The Tipping Point

How can companies stay productive as they embrace remote work?

Remote working came to the American workplace gradually, then suddenly. For years, employers have been slowly warming to work-from-home policies — but the arrival of COVID-19 forced many to transition almost all their employees to remote work virtually overnight.

The big question now is what that rapid transition will do to employees’ productivity. Even before the pandemic, employers viewed remote work with a degree of ambivalence: on the one hand, studies show that workers are frequently more productive after moving off-site. On the other, who knows what all those unsupervised employees are getting up to, and whether they’re really working as hard as they should? 

In the new era of widespread lockdowns and near-universal remote work, such questions have become an existential challenge. Companies urgently need to find ways to capture the theoretical productivity gains of off-site work — and leaders need to find ways to keep the wheels spinning, even though  for most employees “heading to the office” now means moving from the couch to the kitchen table.

Toward peak productivity

During normal times, remote working drives significant productivity gains. One call center found agents made 13.5% more calls when working from home, putting in the equivalent of an extra full workday per week. According to Gallup, workers are most productive when they spend between 60% and 80% of their time off-site. 

What’s behind that uptick in output? Simply put, it’s the fact that remote working eliminates the distractions and downsides of the centralized workplace. Cutting lengthy commutes literally gives your employees more hours in their day. They won’t spend that time working, and nor should they — but increased time for extracurriculars, from exercise to volunteering, leaves employees more energized and focused when it’s time to work.

The benefits accrue in other ways, too. Telecommuting is better for the planet and easier on employees’ wallets. Everyone loves being able to wear pajamas all day — at least from the waist down. And employees with children appreciate being able to take time for the small, important rituals of domestic life. Because workers aren’t scrambling to juggle personal priorities, they accrue less non-productive time, putting in an extra day and a half of work each month compared to on-site workers.

Productivity, interrupted

The big question is whether remote work remains a productivity multiplier during the current period of economic and social turmoil. With kids off-school, spouses and roommates working from home, protests in the streets, and neighbors practicing Souza marches on their tuba, it can be tough to stay focused. One study found that productivity dropped slightly after the switch to remote work — unsurprising, perhaps, but a trend that managers are keen to reverse. 

Near-universal remote working can also lead to feelings of isolation as workers fall out of sync with colleagues. With no offices, there’s little incentive to stick to office hours, and with so many distractions employees often find themselves working late to catch up. If other team-members are early birds, that can lead to a situation where colleagues barely speak to one another from one day to the next.

What’s needed is a way to help workers manage stressors, stay organized, and feel connected and engaged. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done — and in many cases, well-meaning managers are inadvertently making a difficult situation worse. 

Remote control?

As leaders, it’s easy to feel that the remedy for uncertainty is decisiveness, and that the best way to help isolated, confused, or disorganized workers is to proactively steer them in the right direction. Telling workers what, how, and when they should work might succeed as a short-term intervention, but when it comes to maximizing productivity it’s unlikely to yield results. 

After all, micromanagement and close oversight are directly opposed to the flexibility, freedom, and personal responsibility that make remote workers more productive. Teams need clear goals and strong leadership, but breathing down people’s necks will only stress them out more and hinder their ability to work effectively.

What’s needed is a results-focused approach: as long as the work gets done, let your employees decide how to juggle their obligations. Seen through this lens, workers staying up late to catch up on work aren’t dropping the ball —  they’re optimizing their schedule to maximize productivity during chaotic times. Only employees themselves know the challenges they’re facing, so empower them to make smart choices about how and when they work. 

A better way

Giving authority to employees doesn’t mean disappearing from view. Clear goal-setting and regular check-ins are vital, and it’s valuable to arrange group chats and report-back sessions to help people stay connected. But be mindful of how your interventions are perceived: mandatory events can stress out workers also seeking to manage home-schooling or other scheduling demands, for instance.

The key is to let employees lead the way. Let them set their schedules and decide how they can be most productive. And if someone has to take a personal day, or to spend an hour in the afternoon finger-painting with their stressed-out toddler, give them the green light — it will make them more productive in the long run.

Above all, make sure you’re giving your employees the support they need, rather than the support you think they need. That’s where self-service tools — such as atSpoke’s AI-powered workplace service desk, which helps teams support each other in Slack — can be a valuable asset, gently encouraging conversations and knowledge-sharing while delivering round-the-clock support in a frictionless, low-pressure way.

The future of work

In the new era of email, Slack, Zoom, and Skype, we have all the tools we need to create smarter, more flexible, and more productive ways of working. To achieve that, though, managers also need to give employees the freedom and support they need to succeed. Despite the challenges we now face, employee engagement is at a historic high. The job of executives, middle managers, and HR teams is to make sure things stay that way, and to facilitate productive work without badgering or burning out already-stressed employees. 

The stakes are high, because the transformation we’re now living through isn’t merely a blip: it’s a true tipping point. With many companies envisioning a permanent switch to remote work, how we handle this transition will shape our working lives long after the pandemic fades. If we play our cards right, we can use this moment to move the ball forward, and create smarter and more productive ways of working that will endure for years to come.

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