Why We’re Not Being Productive at Work During the Pandemic (And Why That’s OK)

Orin Davis
5 min readJan 18, 2021

How long does it take you to pee?

Seriously. The next time you hit up the porcelain throne, hit a stopwatch. When you’re done, add maybe 30–60 seconds because you probably went faster knowing that you were being timed. Take a look at that number, and you realize that, had you taken an output break at the office, you likely wouldn’t even have gotten to the bathroom in that time. Then there’s the ritual of picking a spot, sometimes sanitizing the spot or arranging clothing so as to strike a pose that avoids contamination from public yuck, overcoming any performance anxiety that some have in the public lavatory, and that is all assuming you don’t run into anyone you know. After all, it’s almost always a given that you will run into coworkers on your way to the tile palace, and that gives us a chance to build good relationships with those folks by shooting the breeze every so often. While we’re at it, we probably sneak a quick indulgence into funny memes, cat photos, “puppers”, and the adorableness of other people’s kids (even though our own are the best, of course, we see them more often). Maybe send a text or two, just for good measure — it helps build anticipation for happy hour.

Looking over that list, it’s a bit of a headscratcher to realize that it takes between 10 and 15 minutes longer to potty at the office than it does at home, but that’s because you’re imbuing a simple sprinkle with a sliver of exercise, a dab of social contact, a jot of anticipation, and an ounce of cute. It’s a much headier cocktail of a work break than the little plod we make at home from our desks to our toilets.

Then there’s the coffee break. That’s another walk, maybe even outside, and more schmoozing, and more memes and awwww’s. And, even if you order in lunch, you usually have to go get it from downstairs or from the front desk, which means more social, more walking, more time to be in your personal headspace, and possibly even some stairs or an elevator ride. Whee!

When we’re working from home during a pandemic, this all disappears. The walking, the ability to step away from our desks for a reasonable amount of time, the social interaction (we see the same people both at work and away from it, and any variety we get comes with a healthy dose of Zoom fatigue), any fresh air we get, gone. The outside air we get, even if we’re just going office to car in a dank parking garage, gone. The moments of solitude that give us the ability to be ourselves with ourselves for just a brief instance, gone.

Each of these little things gives us a bit of a psychological buffer and/or recharge that helps us get through the day. It’s the chance to incubate problems, to take a break from the effort of work, and to get a bit of human contact. Then there’s the relief of elimination or the rush of caffeine, both of which are positive experiences. Those little bits of positivity add up, and they recharge us and help build an energy buffer against the frustrations and strains upon which we expend energy to make a living.

When we don’t have those, we find ourselves expected to expend the same amount of energy in our jobs without the usual recharges. Worse, we’re dealing with the stress and strain of having the same people around us all the time, less social interaction, less time outside, limited ability to engage in our hobbies, less exercise, et cetera, and that’s not including the extra stressors of having kids at home, school, taking care of family members in need, worrying about people getting sick, and so on.

As such, we have far more stress than usual, and far less opportunity to recharge. No surprise that we can’t meet the typical demands of a workday.

Of course, it’s actually even harder than that. We typically don’t have industry-grade internet, or ergonomic office spaces, or even the ability to shut out the world and get privacy for when we need to focus on work. We don’t have the non-verbal cues that exist during meetings and other human interactions, the ability to pop over and say “hi” or ask a question, or pass physical notes and sketches back and forth. Each of those little things makes our jobs harder, and they add up.

Just from all of the little stressors that are adding up throughout the day, and the lack of little recharges that power us throughout the day, it should be plenty obvious that we need to be compassionate with one another about our collective lack of productivity. Once we pile on the lack of bigger recharges (seeing family and friends, a night on the town, engaging in hobbies, getting away, etc.) and much bigger stressors (these should be obvious — it’s a pandemic!), we should be perfectly comfortable with the fact that we just aren’t being given enough juice to power our mojo.

What makes this so hard to accept?

For one, many of us have tied our work to our identities; it’s our answer to “what do you do?” Being forced to discover who we are when that productivity is stripped from us by circumstance is a scary mirror to face. For another, we all have those friends who seem to be thriving during this pandemic. They are getting so much stuff done, they’re going all these places, they’re doing these new hobbies, and they’re growing and developing. Allow me to point out what these people don’t have:

  1. At-risk people living with them
  2. Child-care responsibilities
  3. Family-care responsibilities
  4. Jobs that require them to be on during very specific windows of time
  5. Financial concerns
  6. Crowded living quarters and limited privacy
  7. Involuntary solitude

I can’t think of any exceptions who are also being responsible citizens that are doing their part to contain the pandemic. That last part is a really important point for us to remember. We are going through all of this to save lives. We struggle through all of this cabin fever, stress, and the like because of our love for the people in our families, communities, nation, and globe. We are all doing our part to keep people alive, and it behooves us to remember that every day that we act responsibly during this pandemic, more people stay alive. That’s no small thing, and I think we owe it to ourselves to accept that commendation. Our lack of productivity is saving lives — we can live with that.



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.