Coronavirus (COVID-19), Learning & Development

Time to Refocus Training on Remote Work?

Currently, huge numbers of American workers are working remotely as a way to promote social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19. Employers’ mind-set has been that the current situation is a necessary temporary measure as we ride out the worst of the pandemic. However, as the virus is rebounding in many states where social distancing and business closure restrictions have been removed or lessened, it looks like the country may still be in for months of remote work.

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izusek / E+ / Getty Images

This isn’t all bad for businesses.

It Hasn’t Been All Bad

Even employers that were previously resistant to remote work have been coming around after the COVID-triggered forced experiment.

“Even as dozens of states have begun to partly reopen months after the initial shutdowns, experts said that past stigma around working from home has largely been lifted and that they expected much more remote work to be incorporated into office life for the foreseeable future,” writes Daniella Silva in an article for NBC News.

These employers are seeing that their worst fears of remote work haven’t materialized: Productivity hasn’t plummeted, they are still able to communicate with and keep track of staff, etc.

The Benefits of Being Remote

Additionally, many employers are opening their eyes to the benefits of remote work.

For example:

  • Employees given the option for remote work tend to have higher levels of overall employee satisfaction.
  • That satisfaction ties directly to increased employee retention and lower turnover. Additionally, in the “new normal,” companies that don’t offer remote work options may be at a distinct disadvantage with respect to recruiting and retention over those that do.
  • In the long term, with more employees working from home, companies can see reduced costs because of a reduced need for physical office spaces.
  • Companies that offer remote work can expand their pool of potential talent far beyond the confines of their geographical location.

These benefits, along with the potential permanent changes to employee expectations and the broader business landscape, mean that remote work could be here to stay.

Perhaps surprisingly, increased productivity has been the most beneficial aspect of remote work. While remote work is not for everyone, in general, data suggest that remote workers are actually slightly more productive than on-site workers.

However, not all work is created equal, and certain tasks often suffer when performed off-site. This means employers and HR departments need to rethink their current training practices, not just in terms of delivery methods—i.e., on demand, remote, etc.—but also in terms of what to change.

Tasks That Lend Themselves to Remote Work

“[A] 2012 study found that people performed ‘dull’ tasks better in a controlled cubicle setting than they did in a less-structured remote environment,” writes Cory Stieg. “The reason? If you’re in a less-structured environment, but you’re faced with a boring assignment, ordinary distractions (like walking your dog, doing your laundry or watching TV) seem more interesting, Glenn Dutcher, assistant professor at Ohio University who has studied the effects of telecommuting on creativity and productivity, tells CNBC Make It.”

Boosting Productivity from Afar

So, what can employees do to help avoid those distractions and ensure they don’t experience a remote work productivity drop? We suggest a couple of strategies:

  • Dedicated workspace: If productivity-sucking distractions are coming from kids, pets, the TV, chores, etc., try setting up a dedicated workspace that is free of those distractions, and set aside dedicated time to stay in that space.
  • Break work into chunks: When faced with the prospect of a full morning, full afternoon, or even full day of plugging away at a tedious task, it’s easy to see how distractions can sneak in. Try breaking work into shorter chunks of time based on the category or type of work or even based on completing a certain amount as a goal.
  • Take breaks: This may sound counterintuitive, but breaks are actually important to help stay focused. A scheduled 15-minute break could save far more than that amount of time in unscheduled breaks spent on distractions.

It can be difficult for employees to focus on dull, tedious work in any environment. But data suggest it is especially difficult when working remotely, due in large part to the high potential for distraction. But the reality is that many staff members are going to be forced to work remotely for the foreseeable future, and that includes those focused on “dull” tasks.

Training them on how to avoid distractions and maintain productivity while performing those tasks will be an important part of any remote work strategy.