Are Your Remote Workers Staying Productive?

Every manager knows the satisfaction of walking into a bustling office — the air thick with ringing phones and group chatter — and feeling an immense sense of pride in productivity. Now, without an office to walk into or employee voices to hear, corporate leadership is suddenly feeling panicked — how do I know that my employees are working if I can’t see them? 

The Industrial Revolution was a critical time as the birth of colocated workforces and modern management. Manufacturing was dependent on heavy, expensive machinery, so workers flocked to urban factories for employment. In this new work model, the role of managers was to physically monitor the physical workflows based on physical tools that were producing physical products.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries. Since the 1960s, the roles of knowledge workers have become less and less physical, to the point where we now have virtual workflows based on virtual tools that are producing virtual products. But we are still managing this work with physical monitoring. It’s time to update our leadership styles to match the virtual workplaces of the modern business world. 

Being worried about not being able to watch the productivity of workers, is evidence of lingering physical management habits. In remote work, sensory criteria such as “watching” and “hearing” need to be updated with new supervisory methods. The productivity and success of our virtual workforces can be just as “visible,” if you first understand what that looks like in a digital business world. Follow these five steps to manage the performance of your virtual employees and ensure they are staying productive, regardless of their workplace

1. Set Expectations 

— In March of this year, millions of professionals were simultaneously sent away from the office with the instructions to “work from home.” But what does it mean to “work?” That may seem like a ridiculous question, but remember that in an office, you are on the clock simply by being in the building. When at home, you don’t get credit for just being present, so a new standard needs to be set. Start by refreshing the objectives and key results (OKRs) and key performance indicators (KPIs) of each role. What are the tasks and behaviors that constitute “work” and differentiate business time from personal time? Discuss as a team what it means to be visible, active, and accessible in your new virtual workplace. 

2. Define Productivity

— Again, this may seem like a trivial exercise, but you may be shocked to learn how misunderstood this topic usually is. The fact is that most managers are terrified that their remote workforce won’t work without supervision, so they assign more work and reporting rituals to enforce. However, on average, virtual professionals are 40% more productive than they were in an office, so the additional assignments and compounding pressure from their leadership leads to an “always on” mindset in which they’re working too many hours and eventually succumb to burnout or culture toxicity. So, when creating assignments, express trust and value to your team by diversifying the definition of “productivity” by blocking time for multiple types of work, including strategy, networking, brainstorming, research, testing, planning, feedback, troubleshooting, correspondence, etc. 

3. Monitor Only for Compliance 

— Employee monitoring software is surging in popularity as leadership desperately tries to ensure consistent productivity of it’s unsupervised workforce. These are critical and valuable tools in remote work, but are often misused by doubtful leadership. By recording webpage urls, tracking keyboard activity, or activating webcam surveillance, managers are expecting to force their staff to stay busy and prevent distractions. But with these methods the original problem still exists – they are only measuring activity, not accomplishment. This is the world in which a paperweight on the keyboard can earn “employee of the month.” So unless you are required to use these tools for legal or reporting purposes, steer clear. They’re only sending the message to your team that they are mindlessly incapable of self-management. 

4. Track Results 

— If you are only concerned about your employees staying busy, are you really fulfilling your objectives as a manager? Isn’t the real goal of productivity to produce? If so, then stop rewarding the race instead of crossing the finish line. By using a project management software, you can more clearly track the assignments and accomplishments of each team member. Then, at the end of a day or week, you get a nice, clean report of each individual’s success. Just remember to accurately define “results” (from Step 2) to also include learnings and accomplishments, since an over-emphasis on deliverables can lead to burnout.

5. Communication is (Still) King 

— You may pour over productivity reports and job descriptions for hours at a time, but you are never going to get to the root of the problem with an underperforming team member unless you talk to them directly. With face-to-face interaction limited to phone and video calls, many managers are hesitant to conduct performance reviews while working from home. But being in the same room does little to enhance an effective conversation – it’s the tone, questions, empathy, and constructive feedback that will really make or break the success of the discussion; all of which are irrelevant to proximity. Don’t allow the excuse of distance to disconnect you from your team during a time when they need your support the most. 

The entire business world is in the midst of a historical virtualization. Nothing is exempt from impact — our tools, our workplaces, our process… and especially our management methods. So, maybe it’s not our workforces that need the supervision, it’s the leaders.

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