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Research suggests employees and managers at odds over the future of remote working - how can we get them on the same page

remote work
(Image credit: Image Credit: Thefarmsoho.com)

Returning to office life has been a subject playing on many people’s minds lately, however it seems unlikely that many people will return to an office full time, if at all. A recent article from the BBC stated that “Almost all of 50 of the UK's biggest employers questioned by the BBC have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time.” 

In Clear Review’s 2021 Annual Performance Management Report we can see that whilst many of us may be happy to continue working remotely, there are some concerns from management and HR Directors about how this will impact businesses in the long run. Our data shows that some 45 percent of HR Directors are concerned about the impact working from home is having on performance and productivity. 

Whilst it might seem that the reason for this is an out-and-out lack of trust between employer and employee, it is more likely a simple lack of visibility of what people are doing, and how their work contributes to the business. When staff are in offices they are visible to HR and managers. Seeing someone at a desk gives the impression of productivity, but in reality, all it demonstrates is that someone is sat in their place of work.

How can we build confidence in performance and productivity whilst managing people remotely?

Simply put, the best way to truly manage a person’s productivity and performance is to set them clear goals which are relevant to the business’s strategic objectives, and to have frequent, open and honest check-in conversations with people to discuss progress against those goals, feedback, and any blockers or challenges people are facing.  

This process is known as continuous performance management and is rapidly being adopted by businesses who are replacing more traditional annual objective and appraisal cycles, which are disengaging, and more about measuring performance and making decisions on pay than they are about driving performance improvement.

These check-ins should be a chance for meaningful conversations, not just a brief ‘how is everything?’ This is a chance for open and honest feedback from both sides, for progress to be tracked and issues to be spotted. The outcome of these meetings can then be logged so HR has an insight on how the employee is doing.

Setting goals

Goal setting is a critical component. In order for teams to truly perform, you need to start by making sure that everyone has a clear understanding of what work is important to the business right now.  By setting short-term achievable goals which are linked to organizational objectives, staff are given a clear objective to work towards, and are more focused than if they are set yearlong objectives, which are easy to forget about and lose motivation with. 

Staff and managers can then schedule check-ins to monitor the progress against these goals. If they are on track and reaching their goals in the set time frame, we know their productivity is where it should be. If their goals are not being met, this flags up to management and HR that perhaps that person’s productivity isn’t where it should be. 

So the key is communication and visibility, but how can you do this effectively whilst staff are remote working? With a performance management platform! It is important that the system your organization uses is easy to navigate and doesn’t require a large amount of training. This could put people off using it and it would prove difficult to get people started with it remotely. By using a simple and fairly self-explanatory platform, staff can get on and start using it straight away.   

Once a performance management platform is implemented, it’s important to get everyone on board with using it regularly. Ideally staff and managers should have check-ins once a month to track progress against goals, but check-ins can be scheduled as frequently as needed. New starters might need to check in once a week for the first few months, or if someone isn’t reaching their set goals managers might wish to make their meeting more regular. 

If implementing a continuous performance management system discussions can begin about what kind of working setup will genuinely work best for the organization, and individuals. It is important to remember that this will be different depending on the person and their role. Some people prefer the quiet of their home, others prefer the buzz of an office, some roles can be done alone, others depend more on team collaboration. 

Edjusting to hybrid life

Communication is the key to getting HR, managers and staff on the same page about remote working. Ensure that whether staff are at home, in the office, or split between the two, that they are having regular, meaningful conversations, so their performance can be continuously managed.     

Here are top tips to help your staff adjust to hybrid life:

Check-in regularly: We believe one of the most important things you can do for your staff is to keep communication open to them. It is always smart to check in regularly with staff to ensure they are working to the best of their ability and have got any blockers or stressors preventing their productivity. During times of change and uncertainty this is more important than ever. 

Ensuring managers are having meaningful conversations with staff at least once a month will mean staff feels listened to, they can voice their issues or concerns with these changes, and your organization has a view on how staff are performing in the new working model. 

Keep them in the loop: Keeping with the theme of good communication, your organization should do its best to keep staff as in the know as it can. A survey by McKinsey & Company stated that “Employees who feel included in more detailed communication are nearly five times more likely to report increased productivity.” Staff wants to know what is happening with their organization and any changes that might affect them and their work. 

