Overcoming the productivity paradox: How leaders can achieve excellence in a new world of work


Canadian office worker survey 2021

We’re at the cusp of a new world: there’s much opportunity as organizational leaders envision and build their workforce of the future. As they reflect on the changes ushered in by the pandemic and decide what to keep and what to modify or discard, they’ll need to do it all with an eye to achieving operational excellence.

Playback of this video is not currently available


Listen to the survey's results

The results of our most recent Canadian workforce survey* are in—bringing together insights from more than 2,000 Canadian office employees and employers. Much of the Canadian talent base has fully embraced technology, and there’s a growing feeling people can be productive from anywhere.

Significant gains have been made since the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s not all rosy, and we’re seeing something we’re referring to as a productivity paradox. Both employers and employees report high levels of productivity, some even higher than pre-pandemic. While the vast majority prefer hybrid working, there’s a growing preference for fully remote work. Yet a significant group is struggling with mental health challenges and feeling disconnected.

46% of Canadian employee respondents claim mental health issues have been one of their biggest work challenges since the start of the pandemic

15% of Canadian employee respondents say they would prefer to work entirely remotely (up three percentage points from last year)

And that’s not the only discrepancy. We’re also seeing a growing divide between the points of view of leaders and employees, especially when it comes to questions about preferred work environments.

Explore the findings and learn more about what your organization will need to do to overcome this paradox and achieve excellence in a new world of work.

Understanding the productivity paradox

We know that, in many cases, the workplace of the future will be a hybrid one. But one of the biggest questions we’ve been hearing since the beginning of the pandemic centres around whether people can truly be productive in a hybrid or remote model. The real question many employers want answered is: “Are employees as productive now as they were pre-pandemic?”

What did our survey respondents have to say? Perhaps surprisingly, 41% of employee respondents say their productivity has increased compared to before the pandemic. Workers may be getting the hang of remote work, with fewer employees and employers reporting decreases in productivity now than in 2020.

Workers have the tech they need:  81% of employers and 78% of employees agree their organization has the necessary tools and technology for them to be successful in their jobs when working remotely.

But at the same time, employees are reporting some significant work challenges. Nearly half of respondents rank mental health and staying motivated as top challenges since the start of the pandemic (46% and 45%, respectively). Communication and connectivity with their team in a virtual work environment also ranks highly, at 30%.

Building the workplace of the future

Even with workplaces reopening across the country, the majority of Canadian employee respondents still want a hybrid work environment—and our survey shows a growing preference year over year for fully remote work.

What are the top advantages cited by those who prefer remote work? Time saved not commuting takes the lead, followed by ease of managing at-home responsibilities and a quieter work environment. On the flip side, top advantages cited by those who prefer in-office work are keeping work and home life separate and, not surprisingly, accessing equipment and systems that are only at the office.

But there are some nuanced demographic differences, both in work environment preferences and in top work challenges. Leaders will need to proceed with caution to meet the needs of a diverse talent pool and avoid painting the workforce with a single, biased stroke.

Age matters: 58% of respondents aged 18 to 34 who prefer remote work cite more flexibility for where they live as a key motivator (compared to 47% of employee respondents overall), and 54% of respondents aged 18 to 34 who prefer in-office work cite the ability to socialize with colleagues as a key motivator (compared to 37% of employee respondents overall).

The gender divide: Women are more likely to cite mental health issues as their primary challenge (50%, vs. 42% of men), and men are more likely to say their ideal scenario is to work mostly or completely at the office (42%, vs. 28% of women).

Discover the blind spots in your back-to-work plan

So how can leaders build back-to-workplace plans for their organizations that meet the needs of all their people—and their business? Leaders need to be hyper-aware of their own biases and how they might result in blind spots.

Those in leadership positions need to understand similarity bias, which happens when we assume others share our beliefs and think as we do. If, for example, senior male leaders are eager to return to in-office work themselves, they need to understand others may not share that preference. And in fact, if they make their preferences too widely known, they may inadvertently create an environment in which their people feel unable to express different preferences and assessments of the value of a particular way of working. Those leaders may experience higher turnover and lower team engagement.

