Productivity versus wellbeing: Is it a zero-sum game? How to get the most out of your staff during COVID-19

COVID-19. It is the global pandemic that is challenging businesses in ways they have never been challenged before. Some have had to cease their operations. Whilst many others have had to significantly alter their operations and/or have been relying on the Government JobKeeper subsidy. This has included redesigning products and services (“pivoting”), implementing new working arrangements and practices, and/or downsizing operations. The changes to employees’ day to day work have come with challenges for both employees, and you as business leaders.

To date, business leaders have quite rightly been prioritising the health and wellbeing of their people.  However, as we move closer towards the end of the financial year, and productivity goals and targets remain unmet, difficult decisions will abound.

Productivity versus wellbeing need not be a zero-sum game during COVID-19. As a business leader, there are many things you can – and should – be doing to sustain your business right now without comprising the health and safety of your staff. This includes managing the productivity and performance of your staff.

We look at how people have been responding at work, and where business owners and leaders should be focussing their efforts now when it comes to their people at work.


Having advised dozens of employers in the days and weeks following the outbreak of COVID-19 here in Australia, we have observed three clear waves in our people’s responses. The first was clearly a sense of shock, disbelief and fear in response to what was occurring. Never before in known history had our population experienced a health crisis such as this. Not only was it threatening human lives, it was threatening our entire way of life including our livelihoods, support network and social connection in one fell swoop.

This period of shock, disbelief and fear seemed to be followed by a wave of profound feelings of grief and loss as the reality of our community’s new paradigm (and the dramatic changes to our lives) set in. The new and social media recorded the isolation, stress and inability to switch off that had kicked in.

More recently, we have detected a greater sense of stabilisation. Thanks to our robust health system and the amazing front line staff who have faced COVID-19 head-on as well as a number of stimulus packages from government, many lives and jobs have been saved, and those who are still employed are feeling gratitude and relief in spite of the significant challenges to their day-to-day working lives that continue.

Throughout all of this, employers have quite rightly prioritised the health and wellbeing of their people. Now more than ever, as humans we need to look out for each other. Our short, mid and long term economic and social success as a race depends on it. In business, people are an enterprise’s greatest assets. As a community, country, economy – we need each other to not only survive but to be ready to thrive at the other end of this.

However, business owners and leaders must also be looking forward and positioning their businesses to weather this storm and come out the other side stronger than ever. The jigsaw that is a workplace has been thrown in the air and needs piecing back together in a completely different configuration. Regardless of whether a business has experienced a downturn in work or not, the ultimate challenge for business owners and leaders will be to adapt quickly to this reconfiguration of work in a post-COVID-19 world.


In order to adapt quickly and strategically to our current and future operating environment, business owners and leaders must address the following complex areas:


Work Health and Safety remains an area business leaders must continue to prioritise. Based on what we know about our infection rates, our measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Australia have been working. Business leaders, as a whole, can say they have largely done a good job of keeping our people safe from COVID-19. However, we will need to remain vigilant about the risks of COVID-19 infection and even as government mandated restrictions are eased, our efforts in addressing the continued risks of infection cannot.

Also, what about the mental health and wellbeing of staff who have been adjusting to the significant changes in their lives? The new working conditions for many has included increased financial pressures on households, increased caring responsibilities, and heightened concerns about health and exposure to COVID-19, and all whilst being “socially distant” from our social and support networks. Employers have a duty of care not only in relation to physical work health and safety risks, but also psychological ones. Given what we are dealing with is affecting everyone in your workplace, it is more important than even for business owners and leaders to be promoting the mental health and wellbeing of your people.

The question is: how do you do this?

The internet and social media forums are full of ideas and tips on what you can be doing to promote health and safety in your workplace right now. From implementing and/or promoting an employee assistance (counselling) program to regular team catch ups etc. At the end of the day though, as business owners and leaders you need to personalise your approach to meet the specific needs of your team and your individuals. One size will not fit all.

Accordingly, we have identified the key areas we recommend you should be focussing on:

Social connectivity, inclusion and engagement

We knew it before, but we are all acutely feeling it now – social connectivity underpins so much of what we do and how we feel as humans. As people, we crave human connection and inclusivity. It’s what drives our behaviour and supports us through adversity. But what happens when our access to our usual social and support networks is gone? When the people who normally mind their children so they can go out to work, the people who they normally debrief with at Friday night drinks after a long and hard week of work, the people who would normally be there to detect the social queues which show whether we are sick or tired or overworked or over stimulated or emotionally spent, and the people who would normally support us through adversity are gone?

