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29 October 2020

THE COVID PRODUCTIVITY TAX – Reduce the impact on your business


3 Solutions to boost your team’s motivation and engagement in the “new norm”


A recent LinkedIn chat with one of my connections, raised the question whether I’d heard the expression “Covid Productivity Tax”.  I pinged back a response saying I’d never heard of it, but it roused my curiosity and I started to research the concept. 

When we first entered the lockdown situation in early 2020, and business leaders were forced to find ways to continue trading remotely, there was a fizz of speculation as to how the “new way of working” would change the face of business and commerce for ever; how great it was to work from home, find work life balance, save hours of commuting on trains or buses.  This initial excitement and positivity was fueled by a couple of months of fantastic sunny weather.

The public were given “permission” to leave the house for up to one hour a day to exercise, which saw a massive upsurge in walkers, cyclists and runners across the country.  In our house, we took great delight in pushing the boundaries and enjoying a lot more than our allotted 60 minutes out in the fresh air and sunshine.  


Encouragingly, the fitness arena experienced a sellout of home gym & exercise equipment, dumbbells, static bikes and treadmills.  Other industries that experienced a massive surge in sales, provoked by the lockdown, included the electronics market which practically ran out of laptops & VoIP phones, as companies scrambled to get teams up and running from home.

The clothing industry enjoyed a spike in demand for leisure and comfort wear as we realized we wouldn’t have to get suited and booted to go to the office, but could roll out bed half an hour before sitting down in comfy joggers and sweatshirts.   Supermarkets were also hard pushed to recruit sufficient drivers to manage the overnight growth in their home delivery services. 

Environmentalists were having a field day demonstrating that, Heh!, we can live without cars, and indeed the air quality improved within weeks of the country being shut down.  Bird song could be heard again, and the roads were eerily, but pleasantly quiet.

And so, the WFH (Working from home) economy was born ……………



The storm clouds, however, are gathering on the horizon as, more than six months into the pandemic, the perceived initial benefits the working population enjoyed, combined with the financial support from the government, that business owners have relied upon, are beginning to dwindle.

Reality is looming and, much like the newly emerging symptoms of “Long Covid”, the long term impact of the WFH concept is starting to wear thin.  Cracks are appearing on the surface of the shiny new world we were envisaging.

A plethora of surveys and research has started to emerge, demonstrating how the strain of working remotely is having a negative impact on employee wellbeing.  A recent study from Intuo has highlighted that:

  • 8% of employees are struggling with motivation level
  • 17% of people surveyed are finding it challenging to communicate and collaborate effectively
  • 19% of workers are feeling lonely and isolated
  • 22% of remote workers finding it hard to create those necessary boundaries that enable us to keep our work and home lives separate. 

The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane, normally makes regular visits around the country, enjoying chance conversations with the public on his travels.  He commented that “not having to commute generally leaves workers happier, but there’s a darker side to prolonged lockdown”.  Mr. Haldane recognises he’s suffering from a growing disconnection with the people around him, and working from home has probably reduced his own capacity for creative thought.

A recent special report on hybrid working, from Management Today, does hint that generally, employers find their staff are more productive now than they were last year, but cite some worrying signs.

The increase in general happiness coincides unsurprisingly with increased levels of anxiety and depression. The increase in happiness is not universal, and women have seen a lower increase in happiness compared to men.  Black respondents were the least likely to feel empowered, and black males in particular feel less trusted, less happy and enjoy work less, than their peers.  The 19-24 age group, have the lowest increase in happiness, possibly due to the lack of social connection, and perceived sense of a loss of development opportunities.


So, all the above raises the question whether WFH is the key to greater productivity, or a recipe for disaster?  Headlines about the topic run the gamut, and for good reason: whether or not a firms’ employees are productive at home has a lot to do with the work they do, their own individual circumstances and countless other variables.  My blog Six Lockdown Survival Guidelines for SME’s provided key guidelines to reduce possible loss in productivity, and anxiety in employees having to juggle their own work with space in the home, kids needing home schooling and the likelihood of not being able to switch off from work at their normal end of day time. 

“Research shows that managers who cannot ‘see’ their direct reports

sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working”

– HBR “Remote Managers are having trust issues” July 2020

In the light of 6 months experience of employers managing their remote teams, the prevalence of the remote work is raising new issues for leaders.  The most common concerns leaders currently have, about employees working from home are: 

  • Employees are less productive, encounter distractions at home, don’t manage their time well and struggle to prioritise work correctly
  • Communications are fragmented and people are left out of the loop
  • Spontaneity is lost.  Great ideas happen at the watercooler and important information is exchanged in chance meetings or when people stop by each other’s desks.
  • Connection between the company and employees is weakening. Company culture is being eroded, relationships are suffering, and on-boarding new employees into the team is difficult.

