their child or children.

Issues of this sort arise even when there is no crisis, such as when a child goes through a major illness that necessitates time away from work. When possible, addressing external personal-life factors in productivity should be done with compassion and empathy. A collaborative solution with someone who is usually a high performer tends to win you loyalty as an employer, so consider carefully how you address this kind of low productivity.

Internal Morale-Driven Factors

Another concerning element of low productivity comes from the upheaval of a crisis and its effect on the mental health of a worker. Being unusually distractable, fearful, or without focus is natural during a crisis, but it is a frustrating outcome when there are no other external factors preventing productivity. For typically-productive employees, this is another source of low productivity worth approaching with a spirit of experimentation. Helping your team find what will help them manage their anxieties through an Employee Assistance Program or other resource can be helpful, as can offering the option for a lower-hour workweek during this time or moving forward.

Addressing Low Productivity in a Nuanced, Professional Way

Each of these sources of low productivity merits a different response, but none of them are quite the typical "low performer" approach that you might take during business as usual. Instead, see if there is something to learn from the situation and a way to salvage the relationship with the employee. Human resources are very valuable, and returning to high productivity is possible in many cases.

Collaboratively Set Goals and Make Changes

When external factors are a major source of low productivity, working with your employees to create plans of action can be very empowering. Use these meetings to discuss what steps you'll put in place to overcome external supply chain issues, for instance, or what workplace flexibility will help them balance childcare with work. Making this collaborative instead of top-down helps each solution actually fit the issue that's occurring. It also builds trust and rapport.

Discuss Timelines for Removing Barriers to Productivity

With internal or personal-life-related barriers to productivity, a gentle conversation about when these barriers can be removed and steps to take can be helpful. Your employees may need time to find childcare, work with a therapist to address causes of anxiety, or to shift their schedule such that they can take advantage of their best mental acuity. By letting them help you set the timeline for when they will have these things in place, even in a time of uncertainty, it gives you natural check-in points where you can address any persistent issues and reformulate a new plan if needed.

Offer New Workplace Flexibility In Order to Work Toward Better Productivity

One of the paths to handling all forms of low productivity is to rethink rigid scheduling. Many employees may find that their home life works more smoothly with a schedule that is skewed toward late nights, weekends, or staggered work in two-hour bursts. This is a time when making these concessions may be not only a good idea, but necessary to improve productivity. If, for instance, a two-income household can stagger their work time so as to have an adult "off work" to care for their children at all times, the quality of both people's work will go up.

You also may find that switching from traditional jobs to 30 hour a week positions grants flexibility and allows your employees to work less, giving them more time to exercise, cook, care for others, and generally feel balanced. Lower stress ends up making their 30 hours very productive, leading to a per-hour productivity increase for you and your business.

Nicholas Rempel