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Is working from home forever? How to measure productivity of the workplace

Is working from home here to stay?

Less than six months ago, the idea of paying staff to work from home would have been unthinkable to many employers. But the coronavirus threat has changed all that. Working from home is not just the new normal. It could well be the future.

The experience of recent months has shown that measures taken to deal with a global pandemic can work, even after the health crisis is over. Twitter’s recent announcement that ‘employees can choose to work from home forever’ could be a sign of things to come. It follows in the wake of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon’s announcements to extend work-from-home timelines for their employees.

These declarations are a big shift for Silicon Valley’s elite. The best employers in the world have always been the ones who offered the most lavish office perks. For decades, top brands have used sprawling campuses, free meals, virtual golf and napping pods to promote collaboration and prevent burnout. But the pandemic has forced many employers to accept the obvious: much work can be done remotely and staff who work remotely can be effective – for the short term, at least.

With little time to prepare for remote working, employers are faced with the challenges of maintaining an engaged and productive workforce without borders. Not every company has the strength of the tech giants to seamlessly transition into remote working. Many are still struggling to find a balance between online and offline work.

Working from home and productivity

A recent Gartner survey showed that up to 88% of Australian companies have adopted some form of remote working due to COVID-19 restrictions. Australian workers are loving this new reality. Barking dogs, curious toddlers and noisy teenagers aside, 70% of Australian workers say they are happier and more productive with this new work arrangement according to a survey conducted by Citrix.

Nearly 50% of employees surveyed claim to have less stress from commuting and more time for productive activities. Employees (32%) are also reporting higher levels of concentration and less distraction from work colleagues. How long this euphoria will last remain to be seen.

How to manage work-from-home productivity

Unfortunately, employers do not share the enthusiasm of their workers about working from home. As workers shift to remote working, managers are naturally concerned about productivity. Historically, employers have been able to track employees to determine their performance. With less face-to-face interactions now, managers will need new measures to monitor employee productivity. The question is: ‘How can we ensure they are working productively from home – not just working from home?’

We’ve put our spin on Harvard Business School’s recommendations to come up with 10 practical tips that can achieve maximum productivity from staff who work from home:

1. Communicate clearly and effectively

Be specific about priorities and expectations. Shelve or postpone any non-essential tasks that cannot be carried out remotely. Now is not the time to have your staff debating about the viability of a project. Debating how to carry out a project remotely is unproductive. It can lead to lack of trust and frustration.

Without the benefit of first-hand knowledge, your employees are naturally going to worry about the future of the company and their job security. You can allay staff’s concern with regular video conferencing and email updates about the company’s direction. If they spend less time wondering about their future, they will have more time to be productive.

2. Adjust expectations

Job descriptions were written before the pandemic. Consider adjusting KPIs to suit the new working environment. Be sure to involve your staff in any discussion on KPIs. Treat it as normal job evaluation and encourage them to give you feedback on their abilities to perform specific tasks. The feedback can be used as a tool to measure productivity. Because the current situation is constantly changing, employers must adjust expectations to suit these changes. This could mean making several adjustments during the pandemic.

3. Focus on outcomes rather than activities

If you spend entire days monitoring activity, you’re going to be frustrated. Don’t be tempted to send your staff an email at 4.45 pm to check whether they are online. It screams ‘I don’t trust you’ and does little to promote productivity. Learn to let go. Trust your instincts that you have hired competent people who will not take advantage of the situation.

Instead of policing try establishing work goals and realistic deadlines. Different industries have different productivity measurements. For example, sales weekly targets, finance cost-cutting success, IT response times and so forth. Keep your measurements focused on these outcomes rather than time spent working.

NOTE: Research has shown that juniors and new hires will require more supervision if they are working from home.

4. Be a role model

Good leadership is about understanding the needs of your employees. Sometimes, we need to go back to basics to achieve results. In a time of crisis, good leadership is about connecting with your employees and leading by example.
Here are five leadership practices to help you respond positively in a crisis:

  • Maintain a calm demeanour – A deliberate calmness is the ability to detach from a difficult situation and think clearly how to navigate the crisis.
  • Set clear priorities and empower teams – A crisis presents a complexity that will require a network of teams with different skill sets. Set clear priorities and mobilise your team to handle them.
  • Foster collaboration and transparency – Leaders should foster collaboration and transparency by distributing authority, sharing information and allowing teams themselves to demonstrate how they can operate.
  • Project confidence – Show your fearlessness in a crisis. Project confidence that the organisation will be able to rise above the current difficulties.
  • Promote psychological safety – In the emotionally-charged environment of a crisis, people have questions and concerns. Encourage open discussions without fear of reprisals.

5. Get your staff to track their time

Consider asking staff to keep track of the times they are working on each activity understanding that working at home is different from working in the office. Consider time tracking as a learning rather than monitoring. The time they used to complete a task can be applied to determine timelines for similar activities in the future. This way, you will get better buy-in from your staff about tracking their time.

6. Accept some productivity deficit

The coronavirus pandemic was sudden and swift. The government’s decision to put us into lockdown happened with little time for employers and employees to prepare for working from home. Combined this with having the children at home, managing online schooling and worrying about the virus, workers are facing a tougher time than usual. Knowing that their boss is unhappy with their performance will only add to their stress and does nothing to help their productivity.

A study by Harvard Business School showed that employee productivity may suffer a ten to twenty per cent drop because of the virus. If every manager begins on the premise that some productivity may suffer, they will be better prepared to deal with it. We don’t have to just accept it. We take action to mitigate it by staying engaged and connected with our staff.

7. Take time to show empathy

Beyond the inconvenience of working from home, social recession as a result of self-isolation can have serious consequences to physical and psychological wellbeing. As managers, we can create opportunities for the team to share their feelings and discuss their concerns.

Don’t be afraid during Zoom sessions to talk about the challenges of having your two-year-old as your work colleague or the stresses of ensuring a virus-free grocery run. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.

It is also important to encourage your staff to practise self-care like healthy eating and exercise.

8. Re-think meetings

Try to look at things from the perspective of your ‘married with children’ employee. If your company has a meeting-heavy culture before the pandemic, try scaling back the number and duration of meetings. A 30-minute Zoom meeting is more bearable especially for the members of your team who may not have the luxury of a home office.

An effective way to trim meetings is to use email, Slack, and other writing-based apps for information sharing and ideas generation. On the other hand, informal communication is important to help staff cope so try putting time aside to inquire after your staff’s health and wellbeing.

9. Transition asynchronously

Coronavirus has proven that work does not need to happen simultaneously. Different individuals work better at different times of the day. If you have a flexible asynchronous system, you can encourage staff to tap into their peak performance periods to deliver maximum results.

Google doc, Slack and other platforms allow staff to log in at any time of the day to work. So long as they are delivering results and meeting deadlines, a 9-to-5 regime may not be necessary for working from home scenarios.

10. Find the balance between work and play

You might think virtual team building is a waste of time. It’s not. There are many things you can do online to foster team building and collaboration.

These virtual connections are important to help teams stay connected and focused on organisational goals. Finding the time to bond builds solidarity and creates a support group to help your team cope with the difficulties of working from home.

 

Now that the door has opened, it may be hard for us to return to pre-pandemic days. Working from home could become the new work model of the future. These simple measures from Talentank can help you keep track of your employee’s productivity.