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How to prevent plateauing productivity in remote work?

Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay
(Image credit: Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay)

77 percent of employees believe that they are more productive when working from home. In fact, there are many studies that have proved remote workers are indeed more productive than their in-office counterparts.

But the one factor that all of those studies never considered was this–what if employees were forced to work from home while there was a global pandemic going on which forced them into isolation?

Covid-19 forced companies around the world to suddenly go remote with little to no planning. While the first few weeks of remote work were a struggle, what surprised many companies was that their productivity did not sink. Instead, they actually saw an increase in productivity. The employees seemed comfortable working from home and the companies were saving money on infrastructure costs. As a direct result, many companies are planning to move to a remote model permanently.

But is this short-term productivity actually sustainable?

The sudden spike in productivity that many companies have noticed could also just be a desperate response of people to cope up with what is going on around them. While some people are just using work as a distraction to not check the news incessantly, others are putting more effort into their work than they ever did before because they are scared about their job security given unemployment is at an all-time high. 

Whatever the reason might be, remote working the same way you did throughout the lockdown might not work for your company post-lockdown. Organizations need targeted remote work strategies that take their employees’ needs into account to maintain optimum productivity in the long run.

How 2020 changed remote working conditions

As schools open up and people can socialize more post-lockdown, things will definitely get better but prolonged work with no human interactions can eventually cause burnouts which will lead to plateaued productivity. As a result, companies and business leaders need to address the cracks in their remote work strategy to ensure the productivity does not sink even when employees work remotely for a long time.

As employees tried to adapt to the new methods of remote working, their home life became harder than usual. Many employees who live alone are going through enforced isolation which is affecting their mental health. Similarly, parents with small kids are exhausted while juggling homeschooling, childcare, and their actual jobs.

Drawbacks of prolonged remote work

Moreover, there is also a need to compensate for the lack of physical interactions between colleagues through regular virtual team meetings on a video call and company-wide webinars.

-Lack of company culture

Working from home with just a computer screen to keep you company can be very different from the constant hustle-bustle of the office. Managers can't just pull in employees for a 'quick chat' or walk over to their desk to discuss how their work is going.

With a lack of camaraderie, you might eventually lose your company culture where each employee has a different working style and opinion, and there is no sense of belonging. Not only will this lead to lowered productivity but it will also make it difficult for organizations to retain top talent.

-Overcommunication or lack of communication

Getting communication right is one of the biggest challenges faced by remote teams. Employees shouldn’t feel like they are out there on their own with no help from anyone. At the same time, over-communication can make employees feel like their managers don’t put enough trust in them which can eventually lead to frustrations, burnout, and lack of productivity.

Organizations should keep communication asynchronous so that employees can respond back to messages from their colleagues whenever they are available. Managers shouldn’t expect remote team members to be online all the time or answer their messages right away. At the same time, managers should make employees feel comfortable enough to reach out to them with questions or suggestions whenever they want.

-Tackling loneliness and social isolation

This pandemic has induced loneliness and social isolation in people which can have a negative impact on everything including productivity and employee engagement.

It is wrong and tone-deaf to assume that everyone’s home is their ‘peaceful safe haven.’ While many people live with roommates, others have difficult household conditions. Companies need to take a bottom-up approach to understand the challenges faced by their employees in order to create a remote working strategy that actually works for them.

Problems in hiring new remote employees

Prolonged remote work means you would eventually have to hire full-time remote employees who you have never met before. The new employees you hire won’t just need the skills required for the job position, but they should also be comfortable working in a remote environment effectively.

Moreover, when remote employees never personally interact with their team members, the lack of team spirit can make it easier for them to move on to new opportunities. This can directly lead to low retention rates, and make your hiring processes more expensive and time-consuming.

As a result, companies need to change their hiring process that fits the requirements of the remote workforce. All the processes should be documented so that it's easy to onboard new employees. Every new employee should understand the company culture and feel like they are a part of the team in order to improve employee satisfaction and retention.

Getting the best out of remote work to prevent plateauing productivity

1. Be clear and concise in communication

Remote employees need to be as clear and concise in their communication to ensure their colleagues aren’t confused about what needs to be done. This especially applies to team managers, department heads, and other high-level management.

Take a longer time to write about important tasks, instructions, and announcements if needed, but make sure everything you share with your colleagues is easily understandable. When employees know exactly what they need to do, they are able to better perform their work and stay productive. 

2. Be extra flexible

Coronavirus has changed the world as we know it and affected everyone in some way or the other. As people embrace this ‘new normal,’ companies need to be extra flexible for their employees.

Instead of just reprimanding employees for not being productive, managers should conduct routine 1:1 meetings to understand the challenges employees face while working. The idea is to give employees all the assistance and tools they need to manage their work effectively. You can start by giving employees the freedom to choose their own schedule according to what works best for them.

3. Scale back on meetings

Companies need to scale back on the total number and duration of meetings to give remote employees the time to work on their own tasks and to avoid video call fatigue.

The easiest way to do that is by moving to messaging applications or the company’s community boards for collaboration and information sharing. Meetings should only be reserved for important decision making, and even those should be scheduled well in advance.

At the same time, managers should also organize monthly informal discussions with the whole team where everyone can catch up and connect on a personal level to improve team collaboration

4. Make work more asynchronous

Since employees don’t work together at the same time, from the same office, putting too much emphasis on synchronous work will only dampen productivity. After all, team members might not always be available at the same time to coordinate and collaborate.

If you really want your employees to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility of remote work, you need to move to asynchronous work to ensure everyone can do their part of the work, even when their team members are not available.

Create a remote work strategy that works for your company

There is no denying that remote work is the future of work. But for long-term sustainable productivity, every company needs to modify its remote working strategy according to what works best for them. Leaders can also look into digital workplace platforms or remote collaboration tools that can empower employees to work from anyplace, anytime.

While some companies can go fully remote pretty easily, others may still want to give their employees the option to come to the office if they want. After all, some teams may need more face-to-face time than others to work productively. Forcing employees to work remotely is the same as forcing them to come to the office every day. Instead, you should take a bottom-up approach to understand the employee needs and challenges, and then create a remote work strategy accordingly.

Dinesh Varadharajan, Vice President, Kissflow