The paradigm for employees and productivity has shifted in 2020 as many companies grapple with how to manage their most valuable asset—their people—at a time when many are working from home.
While the current environment offers some potential for productivity gains (i.e. non-existent commutes), it doesn't automatically lead to better work. In fact, recent research shows a mixed bag on whether employees are more productive when working from home versus at the office, particularly if they have limited childcare options or don't have a dedicated workspace at home.
Moreover, it's difficult to gauge the important but hard-to-measure benefits of in-person collaboration. Research has also shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused.
No matter the perspective on remote productivity, here are seven steps that leaders can take to assess, maintain and potentially improve productivity, whatever the circumstances.
1. Schedule Video Meetings Strategically
In a matter of weeks, video conferences became part of the workday routine for many professionals, and understandably so. Video conferences can be more engaging than their audio-only counterparts. They bring people together from disparate places and help alleviate feelings of isolation. Body language is an important factor in communication, too. It removes some of the guesswork behind mood and intention, which can otherwise be obscured in audio calls.
However, leaders should be selective about when and how to use video. As many work-from-home professionals can attest, Zoom fatigue is a real thing.
To stay fresh, managers and their teams should:
- Avoid early-morning and late-night virtual meetings
- Build breaks into video sessions
- Skip video when voice-only will do
- Make virtual social events optional
- Designate one or two days for no video
2. Allow for Some Flexibility At Home
The home environment differs widely from one employee to the next, as do individual abilities to focus and be productive. Now more than ever, it's important for managers to give employees some leeway about setting their hours. Simply acknowledging the challenges of working from home and allowing for more flexibility in terms of hours, deadlines and expectations can go a long way in reducing overall stress.
Certainly, there may be core times when teams need to interact and collaborate, but leaders should also recognize there are other times when instant interaction is less necessary. Among other best practices, teams should think about structuring their workdays around more intense core hours and allowing for flexibility outside of those. For example, managers might indicate that they need everyone available during a short window on a designated number of days, but give employees autonomy to, say, work early in the morning and clock out in the afternoon, or start later and log on late at night.
3. Promote Wellness and Gratitude
Productivity begins with healthy people, which is why now is a good time for managers to step up and promote healthy living by encouraging and supporting healthy behavior. For each dollar spent on wellness, companies save an average of $2.71 in costs related to absenteeism and reduced health care costs, according to a study from the Harvard Business Review, potentially allowing companies to provide employee incentives to boost participation
Gratitude exercises are also becoming popular among corporate leaders. To accomplish this, a simple first step is to ask each department head to increase praise and subsequent recognition for reaching goals and individual achievement. This can make employees feel that their work is seen and appreciated, helping improve their overall engagement and motivation.
4. Be Selectively Social
In their best form, company chat apps, such as Slack and Chatwork, can increase the velocity of communication by subverting alternatives that are more time-intensive. Also, departments and working subgroups within chat apps can help to keep communication targeted to relevant team members.
When left wholly unregulated, however, chat can wander into unproductive banter and be disruptive. Among other best practices, managers should set ground rules and boundaries for how and when messaging apps are used at work.
5. Use Apps to Improve Productivity
There are many new and inexpensive apps that allow managers to track team productivity and progress on projects. These services can be initiated by management or by the employees themselves, and though they may incur additional costs to the business, they can make up for it in terms of tracking productivity.
Some of the most advanced programs have the ability to:
- Track mobile app and URL activity
- See work in progress with screenshots
- Measure mouse and keyboard use
- Report time spent on projects
- Manage project timelines status reports
Companies likely need to research and test the programs that will work best for their team needs and broader organizational goals.
6. Manage for the Long Term
In the early days of working from home, many employers and employees focused on doing what was necessary in the short term. Now, as many of these arrangements stretch into the longer term, employees need to shift gears and think about how to continue moving forward in their careers—even if they aren't back in the office.
For managers, this presents more challenges and opportunities to help their teams shift gears from "survival mode" to "growth mode" and look at how to work more productively and creatively. Workplace experts say that remote work will likely be the new norm for the forseeable future, and as such, managers need to make sure direct reports are supported in their career development.
While few people relish performance reviews—and doing them remotely is even more of a challenge—they are an opportunity for companies to communicate and strengthen their corporate cultures. Done well, they can help subpar performers regroup and improve. Meanwhile, they can offer high performers feedback, inspiration and direction they need to map out their career paths.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to abrupt and potentially lasting changes in workforce management, but the lessons learned from this era can help to serve as a booster shot for the emergent digital paradigm that will help companies survive and thrive.