Knowing the productivity of one’s labor force is important for business success, and greater productivity provides benefits to the company as well as the employee. Measuring the productivity of our labor force hasn’t changed. To measure productivity in a work from home (WFH) environment we would still calculate the units of output per labor hour. As we continue to utilize the WFH structure we’re beginning to find interesting results.
Let’s start by answering the question “Why are businesses so interested in the WFH productivity?” The benefits that can be accrued from the potential productivity improvements brought about by WFH are significant.
Done right, improved productivity provides the organization with greater profitability, lower operating costs, more time to focus on growth, greater competitive advantages, and improved customer experiences. However, done wrong it can potentially damage the company performance in all those areas.
Productivity can also benefit the employee. Highly productive employees tend to be more engaged and have higher levels of morale with less work-related stress or burnout. This allows them to be eligible for greater recognition, compensation, career advancement, or other workplace rewards. Certainly, the overall performance of an employee involves more than just productivity, but productivity is a significant factor.
When the pandemic forced a WFH environment there was a certain amount of apprehension about how to make it work coupled with a degree of excitement around eliminating the commute, getting that extra hour of sleep in the morning, being in the comfortable environment of your own home, working flex hours, etc. But as the reality of the situation takes hold we’re starting to see a variety of results. Some WFH employees are reaching a degree of frustration. Initially, they found themselves more productive, but now balancing the work and home environment is becoming more challenging.
Others find the WFH environment very beneficial. They find themselves more focused and productive, and enjoy the flexibilities that come with things like location independence and flexible hours. So how do we know when we’re truly getting improved productivity? The first thing we need to understand is that WFH employees tend to fall into one of two categories, independent and interactive.
Independent employees tend to have jobs that are more rote or routine in nature. It may be repetitive type work that is individually focused. These positions tend to be in controlled environments with limited need for external interaction, such as data processing, call center, or computer programmers, etc. Individuals with this type of work environment tend to be much more productive in the WFH model.
Employees with positions that are more interactive, complex, or dynamic may not enjoy much improvement in productivity. These positions may require cross departmental collaboration for problem solving, creativity, or generative type work. The demands for high levels of collaboration appear to decrease productivity when interaction is forced into a remote environment for all their tasks, all the time.
Measuring productivity when everyone worked in the office was somewhat easier. Businesses could easily identify the work hours and costs associated with generating outputs, but in a WFH environment that may not be as easy to calculate and the productivity improvements that have been identified in the WFH approach may not be as great as they seem. Businesses need to be sure that their productivity measures account for the number of hours people are actually working. Flex hours has created a situation where workers are putting in hours beyond just the 8 hour workday. They may be producing more outputs, but they may also be putting in more hours.
Additionally, in some cases the employees are carrying some of the costs previously paid for by the company. Overhead costs such as computers, printers, phones, utilities, office supplies, office space, and even coffee or break room expenses may now be borne by the employee. Businesses need to be sure to balance the benefit they receive from WFH with the needs of their employees.
Here are some strategies for ensuring that your WFH productivity improvements are real and sustainable.
- Increase Engagement with Employees – Whether through individual or teams intentionally increase the interaction with your employees. Management and employee attendance at meetings, social or otherwise should be expected. It’s easy to say, I’m busy at that time and not join the video meeting.
- Improve Communications with Subordinates – Schedule frequent and regular meetings with your subordinates. This should not be so frequent as to be seen as micro-managing. Meetings should be conducted, not as performance evaluations, but as coaching sessions. For more details on appropriate coaching methods, read my blog on “Creating a High-Performance Team.” Identify employee needs and help them address challenges.
- Provide Professional Development Opportunities – Employees in a WFH environment may be sacrificing the daily interaction with peers that provided guidance and mentoring. These interactions increased the value an employee delivered to the organization. Through mentoring, training, or other professional development opportunities ensure that you grow the value of your workforce.
- Provide Recognition for Accomplishments – When individuals or teams perform at or above expectations proactively acknowledge your appreciation for their efforts. If the individuals involved are comfortable with it, recognize them publicly, within the organization or the community.
- Maintain Open Communication Channels – Allow your employees to reach you when needed. Attempt to be as accessible as you can. When working from home an employee can feel very isolated. The inability to reach management when needed is frustrating, and they can’t just walk down the hall to get the quick answer or insight needed.
The only way you get to capture the long-term benefits of WFH is with intentional management of the environment and remembering that your employees are your most valuable asset.