Well, we are finding out now and it is hard. Reports are telling us many are feeling isolated, overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, overstimulated, bored and burnt out – particularly those working from home who have no physical delineation between home and work at the moment.

So, as a business owner and leader, what can you do to promote social connectivity, inclusion and engagement in your workplace?

For some staff, this can be achieved by implementing and/or promoting opt-in EAP sessions, zoom catchups, team huddles, lunch & learns, team winddowns and physically distant social events. However, other staff may be experiencing video conference overload and/or burnout, and prefer engaging in online office chat rooms or just having one on one coffee calls. You’ll probably need to use a mix of both. You won’t want to overload people, but at the same time you can’t leave them to their own devices (literally at the moment). At the end of the day, you will need to personalise your approach for your team of individuals. One size will not fit all. Our office has implemented a weekly ‘winddown’ on a Friday and a Zoom catch up every second day which is helping us. You need to trial what will work for you.

The best way to work out how your people are going and how you can support them during this time to be healthy and productive is to conduct regular “pulse”/temperature checks. These can be as simple or sophisticated as you’d like, and are a rich source of data for you to draw upon to direct the actions you take.

Learn more about our pulse survey kits, here.

You will also need to keep an eye out for particularly vulnerable staff and plan for how you will support them. This could be staff who have previously disclosed health issues to you before, staff who live on their own, or staff who your managers have identified are at risk of family violence, mental health issues or work-related stress in which case you will need to plan for how you will support them. This may involve bringing in additional external support to your business and liaising with your staff’s medical professionals.

There is a fine line between being supportive and intrusive. Employers need to be equipped to sensitively and effectively talk to their staff about what is going on with and recognise signs of distress among their staff. Managers within a business need to be provided with training and guidance on how best to identify team members at risk, and broach sensitive and challenging matters that have arisen from the COVID-19. Having a two-way communication stream between management and employees is essential.

A two-way communication stream provides employees with the information and perspective they need, while allowing them to express and process negative emotions and improve their feelings of control.

Read more about managing change and promoting flexibility in the workplace here.

Be open, transparent and provide clarity to staff about your business plans and objectives

A direct link between an individual employee’s performance and the achievement of business goals can boost an employee’s wellbeing and their confidence in the importance of their job even in the current challenging business environment. Research has shown over and over that employees derive a lot of satisfaction in being able to see that they are making a contribution to their business’ objectives and they are acknowledged for that. In addition to motivating a recipient, effective recognition also serves as a strong indicator to others of the type of behaviours they should emulate, which will ultimately drive positive behaviours within the business.

Many employees are also no doubt worried about their jobs and their futures. It is important you communicate clearly and regularly with your staff about what steps you are taking to secure their livelihoods.

Therefore, talking openly and regularly with your staff about how your business is going, what difference their contribution is making, and on possible changes, as well as setting clear objectives and goals for your teams can help ensure employees maintain focus, energy and a sense of purpose.

Read more tips on how to communicate with staff here.


Business leaders should remember that it is okay to focus on productivity during this time. We have noticed that many businesses had sufficient work for employees during the first few weeks of the pandemic and the implementation of government restrictions. However, as the restrictions have continued, many businesses are experiencing a ‘dry up’ in work, and businesses are not as busy as they used to be. As your greatest assets, you need to be able to rely on your people to be proactive and complete their tasks in an effective and timely manner. 

Therefore, businesses should be setting clear expectations and communicate these to their employees. Ultimately, you need adjust to the current operating environment but still remain aligned with the business’ needs.

Setting boundaries

Setting clear boundaries for your employees during this period can be extremely helpful to help your productivity. In order to perform well, people need boundaries to understand what is expected of them, ‘where the line is’ and what they are required to do.

Our boundaries are normally pretty clear. Every workplace has standards and expectations and aims to enforce those. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred those boundaries and has made things pretty confusing at the moment. Therefore, it is essential that you lead and manage with clarity.

Setting a clear direction and expectations for your business and staff will act as guardrails for your employees during this uncertain time, and in turn enable them to do their best work for you. This does not mean you should micromanage your staff or be ruthless with them, but it means that you, as an employer, should set clear expectations and boundaries in a transparent, fair and in a consultative manner.

Where you have directed employees to work from home, you need to remain mindful that it may present difficulties for employees. Employees who have caring responsibilities are currently balancing providing these caring responsibilities whilst managing their workload. Therefore, they may need to perform work at ‘odd’ hours, not be as productive as they usually are and/or seem overly stressed. Keeping an open line of communication between employees and management is essential in this case. This will allow you to discuss alternate arrangements (such as changed working hours/duties or paid/unpaid leave) that will alleviate some pressure for the employee and meet your business requirements.

