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The Memo: Hitting the productivity wall

This story was published on our The Memo from Quartz at Work newsletter, Practical advice for modern workers everywhere.

To modern workers everywhere,

Remember when the lockdowns began and the workday would fly by, even if the weeks felt interminable? There was a reason it felt that way. Our brains were processing so much new information, making cognitive calls about things we never had to think much about before. Attending meetings, getting groceries—none of it was ever as complicated as it was at the start of the pandemic.

And just as the adrenaline from all that was starting to recede, we had the initial economic fallout of the crisis to keep us on high alert, followed by the cathartic burst of protests against racism after the police killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

And now?

I don’t know if it’s the mental exhaustion of the past four months; or the drain of an unusually unstructured summer; or the stress of not knowing what the new school year holds for our children or our childcare plans; or that politics around the world have reached new levels of insufferableness; or that the virus is getting worse instead of better here in the US … but the days are no longer flying by for me, and for better or worse, I feel my productivity starting to wane from early-pandemic levels.

Odds are you may be feeling the same way. Deutsche Bank, which has been running a monthly global survey of market professionals, says the balance of people who feel more productive versus less productive working from home declined this past month from 20% to 15%. “We may have hit peak WFH productivity,” Jim Reid, a strategist at the bank, said in a research note this week. (I wasn’t a respondent to his survey, but the arrow I drew on this chart? It’s basically pointing at me.)

The good news is, there are plenty of people (70% in the Deutsche Bank survey) who feel at least as productive at home as they did at the office. And most days, I would still put myself in that category. But if I tore through my work like a hurricane at the start of the lockdown, now I’m feeling more like a storm that’s already moved inland—not without strength, but lacking the same intensity as before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m no doubt churning at a more sustainable, ultimately healthier pace now. But the downshift is noticeable, and it leaves me to wonder how to recalibrate my own expectations of my energy and output.—Heather Landy

Five things we learned this week

There are three main steps for safely reopening offices.

Teleworking is widening the income gap around the world.

The grisly murder of the CEO of a Nigerian bike-hailing startup was allegedly carried out by his personal assistant.

A childcare crisis looms for 50 million US parents trying to get a handle on plans for the school year.

The share of adults in their 20s moving home is skyrocketing.

Sponsor content by Xerox
Will you be back in the office next year? New research from Xerox shows that 82% of people will be back to the workplace for good in the next 12-18 months. In the meantime, more than half of companies are investing in tech to support a hybrid staff. Peer into the future of the workplace.

Upcoming workshop

Collaboration is one of the hallmarks of a modern workplace. But how do we all come together when everyone is apart? Join us this Thursday, July 23, at 11am US eastern time for “How to keep collaborating,” a one-hour live, interactive workshop on the smartest ways to maintain a collaborative culture, wherever your colleagues might be. Attendance is free.

30-second case study

In 2016, Rajendra Mulmi was director of the Nigeria outpost of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict-resolution organization. His team’s mission was to help people bridge the religious differences that often lead to conflicts in a country where the population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.

As it turned out, the country’s larger tensions were reflected in his organization’s Nigeria office. Of its roughly 40 employees, only three were Muslim. And so Mulmi set about trying to diversify its employees and create a more inclusive culture. He hired more Muslims into management roles, ended the after-work bar outings (many Muslims don’t drink), and got everyone talking about lunch.

Yes, lunch. It turns out Christian and Muslim staff regularly went to separate lunch spots catering to their preferred regional tastes (the south of Nigeria is majority-Christian and the north majority-Muslim). The food split made sense, but it reinforced the group’s cultural divides. Once the group discussed the lunchtime division openly, they agreed to bring lunch into the office once or twice a week and eat there. That way, everyone could eat what they wanted while still spending time together.

The takeaway: Mulmi, who is now the regional director for Asia at Search for Common Ground, summarizes the nonprofit’s philosophy this way: “Understand the differences, but act on commonalities.” The conflict-resolution principles he drew on to reform an office culture offer insight to the many companies that are currently reflecting on how to combat racism and have more productive conversations about racial and cultural differences.

Quartz at Work’s Sarah Todd details Search for Common Ground’s strategies for resolving conflicts—whether external or internal—in part two of our field guide on how to build antiracist companies, an exclusive for Quartz members.

Not a member yet? Get 50% off your first year of Quartz membership with our limited time offer. As a member you’ll get the context, analyses, and community that will guide you through what’s next for our changing world.

How to buy a chair for your at-home workspace

  • Pick a style and color that won’t remind you of the office.
  • Consider the wheels. Soft casters are rubberized and best for hardwood or smooth, tiled surfaces, while hard casters are meant for carpeted floors.
  • Read this article by Quartz design reporter Anne Quito. It has additional expert tips and a helpful explanation for why it’s so tricky to find a supportive chair that doesn’t look like industrial furniture.

Quick poll

What is your primary seating situation when you’re working at home?

Designer office chair

Standard dining room chair


What? I stand when I work

Who sits when you can sprawl out on the floor?

And a quick poll recap

Our readers are nothing if not selfless—and a touch fatalistic. Here are the results of last week’s poll:

✦ Special to Quartz members ✦

One of the best things about working with Quartz data-visualization gurus David Yanofsky and Dan Kopf is they genuinely believe anyone can make great charts with just a bit of guidance and (maybe a lot of) practice. If you’d like to test their theory, or just improve your facility with data, read their eight tips for making better charts—a Quartz membership exclusive—and see if it takes your handiwork up a notch.

Words of wisdom

“An ‘epinomic’ paradigm represents a welcome alternative to the stagnation of lockdown, the fear of unbridled contagion, and the despair of uncertainty. Instead of oscillating between extremes, we would proactively shape our future.”—Boston Consulting Group CEO Rich Lesser calls for leadership that respects both epidemiology and economic need.

Read Rich’s piece in Quartz at Work on how to lead the return to prosperity. He argues it needs to begin with protection for society’s most vulnerable.


Managing highly sensitive people (HSPs) can be an exercise in patience. HSPs tend to get overstimulated easily, react strongly to criticism, and care deeply about making an impact. Melody Wilding, a high performance coach and professor of human behavior at Hunter College, says that effectively managing HSPs “comes down to empowering them to embrace their strengths while equipping them with tools to manage their emotionality.” Find her detailed advice in this gem from our archive.

You got The Memo!

Our best wishes for a productive and creative day. Please send any workplace news, comments, comfortable task chairs, and Nigerian take-out lunches to Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. This week’s edition of The Memo was produced by Heather Landy and Sarah Todd.

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