Making It "Okay" To Be Unproductive

Your team members aren't robots, but you can't afford to miss your KPIs

Amidst the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse, we’re all experiencing our own personal losses and sadness. We have our struggles and sometimes, it can become almost impossible to keep personal and professional lives separate—it begins to creep in, affecting everything from the delay in sending an email in response, to giving up on a project because of an objectively small challenge.

Yet, the world is now chiming in about productivity. Lockdowns (unless you’re in countries without it) and work-from-home schemes have allowed people to do other things since they have more time. Commute time can be spent either catching a few more winks or waking up for a morning jog. Finding a place to eat for lunch can now be replaced with ordering food conveniently from a tiny, digital screen.

It’s hard not to be buried by the creeping, indirect social pressure from all these productivity “tips and tricks”. Incessant articles about how you can drive productivity in a team. Five thousand ways to use a Trello board like a pro. A hundred different mindset changes that you can make to help you press on, whether it be yoga, a walk, or that 5-am meditation that you do for an hour to stay ‘mindful’.

It sounds cynical on a first read, but the fact is that these are methods that can accelerate a problem’s manifestation. While we can argue that there’s a distinct dichotomy between those who adapt and those who don’t, the point is no one is invalid. Struggles are real, and everyone’s capacity and circumstance are different.

And so are yours.

It is precisely in tumultuous times that we have to build emotional courage. It focuses on being self-aware: that your control is really only a sense of control. It is the will to accept and admit that we might not be as stable as we think.

Rather than breaking through, hustling, competing, succeeding, and focusing, it is time for us to slow down and feel. To approach this moment with openness and willingness. To understand our environment and surroundings with depth, and to channel that within ourselves.

Yet, if we are in a privileged, “superior” position, it is easier to simply slow down and feel.

What about those that you know to be in the same place?

It could be a single-parent with mouths to feed and bills to pay, anxious to clinch that promotion so she can finally have some savings for further education. It could be the child of sickly, elderly parents, who’s desperate to cling on to the job after hearing about the plethora of layoffs all over the world.

Are these people going to “slow down”?

The likelihood is low.

As a leader, it’s now your responsibility.


You: “It’s Okay to Slow Down”

Them: “Sure…” is the most likely scenario.

Sending a chat message or addressing everyone as a group isn’t enough. At this juncture, it’s common for people to keep relying on themselves without realizing that they could go even further if they had a temporary pillar to lean on. As a leader, giving them that “pillar” is what matters most.

  • Understand nuances. Not everyone likes to be told, “it’s okay to slow down, trust me”. Some may have had bad experiences in the past with this, trust issues, or merely general distrust of superiors in general. Everyone has their own level of receptiveness and sensitivity, and you have to find out how you can figure that out.

  • Make it personal. It’s awfully personal to tell someone it’s “alright to take a step back”. You want this to be conveyed either in-person (if you’re back in the office), or an off-office hour video call. A team web conference is excellent to set the tone, but it’s not enough to convince everyone.

  • Follow-up with actions. Sure, you can say everything you want, but are you really building trust with your team? Show them your words mean something, whether it be a short sabbatical, personal guidance, or closer attention (without being scrutinizing).

You: “I’ve Got Things to Do.”

KPIs matter and you’re not a robot too. Business goals still exist, and some businesses are gearing up for a boom or defending against a bust. You’re anxious, but you’re not alone.

  • Be transparent. Share the burden. Tell your team members that it’s more than just one-way support. It’s building a multi-lane support system. It’s about making a mini-community.

  • Reconcile with business goals. Ultimately, they still have their job responsibilities, and your team understands this. Reiterate the business goals to them and show them that, while being “unproductive”, you can achieve a rubber-band effect in your job.

  • Lead with example. One of the best ways to get your team to understand it’s okay to be unproductive is to do it yourself. When your team has an example, it’s much easier for them to follow.


It’s human instinct to cling to what’s familiar and what’s safe. Being lost and anxious is an opportunity for us to gingerly loosen our grip on security, leaving our minds and hands open, and simply taking what’s to come. By giving ourselves room to reorganize, we’re pulling back temporarily only to shoot forward with vigour.

It feels risky, for sure. We’re used to doing. Yet, at this juncture, the recommendation is to simply not do anything. We may inadvertently sabotage it.

Skip the mindfulness and let go. Once your mind is wandering and simply present in the moment, you’ll come on terms with what’s in you. Portray that to your team, and soon enough, they’ll follow. Humans are built to be fluid, and tumultuous times call for us to be akin to water splitting against a rock, and to regroup again in another stream.