Driving innovation

COVID-19 has created significant disruption and required businesses to work differently. While business owners and leaders may understandably be inclined to be risk-averse during these unprecedented times, it is these times of change and disruption that innovation and risk-taking become even more important for an organisation. They will help set you apart from your competitors and enable you to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world.

Embracing innovation and risk-taking is particularly important for your high-potential employees who are often attracted to these sorts of opportunities and eager to step up to the plate. Even if your business is operating under financial constraints, you can promote innovation in a targeted way – such as encouraging staff to find system improvements or client service improvements.

Read our how-to guide on boosting employee performance and engagement here.


From what we have seen, people have been on their best behaviour, working together and trying to come to workable workplace solutions together. Apart from some outliers, on the whole workplace internal disputes seem to be down. Most of our clients have informed us that their employees are being quite understanding during this period. Accordingly, a lot of formal performance management has been put on hold.

Despite the above, in the current operating environment, how will you ensure that your performance expectations are met, and performance is reviewed in a fair and reasonable manner?

Whilst employees working from home is not new to most businesses, having a complete workforce working remotely is something not many businesses have dealt with day in day out. Further to this, if employees are not as busy as they usually are, this may result in less desirable behaviour slipping in.

Read more about why performance management systems are important here.

Disciplining employees for under-performance during this period

In the event you have set clear expectations and goals for your staff and they are still not being met, you may need to consider formal performance management and perhaps even dismissal.

Whilst significant underperformance should not be overlooked and there is no prohibition on an employer taking disciplinary action (including dismissal) against an employee, you need to be mindful that action can’t be harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

The current circumstances have created a different working environment for employees and a lot of that has been out of their control. There may be a range of legitimate reasons why an employee is not performing as well as they used to – for example, significant technological challenges the employee is experiencing or the difficulties in home schooling their kids. Therefore, dismissing an employee because their performance is not “as good” as it usually is, or they are not as productive as they usually are could be seen to involve an element of “harshness” or “unreasonableness”.

To clarify, this does not mean an employer is unable to take disciplinary action relating to underperformance at this time. However, in considering disciplinary action, you should consider that your employees are currently working in a very unusual period that is challenging them in ways they have never been challenged before.

Read our how-to guide to conducting disciplinary meetings and managing performance here.

Accordingly, as always, communication is key. Talk to your employees about what is going on for them and how it is affecting their performance. Be clear about your expectations and discuss what needs to happen for these to be met. Set timeframes for review and keep checking in on them.


It is essential that businesses continue to frequently review their business continuity plans. You can do this by leaning on your advisors. Whether this is your CFO or accountant, your bank manager, your management teams and your people on the ground. They can all help you with your scenario-planning, and preparing and implementing your business continuity plans.

The pandemic has put pressure on many businesses and has forced them to take a deep and hard look at how they are operating and whether it is sustainable for the foreseeable future. Whilst it is no doubt important employers continue to respond quickly to the evolving environment, it is also important that they do so carefully and strategically. Taking some extra time when workforce planning can ensure you have the best workforce in place to help you survive the challenges you are facing and ultimately achieve ongoing success and sustainability.

A good workforce plan will align your resourcing with the needs and priorities of the business at this time, and ensure you are making the right choices about your staffing. This does not mean you need a month-long consultation process. However, it does mean pausing to consider your options and discuss them with your advisors and leadership team.

Read more about on business planning during COVID-19 and workforce planning here.

Learn more about downsizing your operations with our how-to guide and our resource pack.


A thoughtfully planned performance management approach gives you the best chance of turning the complex human challenges of COVID-19 into opportunities for success.

We’ll work with you to ensure your employees are as engaged and productive as possible through implementing strategies designed to help them understand their obligations and improve employee engagement.

We also know the best-laid plans don’t stop people from being human – employees may not always meet the standards required in performance or behaviour. We provide you with frameworks to support the difficult conversations, from two-way feedback to written warnings.

And if the problem behaviour can’t be solved through performance management, we can help you move on the employee in a fair, empathetic and legally defensible manner.

Performance management is difficult, but we are with you every step of the way to take the weight off your shoulders. We help promote your business interests while saving you time and money and find you commercial, strategic and people-focused solutions.

For specialised assistance, contact one of our experienced consultants today.


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