Deloitte’s Analysis “Working During Lockdown, The Impact of COVID-19 on productivity and wellbeing, surveyed 1,321 UK workers and found that 38% of workers say lockdown has had a negative impact on their wellbeing.  When asked what they miss about their usual workplace when working from home, 45% of respondents like the social interaction, 31% feel it’s more collaborative, and 25% feel they can network more easily.



Many of these issues are related, for example- improving communications between team members can put projects back on track and fuel spontaneity.  To build a strong foundation for your remote teams, we need to focus on three key elements – productivity, communication and connection. 

1.  Maintaining Productivity

The secret to productivity, as anyone that’s read many of my previous articles will know, is providing your team with structure that provides routine and focus.  It will provide the flexibility needed to make working from home really work for both your business and it’s employees.  The 3 key steps to enabling productivity and setting remote teams for success are

Clear understanding of roles and responsibilities – revisit roles and responsibilities with remote team members, to identify anything that’s changed, and ensure leaders and teams are on the same page.

Establish SMART goals – to help employees prioritise work correctly and stay focused

Create Structure that keeps teams focused and on track – with short, intentional meetings, that start and end the week, AND bookend the day to ensure everyone switches off and leaves their ‘virtual’ office.

2. Keep Communications Flowing

The flow of essential information throughout the workplace is the lifeblood of our organisations.  Just as our circulatory systems keep us hydrated, oxygenated and protected on a cellular level, the healthy flow of information  within a company carries crucial information from the heart of the business to its outermost reaches. Note, the emphasis on “healthy flow of information.” If the lines of communication are compromised, the downstream impact can be disastrous. 

Symptoms of poor communication are threefold, namely

  • Scope creep where deliverables or new requirements begin to add additional pressures.
  • Silos: begin to form when teams are cut off or isolated from the rest of the organisation.  Teams unable, or unwilling, to share information with peers are inefficient and can damage culture.
  • Conspiracy theories: can also start to circulate as people start to make up what they don’t know, and the lack of clear communications from leaders creates an ideal environment for rumour and speculation.  

3. Connection & Culture

The word “connection” describes how well employees understand what’s going on with the business – and how much they care. In short, connection can be described as a “one team, one goal” mindset, characterised by employees who understand the company’s business, are aligned around the goals, and work cooperatively as a unified team. It’s useful to think of connection and culture together, simply because one can’t build a culture without first developing a connected team.   Ultimately, culture is expressed through what is done, not what is said.

To help your leaders and employees look beyond the job description when it comes to setting goals that motivate your team and deliver value to your stakeholders, here are three main things that need to be communicated loud and clear to everyone in the business.

Quarterly Business Reviews & Goal Setting: Creating transparency and sharing the ‘big picture’ across the team with a quarterly business review will immediately increase your employees’ connectivity by reinforcing their contributions to the company’s stated goals and its overall success. 

Measure Outcomes, Not Inputs: Imagine an inbound call centre that traditionally measures the volume of calls reps handle hourly and daily. What would happen if the company instead started to measure time to answer and customer satisfaction? The former (volume of calls) measures work done, versus providing an aspirational target. Increasing speed to answer and customer satisfaction encourage the behaviours required for success, and provide positive targets for the team. 

Purpose: The “purpose” in an organisation is normally written for the benefit of the owners, the shareholders or the customers. And yet there is only one audience for whom it’s actually critically important: The employees. An Engaged Purpose is written for the support and involvement of your employees, and will give them a “why” for showing up every day. 

“You may have devised the best purpose in the history of humankind,

but if it is locked up in an ivory tower and not making it to the front line,

you are hampering your organisation’s ability to perform at its full potential.”

– Stefan Wissenbach, Founder & CEO of Engagement Multiplier


Despite the ongoing wellbeing issues, and the culture shock waves that most businesses are experiencing right now, it’s looking increasingly likely that WFH is here to stay.

New research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals employers expect that the proportion of their staff regularly working from home once the crisis is over, will leap to 37% compared to 18% before the pandemic.  Employers also think the proportion of staff who work permanently from home will rise to 22% post-pandemic compared to 9% before lockdown.

Tellingly, a survey of 1,046 employers showed that they believe people working from home are as productive as other workers, with over a quarter (28%) believing the rise in homeworking has increased employee productivity or efficiency, compared to 28% of organisations that report the opposite. Just over a third, some 37% thought there had been no effect on productivity or efficiency.

The employees themselves, from the responses given in the Deloitte survey, 55% of workers believe that their colleagues are just as, if not more, productive now than before lockdown.  After lockdown, 61% of desk-based workers would prefer to work from home more often.

However, Vicky Pryce (Chief Economic Adviser at the Centre for Economics and Business Research CEBR), remains sceptical about the tangible productivity benefits of home-working. “Anecdotally, home-working is unlikely to be a long-term boost as upskilling opportunities that would normally happen, won’t,” she suggests. However, Pryce is adamant that the greater flexibility engendered by homeworking produces a happier workforce.  

The debate is likely to continue for a while yet!