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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.