Do recessions increase productivity and how can you maintain it?

By Hannah Kingston

Wednesday September 9, 2020


There are a wide variety of articles out there about how to improve your productivity and stay focused during the new normal. Surprisingly enough, these self-improvement articles may not be so necessary. A recent study of 3,143,270 people by Harvard and New York University found that the average person’s working day has increased by a little over 8% or 48 minutes.

With the average person commuting one hour to work each day, this leaves only 12 extra free minutes per day for the worker.

The Harvard and New York University study also found that:

  • The number of meetings per person has increased by 12.9%,
  • The number of attendees per meeting has increased by 13.5% and;
  • The average length of meetings has decreased by 20.1%.

The findings of the study show that the majority of employees are spending more time plugged into their work stations, with an increased frequency of shorter meetings.

Do recessions increase productivity?

In the early days of COVID-19, it was expected that there would be huge disruptions to the Australian workforce, half of whom work from home. Later, in the unplanned experiment, it was shown that in general terms, the work from home movement was a successful one and businesses that could work from home were not to face as severe ramifications as those who rely on face to face interactions for their businesses to work.

So, how is productivity being maintained across a workforce who have had to revamp home offices that haven’t been used in quite some time, complete large Ikea shops and/or re-purpose kitchen tables and bedroom dressers?

One of the potential reasons for the higher productivity rates among the workforce is rooted in productivity numbers from the Great Recession.  Data released by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that while the aggregate number of hours worked in the United States fell 10%, output only dropped by a little over 7%. Through this data set, it was found that often the least productive employees showcased the most substantial increase in their output, in the wake of mounting economic pressures.

The data showcases that “the productivity rise during the Great Recession came mostly because employees worked harder, not because employers kept good workers and got rid of laggards. They find that productivity at the firm they analyze rose 5.4%  during the recession, with at least 85% of that increase attributable to employees boosting their own productivity. They write that “each worker produced more output than would have been the case during normal times.”

So, how can you stay productive?

Put simply, understanding productivity can help you to stay productive!

Productivity emerges from internal and external motivators. It is born through the mental energy you are willing to give certain tasks. You may find that you have high productivity levels when you are doing work that you find beneficial to your own goals or professional development. Oftentimes, it may also be hinged simply on how meaningful or valuable you find the work to be.

Productivity is founded through a mix of factors including your personality, early development, education, training, professional environment, time management skills and support from the team around you. Productivity is something that can be worked on, through finding when you feel most energized and harnessing that energy at the right time.

Out of the factors which can help or hinder your productivity at any point of your life, you also have other circumstantial factors and lifestyle habits, that can help maintain your productivity while working, such as getting enough sleep, your diet, how much you exercise, socializing and other external stimuli to work.

Researchers have found that staying focused on the bigger picture can help to maintain productivity, especially if you are working on a large-scale project that requires you to carry out a high volume of small-to-medium tasks over a long period of time before you start seeing the dividends of this work.

If you are feeling that your productivity has been affected by the pandemic, you are not alone! There are countless ways for your productivity to nose dive, primarily, trying to do too much at once can affect productivity, it takes time for the brain to disengage from one set of tasks and to commit to another, so switching between many tasks at once will slow overall productivity.

While the jury may be out on the workforce’s productivity levels during the new normal, namely, whether or not they are affected by working from home, there is always room for improvement, and we are here to help on that front with 21 ways to stay focused while working from home.

Now read: Wondering what kind of leader you are? Here are the 7 most common leadership styles

Now read: How to get a promotion in the public sector: 10 steps for getting ahead 

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