Once you know what you hybrid working model will look like, don’t sit on this information for a long time. Sharing this information as early as you can with staff will give them more time to adjust and prepare for their new working model. That being said, make sure the information is correct and final, otherwise you may have to send out amendments and this could muddy the waters.

Be clear with what you want from them: Whatever you decide to do around hybrid working, be sure there is no ambiguity around your hybrid working rules. All your staff needs to know what is expected of them, and why you have made these decisions for your organization. This way there will be no room for misunderstandings between managers, staff or HR as to where staff should be and when.            

Ensure they have everything they need: If your team is split between two locations, ensure they have everything they need both in the office and wherever they are working remotely. A lot of staff will have moved pieces of equipment from offices to their home. Practically speaking, they won’t be able to move large pieces of equipment (such as chairs, monitors etc.) back and forth every week. 

Somebody who is uncomfortable in their setup is unlikely to be as productive as possible, so if your organization is implementing hybrid working, you’ll need to provide your staff with everything they need to work comfortably at both working locations.   

Take their issues seriously: If staff are struggling/have any blockers, be sure managers and HR are listening to them. It’s no use having monthly check-in for staff to talk to their managers, if nothing comes of it when they raise issues. For some, hybrid working will be a struggle for many different reasons. 

Remember that unhappy staff are likely to be less productive, so it’s really in your organization’s best interest to do what you can to work with employees to resolve issues where possible.  

Encourage more team catch-ups: Once office spaces are open again it would be a great opportunity for teams to meet up again. Some members of staff may have join since the start of the pandemic and might not have had the opportunity to meet team members yet, and many others will be missing co-workers they used to see almost daily.  

If meeting face to face isn’t possible, due to location for example, encourage your teams to have regular video calls that focus more on team building than work. How teams get along and interact can have a huge impact on how well they work together, encouraging team bonding could help your organization in the long run.    

Consider their personal needs: Whilst you may be hoping you can find a one size fits all solution for your hybrid working model, this may not be possible. Whilst many people enjoy working from their homes, and find it a productive place to work, others don’t feel this way. Consider parents who have children at home during the working day, or younger workers who have housemates, or are working from their bedrooms.

If someone is telling you their remote setup doesn’t allow for a productive work set up, listen to them, and if possible, allow them to be in the office as often as they need.      

Be as flexible as possible: This will be different depending on each organization, but where possible we would recommend giving staff the choice of where they work. Rather than asking staff to come into the office, for example, every Monday and Thursday, or a minimum of 3 days a week, instead you could ask them to be in the environment that best suits the task they are carrying out. 

This way of working means if an employee wants feels an office setting will help the most that day, they can work in the office, but if they will work better in the quiet of their own home, that’s fine too. Giving them this option is a sure way to ease some of their concerns around hybrid working.  

Phase the return to the office: If you plan to eventually have your employees in the office for the majority of the week, you might want to consider making this a more gradual return. A lot of people have gotten used to the way that have been working of over a year now, and going straight back to 4 or 4 days a week in the office might be stressful for them. 

Remember that some of you employees might not enjoy the human contact that comes with office life, and the pandemic could have intensified those feelings. Try starting with one day back in the office and increase this over a couple of months until you get to the ratio you intend to stick with. This will allow employees with social anxieties to get used to being around people again more easily.

Sync your teams up as much as possible: If your organization decides to have set days that each person will go into the office, try to think about which people are in at the same time. If there are team members who work collaboratively a lot it would be helpful to have them all in at the time in order to make this easier. This could also help with moral, as having some member of teams in the office and socializing, whilst other are at home, could damage a team’s dynamic.

Staying mindful

Being mindful of your employees’ thoughts and feeling around hybrid work, and keeping clear and honest communication open with them will go a long way to helping your staff adjust to the new way of working.

Nick Gallimore, Director of Talent Transformation & Insight, Advanced

Nick is currently Advanced’s Director of Talent Transformation & Insight, Nick provides thought leadership and consulting around the execution of HR transformation. Having led Advanced’s own transformation in his previous role as Director of Talent & Reward. Nick provides Talent Management expertise across Talent Acquisition, Learning, Performance Management and Reward.