I recently read that over a quarter of the world’s population is now on lockdown because of the impact of COVID 19. This means that many of us are adjusting to the prospect of working at home for the foreseeable future – probably for several weeks or months. This is a challenge for both individuals and leaders and has led to questions about how we might maintain workers’ productivity – and their wellbeing – when they are working away from the office for a sustained period of time.
Much of the research on working at home and productivity suggests that workers are more productive when they are allowed to work at home. These studies however were based on individuals that chose to work at home because this was preferable to them and had time to consider the adjustments that might be needed. Here are four areas that might be considered in order to maintain productivity (and wellbeing) during this long period of enforced home working.
One thing that I have learned in the past week is that I can’t work at home for a long period in the same way that I would if I was just working here for a few hours – on the sofa with everything piled on the floor in front of me. In order to make this sustainable, and to allow workers to be productive, it is essential to carve out some space in the house for work. Some employees might be lucky enough to have an office, while others will need to commandeer a table to turn into their working area. Having a dedicated space in the home allows people to create the mindset that they are “at work”, signalling to themselves and to others in the home that they are working. Comfort and equipment are also important: employees might need certain technology in order to be productive –for instance, a laptop, an internet connection and the required software – as well as a sufficient light, air and a suitable chair. Generally it is more difficult to consider these aspects when employees are working at home but they should not be forgotten.
Space to work is not only about physical space but also about creating the time and mental space to be productive. I have observed with interest the ongoing debate in the past week between those who are able to work at home in peace and quiet (and thus are potentially more productive) and those who are forced to balance work with childcare and other caring responsibilities on an ongoing basis. There is no best answer to how workers can manage these situations – some can close the door of their workspace and encourage other family members to stay away. Others have taken to working at different hours to usual to maintain this. Whatever the method this undoubtedly takes some negotiation with others in the household and a certain degree of trail and error. For managers, it is important to understand and make allowances for the difficulties that are bound to be experienced by employees. It is also vital to encourage them to structure their day and allow for separation between work and home life (whatever that is). For some, the temptation when working at home with no interruptions is to carry on working into the evening. Downtime is as important now as ever, in order to maintain both wellbeing and productivity. It is therefore important that managers give clear messages to their team members in this regard.
3. Communication and Collaboration
It is well known that home workers can feel isolated and lonely, therefore it is absolutely essential to create a means by which the team can communicate and collaborate in real time. This is important to allow work tasks to be undertaken but also to maintain relationships within a team and to maintain employee engagement and wellbeing. It’s important for managers to facilitate both formal and informal interaction, as well as to maintain individual contact with employees in a way that ensures everybody can access the technology provided and join in conversations so that nobody is disadvantaged. It’s easy to forget issues around employee experience and engagement in these times, but evidence suggests that never is it more important than in a time of crisis in order to maintain a sense of belonging and purpose within a team.
4. Outcomes based performance management
Finally, evidence suggests that many managers find it difficult to manage the performance, and indeed the career progression, of individuals who work remotely. Managers are sometimes reliant on the visibility of employees and whether they can see them “working hard” and “doing the right things”. When only some of our workforce are working at home, this often leads to them being overlooked in relation to career progression opportunities. The fact that everyone is working at home means that managers need to move to an outcome-focused way of managing performance. It is more important than ever to set clear and unambiguous objectives in relation to what we are expecting from each employee and then evaluate these based on outcomes rather than by observing the work itself. This is a difficult (if subtle) transition for many but is essential if managers are going to continue to monitor their employees’ productivity during this challenging time.
In sum, it is not only as individuals that people need to adapt to working at home but also as managers. Managing a remote team requires increased attention to communication and support, and a different approach to managing performance as well as a willingness to provide advice to employees on how to manage their space and time. Attending to these issues will not only get organisations through this crisis but will also develop managers to be better leaders in the future.