The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the shift to remote work inevitable for non-essential businesses. For employees, the challenges are well-documented—from balancing work with child care to engaging without colleagues nearby. For employers, meanwhile, a key area of concern has been productivity. A few months in, many bosses remain unsure that their teams work as effectively outside the office. Some have gone so far as to track employee hours via a variety of methods ranging from practical to controversial.
But while employers debate the practicality and longevity of remote work, workers are thriving. According to a survey from Azurite Consulting, 72% of managers said they were at least as efficient working from home, while 68% of employees felt the same.
Other data sources about remote work are yielding some interesting insights that can help shape workforce policy in the future. The consensus? The pre-COVID-19 definition of productivity no longer applies. Increasingly, productivity will have to be measured by projects completed and goals met, not hours worked. But more importantly, worker productivity won’t be unlocked through surveillance or monitoring. Rather, employers must empower their teams with data so that they can drive their own productivity.
Employees Are Most Productive When They’re in Control
Even amidst the disruption of COVID-19, workers across industries have somehow been able to maintain quality of performance. Why? They’re no longer tied to a set number of hours in the office. Instead, people work during times when they’re most productive on an individual level.
MyRoofingPal, a company that up until recently adhered to a traditional five-day work week, has switched over to a four day week after noticing key patterns in employee performance on Fridays. "Prior to moving to four-day weeks, we noticed both the quantity and quality of work decreased later in the week. We also received more requests for PTO on Fridays than any other day of the week. By going to four, 10-hour days, we improved productivity. Since the change, we receive fewer PTO requests overall, too," Jesse Silkoff, the company’s co-founder says.
Simply put, identifying times during the day when they’re most productive helps employees work better.
Responsibility is empowering, freeing, and energizing, says Michael Gordon, founder of CareerCloud. "When no one is watching over my shoulder of how I spend my time, I'm better at time-boxing, and getting more done per hour. There is this self-reinforcing cycle: I'm getting work done, I feel good about it so I don't feel bad about working out mid-day, or even taking an extra half-day off to play with my kids, then I feel refreshed and rejuvenated and like my life is in balance," he explains.
But how can employees get a better sense of when they work best? Though mandatory surveillance and other monitoring can feel invasive, encouraging workers to voluntarily time-keep for their own benefit could pay off. "Employees who track their time will likely be more in-tune with their peak productivity hours, which will help them better schedule their day's tasks. Employers, on the other hand, can use this data for a bigger picture with insight into organizational time-sucks, top-performing employees, the company's most profitable endeavors, and more," Miguel Guardo, customer satisfaction lead at BeeBole, a timesheet provider, says.
For Peak Productivity, Work Must Fall Into Two Buckets
While data suggests that employees are finding ways to be efficient and effective in a remote environment, experts agree office environments play an important role in productivity. For creative jobs especially, collaborative, in-person interactions (brainstorms, impromptu discussions) are critical to success. With uncertainty still looming around COVID-19, it’s likely that even as restrictions ease, many workers will have to work remotely at least some of the time. But the challenges of remote work won’t go away—there are distractions, there’s limited collaboration and burnout can happen.
Cameron Powell, CEO of High Performance Story and co-founder of Humancentric Labs, leads an effort rising out of Silicon Valley to study employee work habits in the "new normal." Along with the London School of Economics and Collabworks, Humancentric Labs is conducting an ongoing poll evaluating the changes COVID-19 has wrought in offices and work style. Preliminary findings suggest that a mix of work from home and engagement with colleagues is best, according to Humancentric Lab.
"Businesses will need to divide work into two basic buckets: collaborative work, which is most productive face to face, and deep focus work, which can be done at home, a co-working space, or at a coffee shop," Powell says.
Employers looking for immediate insights about their employees can also make some simple changes. Conduct a Pulse survey to assess how employees are feeling about their workloads, how they’re coping with change and whether they’re in a positive mental state. Act on the results by offering resources to help, like learning materials that strengthen adaptability or information on your company’s wellness program.
And above all else, empower employees with access to their own data. Whether it’s insight into patterns on their timesheets, or a view of how much time they’re spending with your organization’s LMS, information is power. It can set them up for success and help your business thrive, too.