42% of male respondents, and 45% of respondents aged 55 and above, would prefer to be working entirely or mostly in-office

As leaders give their people the choice to work remotely or return to the office, they also need to carefully consider proximity bias, which happens when we evaluate the people with whom we work most closely as being the most productive. It’s crucial for leaders to understand and address proximity bias and make sure they focus on performance outcomes.

To gain competitive advantage, leaders must ground workplace decisions in facts. If they’re not careful, they run the risk of erasing some of the great business outcomes we’re seeing from hybrid work models: access to diverse talent pools, more flexibility and increased employee engagement.

Use tools to measure employee productivity

Employers and employees both feel they have the tools and technology they need to be successful in a remote work environment. Now it’s time to take the next step and use tools and technology to measure teams’ and individuals’ productivity and impact.

Leaders need to put some thought into what the outcomes are for every level of the organization and invest in tools and analytics frameworks to evaluate progress on those outcomes. While most organizations have parts that are outcome-driven, there are many teams and individuals, particularly in the middle of an organization, who don’t truly understand how they’re performing.

10% of employee respondents claim confusion as to what they’re supposed to be doing as a top work challenge since the start of the pandemic

The goal is to inspire and empower your people to self-monitor and self-organize in an effort to understand what activities and behaviours are driving the outcomes leaders really want. Truly understand the impact of your teams and people—and engage them in the process.

Upskill your leaders to lead in today’s new world of work

Our survey shows a growing gap between how effective employees and employers assess their organization’s leadership as being, with employers rating leadership as more effective than employees.

While hybrid working has made team leadership more difficult for everyone, that’s been especially the case for leaders in the early to mid-career stage. Many first-level leaders and supervisors are still developing the problem-solving and coaching skills needed to lead in a hybrid world of work. Many first-level leaders remain quite operational in their roles, and maintaining balance between managing hybrid employees and doing their own work is challenging.

62% of Canadian employer respondents claim maintaining morale and company culture has been one of their biggest work challenges since the start of the pandemic

It’s time for organizational leaders to reimagine how they’re upskilling their people: it’s a shift away from broad tech upskilling to supporting people. More specifically, it’s about training your first-line managers about how to build a strong organizational culture that’s focused on outcomes. Empower your leaders to communicate your organizational strategy, develop root-cause problem-solving skills and streamline projects where possible.

Supporting your organization with programs and tools that help develop these leadership skills will increase engagement levels and retention in your organization, and it will also boost productivity.

What will the future bring?

At the time our survey was conducted, a significant majority (72%) of Canadian employer respondents had plans to return to the workplace in the next three months.

It’s unquestionable: hybrid work is here to stay. But this environment will present new challenges, and leaders should carefully assess what they’ll need to empower their people and business as they move into the future.

Interested in learning more about productivity in the new world of work?

Let’s connect to start the conversation

This poll was conducted by the Angus Reid Group from September 15 to 23, 2021, to understand how Canadian employees’ and employers’ perceptions of the workplace, work productivity and effectiveness during the pandemic have evolved since July 2020. This poll was conducted using a nationally representative sample of 1,524 full-time or part-time employed Canadians and a sample of 524 Canadian employers, defined as executives or senior decision makers who manage team members.

Thank you to our collaborator:
  • Salina Ghadban, Senior Manager, Workforce of the Future

Contact us

Jean McClellan

Jean McClellan

National Workforce Platform and Consulting Strategy Leader, PwC Canada

Tel: (403) 629 8330

Kathy Parker

Kathy Parker

Partner, National Workforce of the Future Consulting Leader, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 419 9731

Kim Vander Aerschot

Kim Vander Aerschot

Partner, Financial Services Workforce of the Future Consulting, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 814 5893

Baya  Benouniche

Baya Benouniche

Partner and Leader of the Consulting Group for Quebec, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 514 205 5409

Jennifer Melnyk

Jennifer Melnyk

Practice Leader, HR Transformation Consulting, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 403 923 4332

Joelle Carroll-Bilodeau

Joelle Carroll-Bilodeau

Partner, Management & Organizations, Consulting, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 514 205 5149