In forcing massive numbers of people to work from home, the COVID-19 lockdowns initiated a global experiment in human behavior and productivity. How did employees accustomed to working in close proximity to colleagues adjust to working in isolation? The answer is nuanced.
Surprising signs of resilience, ingenuity, and productivity emerged. A survey of 12,000 employees in Germany, India, and the US conducted in May and June of 2020 showed that personal productivity, even in collaborative tasks, was as high or higher during the pandemic than beforehand. The Sapiens Institute, a French think tank, estimates that remote work protected €216 to €230 billion in GDP in France during the 2020 lockdowns. In the US, nearly 70% of all employees were working from home early in the pandemic, according to an oft-cited survey by Owl Labs. And yet Gallup polls show that employee engagement reached a 20-year high of 40% in late June and early July, before settling back to prepandemic levels.
We are not Panglossian. Burnout, stress, and declines in mental and physical health are all legacies of the lockdowns. The pandemic also imposed unspeakable human suffering, especially among the most vulnerable members of society, in addition to upending family life, wreaking economic havoc, and widening economic inequality.
Amid these realities, however, there are lessons to be drawn about human performance in the absence of proximity. Just as public-health officials have much to learn from the COVID crisis, so too do corporate executives. The lessons go far beyond the pros and cons of physical, hybrid, and remote work settings. More broadly, the lockdowns illuminate some previously hidden economic effects of human interaction—what we call “relational productivity”—and suggest new ways to think about what matters most in creating the conditions for productive work and in using digital technologies.