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Genuine Ways to Connect With People Remotely
With the stress of being newly remote comes a focus on logistics: How do I get my webcam to work? What does it mean if someone isn’t responding to my email? What if my internet goes out in the middle of a big presentation? But moving past all that, zero in on why you’re trying to connect remotely in the first place—and how you can accomplish that goal. Without the ability to read body language, have discussions without lag time and quickly catch up on the fly, the human element of work can get lost. Remember that a big reason people love (or don’t love) their jobs is their connection to their colleagues. So as we adapt to a remote world, let’s refocus on that. Engaging Informally Telecommuting technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years as more and more people work from home, connect during business trips and set up remote offices. Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts—they were all invented so that we could have meetings and collaborate effectively on work projects when we’re not face-to-face. The technology is great for that, but it can—and should—serve another central purpose: building and keeping our human connections with colleagues. Think about everything you’re able to do informally when you’re in an office environment that you’re unable to do now. I’ll start the list for you: Stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question Catch up on personal lives in the break room or at the elevator Debrief a meeting after it’s officially over on your way out the door Invite nearby colleagues to join you on a trip to find some coffee Hear your coworkers getting excited about something and ask what’s going on Organize a standing happy hour There’s a lot there, right? And we don’t want to lose all those opportunities to connect with people. So, the question becomes: how can we simulate them within the confines of a remote experience? Creating this type of intimate, collegial environment requires two things—culture and planning. Ways to Build Culture Online With quick access communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace Chat, people can virtually "stop by someone’s desk" to catch up or talk about non-work things, but most need a precedent for it. Oftentimes, we think (consciously or unconsciously) that these workplace communication tools should be used exclusively for work. But building or maintaining relationships with coworkers is an important part of work, so use them for personal connections as well. Send a Slack question whenever it pops into your mind (and try to respond quickly and graciously when someone reaches out to you!) Make it a habit to ask your teammates how their day is going, if they did anything fun over the weekend and whether they caught the latest episode of that TV show you both watch. Reach out to a colleague or two after a meeting to share how you thought it went, anything you’re excited or unsure about or any ideas you didn’t get a chance to share. Post your excitement about topics that colleagues might find relevant or interesting on a Slack channel. Encourage others to do all of the above! Plan With Purpose Accidentally blurring the line between work and socializing isn’t exactly possible when you’re remote—you have to deliberately cross it. Schedule time for all of the things you’d normally do ad hoc, such as: Virtual coffee. It sounds corny, but have you ever done it? It can be really wonderful. Talk about whatever you want—work, life—but if you talk about work, don’t talk about projects or action items. Focus more on feelings, things you’re excited about, frustrated about, etc. to provide a sense of connection. Pad your online interactions with time for informal chat. Start 1:1s with some "how are you/what’s new?" talk and make sure you share and set the tone for real connection. Plan group hangouts. Get the team together and have everyone bring a beverage or snack of choice. Play an online game (my office is exploring the Jackbox suite of games you play through your phone and computer). Remember when you were a teenager and you would sit on the phone with someone for hours and sometimes not even talk? You’d just be doing your homework or something, but they were there? Try this with work. Maybe both you and a colleague have a deep-think project to work on and could use the occasional outside perspective. Schedule time to be online together doing your separate work, with the ability to ask for feedback or suggestions whenever the moment strikes. At the end of the day, logistics are important. If you can’t hear or see someone, it will obviously be hard to communicate with them. But don’t stop at that surface level. Focusing on building human connection with your colleagues through culture and planning will help you develop and maintain the relationships that are the lifeblood of successful work. Rae Feshbach is the Head of Content Engagement at Cornerstone.
Beam to Work: 6 Remote Jobs of the Future
Telecommuting allows employees to work away from the mothership, but we’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to remote jobs. As part of an effort to educate children and parents about future career opportunities, Martha Turner and her colleagues at CST Consultants predicted jobs that will exist in 2030. Among them: robot counselor and agile supply chain manager. "Technology is a big component of the jobs of 2030, and that’s largely because it really fuels the opportunities for growth in the marketplace through innovation," says Turner, vice president at CST. Employees already are beaming into the office via robots and telepresence technology. Here are six jobs that will take remote working to the next level. 1. Tele-surgeon For people living in rural areas, access to healthcare — particularly skilled surgeons — remains limited. "We can leverage robotic tools to operate on patients in remote locations," Turner says. Tele-surgery involves a combination of robotic surgery tools, scanning and sensing technologies and high-speed networks. Tele-surgeons will need an understanding of robotic technologies and video systems in addition to steady hands. 2. Drone-operating farmer "Drones may feel like science fiction to us today, but in fact they already have some small commercial applications today," Turner says. Agricultural use will make up 80 percent of the commercial market for drones, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Farmers "are going to be able to see things and monitor their crops in ways they never have before. In the next 10 years almost every farm will be using it," Kevin Price, executive vice president of applied research and technology development at RoboFlight, tells USA Today. Drones will help farmers identify insect problems and watering issues, assess crop yields and track down wandering cattle, to name a few use cases. 