The global transition of so many workers from traditional on-site settings to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a fundamental shift in virtually every aspect of our lives.
While many assumed remote work would be a temporary measure lasting a couple of weeks, the nation is now several months into the experience. A resurgence of the pandemic following the easing of restrictions in some states suggests remote work could be here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The basic technology needed to support remote work has been available for years. Yet before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the hands of employers, less than 5% (3.6%) of employees worked from home at least half the time and less than half (43%) with some frequency, according to a 2019 report by Global Workplace Analytics.
Employers Historically Hesitant to Allow Remote Work
Two of the primary reasons many employers have traditionally been hesitant to allow remote work are concerns over productivity and the ability to monitor remote staff.
The two often go hand in hand; a manager who’s used to keeping staff on task by walking around the office from desk to desk may feel anxious when the entire team is now working from home.
Nevertheless, remote work has become a health necessity in recent months, and the vast majority of those who can work remotely are doing so. According to data collected by Gallup at the end of April 2020, 63% of U.S. employees said they had worked from home in the previous week due to COVID-19 concerns.
So, how can companies and managers address their concerns over oversight and productivity while acknowledging the necessity of remote work? In this feature, we discuss some best practices and examples of monitoring and measuring productivity of off-site staff, including input from industry practitioners and experts.
Establish Clear Expectations
The shift to remote work for large segments of the workforce was sudden, and many employers didn’t have sufficient time to plan for the new reality. As companies sought to adapt, many put haphazard productivity measures in place that don’t necessarily measure truly valuable metrics and often aren’t even communicated fully to the staff whose productivity is being measured.
“First and foremost when measuring employee productivity there should be a clear discussion and agreement on the expectations and what job success looks like for that employee,” says Vivek Chugh, founder and CEO of Listables.
“Once that is established the best way to ensure employees are on task is to have milestones or key performance indicators,” Chugh adds. “If everyone is on the same page of what the end goal is you hopefully should not have to micro-manage them to reach those goals.”
Focus on Outcomes, Not Time
One of the biggest mental challenges for many managers is shifting their focus to actual outcomes rather than time on the clock. This runs contrary to how many managers have viewed employee management for the bulk of their careers. But historically, managers tend to miss the true measure of productivity.
“Focus on ‘results’ not 8–5.’ Who cares if your employee takes a nap in the middle of the day and then is energized to power through later in the afternoon?” says Tara Bethell of Copper Quail Consulting. “Who cares if an employee writes at 10 o’clock in the evening or 4 o’clock in the morning if that’s when their creativity strikes? Who cares if an employee stops working in the middle of the day to snuggle with their kids or pets who will not be with us forever?”
“I don’t care about these things,” Bethell says. “What I do care about are results. Are my employees delivering on their projects on time and with great quality? Are they responsive to clients and coworkers? If the answers are yes, it doesn’t matter how they structure their day at home.”
Marlo Green, SPHR, SHRM, owner of Green Ocean HR, agrees and says he has actually seen an increase in employee productivity with the shift to remote work. “I passionately believe that for the most part, productivity as a whole has increased allowing employees to work from home,” he says.
“It is important for managers to understand that it is not realistic for employees to sit at a desk from 8-5 and only get up for lunch or a quick bathroom break,” Green adds. “For my employees, I give them the opportunity to check-out as needed to balance home and life.”
There are times, says Green, when employees start work early before the kids wake and check out for a couple of hours and then come back online. When you can’t monitor time, you can and should monitor output.
To ensure the job is getting done and everyone is on the same page, Green created an MS Planner page to show everyone the top three to five goals the company needs to accomplish during work from home. This, says Green, allowed his team to update their information while keeping him in the loop on a regular basis.
Instead of beating their heads against the wall trying to tightly monitor employee activity, managers need to be willing to trust employees to manager their time effectively.
“First, remove the word ‘monitor’ from your vocabulary and your practices,” suggests Bethell. “Using monitoring services for employees is a surefire way to erode their trust and drive engagement into the tank.”
“Set up a reporting system to record projects and work completed on at least a weekly basis that puts the onus on the employee to provide all the information to the manager on what has been accomplished and what they need to move forward, as well as any feedback they may have on what made work harder or easier for them that week,” she suggests.
“Employers should make sure they are involved in creating the initial questions employees need to answer during their reporting process, and clarify those questions or add to them on an as-needed basis, as well as be willing to change reporting frequency if needed based on employee performance,” Spawn adds.
Finally, flexibility is key in the new environment. What works for one business may not work for another. Similarly, what works for one employee may not work for another within the same company, department, or even team.
“Be open, patient, flexible, and communicative with your employees. This is more important now than ever before,” says Bethell. “When you hear them out, take time to consider, and then give them a straight yes or no and the thinking behind it, they will respect you.”
“You can use this uncertain time in history to show you care about your employees, that you are there for them, and that they can trust you,” Bethell adds.
For remote work arrangements to succeed, there must be a level of trust between remote workers and their managers and the organization. At the same time, it’s understandable that managers want to have a way to monitor staff and their productivity.
After all, that’s a key part of managers’ jobs. With the need to continue remote work for the foreseeable future, this is a critical time to begin thinking about how you can monitor and measure employee contributions based on output (specific goals and objectives) rather than input (time).