Since 2013, Fast Company has dedicated an issue of the magazine to revealing the habits and schedules of some of the world’s most prolific leaders in business and culture. Each year, there always seems to be one executive who answers emails every day at 4 a.m., or an entrepreneur who schedules a standing staff meeting on Sundays. But our Secrets of the Most Productive People feature is decidedly not a workaholic’s handbook. Yes, it’s fascinating to learn how overachievers get it all done. But we also explore how they clear their heads, recharge, and find inspiration—underappreciated elements of productivity that are increasingly important as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into 2021, and with it, the challenges of working remotely.
Unfortunately, many bosses remain focused on textbook definitions of on-the-job effectiveness, measured by time spent on tasks, keystrokes logged, calls made, and the like. Some 94% of employers surveyed over the summer by consultancy Mercer, including some previously skeptical of letting their people work from home because they feared slacking, now report that “productivity” has stayed the same or gone up among their homebound staff. It’s easy to see why companies are pleased: U.S. remote employees were working three additional hours each day, according to data released in March by NordVPN Teams.
Far from feeling productive, though, employees are tired and overwhelmed. About 58% of workers (remote and nonremote) polled in August by Eagle Hill Consulting said they are burned out, up from 45% in the early days of the pandemic. Nearly half attributed burnout to their workload, while 39% said they’re taxed from balancing work and personal life.
Parents juggling their children’s remote education and their own jobs are especially stressed, and as senior writer Ainsley Harris writes in this issue, the patchwork of solutions offered by some corporations—flextime, caregiver reimbursements, extra vacation days—ignores the larger need for a comprehensive public policy on childcare. To be fair, there’s been little political will to reform the system. But if companies don’t act, they’re likely to reverse gains in equity and inclusion that they claim to value. As Harris notes, the pandemic could erase six years’ worth of progress by women and women of color in senior leadership roles, according to McKinsey & Company.
That’s a shame, because a holistic view of productivity should make room for family, play, and hobbies. Cover subject Serena Williams tells senior writer Nicole LaPorte that she uses the app Toggl to help track her time with her daughter, Olympia. Victory, for this athlete-entrepreneur-investor, is when she overindexes on parenting. Trailblazer Ruth Bader Ginsburg viewed parenthood as a competitive edge: “My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane,” she wrote in a 2016 opinion piece in The New York Times. “I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time . . . After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.” Ginsburg was productive until the day she passed away, in September, at age 87. Her example, however, is timeless.