3. Healthcare coordinator Doctors are gaining more access to real-time patient data through connected devices while machines are increasingly automating parts of routine doctor visits. This means that at least some healthcare professionals will take on overseer roles, says Matthew Holt, cofounder of Health 2.0, a conference focused on new forms of medicine. "The trend towards team-based care for most patients plus the growth of video consults ... will see the emergence of a mission control function for medical professionals," Holt says. "More doctors will devote at least some of their day to managing teams who are managing patients," he says, adding that doctors will be more location independent. 4. Telecommuting teacher In California, A.P. history students at Redlands East Valley and Orangewood High School tune into class at Citrus Valley High, where their teacher instructs via telepresence. We’ll see more examples of teachers who connect remotely to students, making more classes available and adaptable to students’ schedules. Teachers will use additional tools to extend learning beyond the classroom. Fifth-graders in Houston recently took a virtual field trip to Mars, with a lesson from experts at NASA using Google Hangouts. 5. Landlocked ship captain You’ve heard of — or maybe even seen — driverless cars, but what about captainless ships? Rolls Royce and a handful of other organizations are designing ships that captains would operate from a virtual bridge on dry land. These automated vessels would have little to no crew on board during deep sea legs of their journeys. Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the shipping industry, and they could be navigating the Baltic Sea within the next decade, according to Rolls Royce. 6. Connected grid directors Sensors are being embedded in infrastructure from highways to water treatment plants, collecting data on traffic patterns, energy use and all kinds of indicators critical to how we run cities. A regional grid director — a title coined by CST researchers — would use this data to determine how resources are best distributed across city grids and among different regions. For any type of remote work, employees will need to hone in on communication skills, Turner says. "There’s more of a need for you to be able to get along with diverse groups of people. You need to be able to work through different cultures and preferences for work styles," she says. "Your ability to go and not just have that technical knowledge, or specialized knowledge in your field, but be able to communicate and sell it is going to be very, very important."
ICYMI: Protecting Gig Worker’s in Today’s Workforce
The phrase "gig economy" isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a reality that’s changing the very nature of work. It broadly refers to an array of short-term work arrangements held by independent contractors and contract firm workers, as well as temp and on-call workers, among others. The recent uptick in "gig" opportunities is due, in part, to how relatively easy the internet makes it to find remote opportunities. Online platforms like Uber, Postmates and Airbnb are fueled by gig workers, and in other corporate or creative industries, this trend is becoming more popular, too. Today, up to one-third of the U.S. workforce participates in the gig economy. To better understand this growing cohort of employees, freelance marketplace Fiverr commissioned market research firm Rockbridge Associates to analyze more than 20 million tax returns for non-employer entities. The results revealed that in the top 25 markets for gig work, the population grew by 14% over a period of five years, their earnings grew by 19% and as a group, they’ve contributed more than $135 billion to their local economies—that’s between 1 and 2% of GDP, depending on the market. There’s no denying that gig workers are playing a significant role in our economy today, but what’s being done to empower and protect them? According to Rockbridge’s research, not enough. The study revealed key areas where freelancers need the government to step in and support them—and some states are already taking measures to offer the protection they need. Better Internet Access Geographic flexibility is one of the main factors that makes gig work so appealing, since it makes maintaining work-life balance more attainable. With a gig-based position, employees can find ways to fit work into their schedule in a way that makes them happier and more efficient. They can drop off their kids at soccer practice or check in on their elderly parents during the day before returning home to finish up some work. But the key to this flexibility is often affordable and reliable internet access. Though it may seem like connectivity is a given, the U.S. actually ranks tenth in average connection speed, behind countries like South Korea, Norway and Japan, according to Akamai’s State of the Internet report. Though local initiatives, such as the New NY Broadband Program, the FCC’s Lifeline program and other municipal wireless movements, have made strides to introduce faster and easily accessible internet in certain areas, there’s more work to do on a national level to ensure that the growing class of freelance workers can continue to thrive from wherever they choose to work. On Time Payment Protection While full-time employees typically enjoy the benefit of regular, predictable salaries, freelancers’ paychecks are often less stable. And, according to Rockbridge’s research, it’s a big hurdle preventing the gig economy from exploding further. Today, legal protection for skilled gig workers varies widely and depends on different factors, including whether they are freelance contractors or run their own corporations. But some states are working to give freelancers more control and legal protection when it comes to getting paid. For example, New York City’s "Freelance Isn’t Free" Act of 2017 gave the self-employed important legal protections that make it easier for them to earn a sustainable living. The law established the right of freelance workers to secure a written contract with their employers, ensuring timely and full payment and protection from retaliation if any issues arise. And, just recently, AB5, a proposition to prevent companies from abusing how they pay independent contractors, moved closer to being passed, despite pushback from Uber, Lyft and other gig economy companies. Though the proposed law is designed to protect low-income workers (not necessarily just gig employees), it may provide payment protection for the self-employed as well. For example, if approved, companies like Uber would have to classify drivers as employees and compensate them accordingly. As the gig economy continues to expand across industries and age groups, it will become increasingly important to protect this growing class of workers. Identifying the challenges they face and working to eliminate them when possible will not only improve their employees experiences, but likely boost local economies as well. Photo: Creative Commons