September 3, 2021

Productivity Peaks And Imagination Gaps

4 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

There’s been a near-obsessive focus on productivity over the last year. At the start of last year, many of us were forced to work from home for extended periods of time. In fact, at one point in Marchone third of the world’s population were under orders to stay home. That is 2.6 billion people—more than were alive in the world during WWII. 

We were forced, in other words, into a largescale experiment in remote working. To put it into perspective: in May 2020, 42% of Americans were working from home full-time. Before the pandemic, it was only 2%. In Europe, 76% of companies had flexible work policies in May whereas only 15% did before the pandemic. 

“At one point in March, one third of the world’s population were under orders to stay home.”

Initially, business leaders worried the shift to remote work would negatively impact productivity. This may be one reason for the rise in ‘tattleware – or productivity-tracking software. Soon, however, studies started coming out showing remote working during COVID improved productivity, or at least kept it steady. However, data also started to come in showing the remote working was negatively impacting innovationtrust in our colleagues, and our sense of connection with each other at work. 

Meanwhile, as vaccination programmes roll out and lockdowns begin to lift in some countries, many organisations are beginning to make big decisions around returning to work. They have to decide how much remote working is here to stay, what hybrid working might look like, what technologies are needed to support it, and the list goes on. Some companies have already begun vacating or reducing physical offices, and offering people the option of ‘forever’ remote working because it’s more efficient. Others are investing in even more office space because collaboration, connection and innovation matter to them. 

The challenge is, we’re still knee-deep in uncertainty about what the next few months might bring, and the data we might use to inform our decision-making is not conclusive.

Let’s look at the data on productivity. Some of the data says we are more productive because we’re working remotely. But might there be context we need to consider as we look at the data? For instance, could it be we’re more productive because we don’t really have much else to do in our social lives (For some of usand maybe I fall into this categorythe most exciting part of our week is a trip to the shop for groceries)? Or because we’re worried about keeping our jobs in an uncertain economy so we make sure to work harder? Or because we’re channeling our general anxieties over a pandemic we cannot control, into the tasks in our work that we can control? 

Or are we even less productive than we might otherwise be working remotely because we’re stressed and anxious about the pandemic? Because the absence of novelty and physical activity is negatively impacting our brain plasticity? Most importantly, will our peaks in productivity stay in the long run? 

Which leads to the question: is our current pandemic-reality an accurate approximation of what our post-pandemic reality will be? Or are we living in a mirror universe that will slowly fade once the pandemic (hopefully) draws to an end, and we begin both healing and negotiating our new world?  

“Is our current pandemic-reality an accurate approximation of what our post-pandemic reality will be?”

Answering the above questions is made even harder by the fact that human beings are not always the best decision-makers. Our brain is formidable at processing information. It allows us to quickly make decisions in a complex world saturated with information. It does so by using mental shortcuts, also known as heuristics. These are rules of thumbs that automatically kick in when we engage with the world. Our brain doesn’t have to sweat the small stuff, but instead processes key information and moves on. 

Mental shortcuts help us make quick and effective decisions. However, they can lead to errors in judgment and biases in our decision-making. This is trade-off where we efficiently process lots of information, but don’t always get it right. 

Some biases to consider in the context of implementing a remote-working policy over the coming months might beAmbiguity bias (we’re not great at uncertainty, and prefer knowns). Bandwagon bias (we’ll follow what others do, so if one large company announces they’re going forever remote…). Strategic misrepresentation (we tend to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits). Projection bias (we assume future preferences will match current preferences). Status quo bias (we prefer maintaining status quo when we can). Feature positive effect (we tend to focus on what is present over what is absent). And it goes on. 

So what can we do if we sometimes process the world through bias, in the same way Instagram processes the world through filters? 

Imagine better. I don’t mean imagination unfettered, necessarily. Rather, imagination anchored in deep empathy and structured approach. 

Here, we can learn a lot from speculative fiction authors. ‘World building’ is a core element of a good speculative read. Think entering the Republic of GileadUsing statistics to predict the future in Asimov’s Foundation SeriesWalking into the closet to Narnia. And more recent works by Nnedi Okorafor, Ann Leckie, or Becky Chambers that are rich in the worlds they build. If these don’t make sense to you – it might be time to start imagining more.  

“If we were to imagine more effectively, we wouldn’t be falling back on our mental shortcuts but instead approaching the challenge in a more structured and deliberate way. “

The worlds speculative fiction authors bring to life are rich, tangible and grounded in our world without being restricted by it. Most importantly, they can be freed from the biases or errors of judgment that anchor us in our current world. In other words: if we were to imagine more effectively, we wouldn’t be falling back on our mental shortcuts but instead approaching the challenge in a more structured and deliberate way. 

Deep empathy matters here. Speculative fiction authors dive deep into their characters to build the world they’re in, down to the architecture and how annoying paperwork can be for humans and aliens alike. Similarly, we need to remove ourselves from our current world, in order to constructively consider what people might feel, think and do as lockdowns lift, vaccination programmes are rolled out, etc. By doing so, we might be in a good place to speculate how we can build the best working experiences for people as they return to an uncertain world. Or we could just be imagining all of this?

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