Your Ultimate Guide to Managing Productivity in a Remote Workplace

By Dr. Christine Izuakor - August 24, 2020

Your Ultimate Guide to Managing Productivity in a Remote Workplace

The age of the digital nomad is here, and people realize that working 9 to 5 within the confines of an enterprise office isn’t the only way to make a living. Today’s technology allows people to work anytime and anywhere.

Even within an office environment, work is often largely carried out online. This, coupled with recent events that warrant continued social distancing, has led to more individuals and businesses making the shift towards a part-time or entirely home office-based working environment.

A distributed workforce is not without its challenges. Much has been written about the need for a dynamic plan for cybersecurity and employee monitoring when working from home. Even beyond the security concerns are novel challenges concerning productivity and engagement in this new working environment.

top view of businessman hand working with new modern computer and smart phone and business strategy on wooden desk as concept

How Work Environments Are Changing

The benefits of working from home are undeniable – flexible home working can allow for a better work-life balance, even getting people with complicated family responsibilities back to work. Working from home can mean that the world of business can benefit from the input of people who would otherwise be restricted by health and mobility issues.

Having the flexibility to work from home was an attractive prospect for employees even before the current public health crisis. Now, when a high-risk infectious disease threatens the health of the world, being able to continue working in safe isolation is a lifeline for many.

Whatever the reasons, a 2019 poll from Buffer found that 99% of employees would welcome the opportunity to work at least part-time from home – a dream realized by an unprecedented number of workers when the world began to lock down to prevent the spread of the virus in early 2020.

Flexibility is always an attractive prospect for employees and can improve employee retention. The choice is key, and 87% of workers aged between 18 and 34 said that flexible work hours and the ability to work from home are important to them. The ability to facilitate this should be increasingly prioritized in the current climate.

There are predicted to be 33 million homeworkers in the U.S. and E.U. by 2025, a 65% increase over the current numbers.

A shift in the working environment on this scale needs to be accompanied by a change to the way teams work together, the distribution of workload, and team management practices to maintain efficiency.

Threats to Productivity

The management of human resources, employment structures, and simple human nature should not take a back seat as technology advances to allow remote working. With new horizons come new opportunities, but they also bring new challenges. Remote working can bring its particular problems. Issues with employee engagement within an unusual work environment are common.

The human factor is always at the center of any threat to productivity. Remote working means that extra care needs to be taken to support and engage with workers and to identify and address problems at every level. The human factors that can impact productivity include:

The unhappy employee

Although not exclusively a work from home issue, employee engagement can often be affected by problems at home. In an ideal world, problems in the home wouldn’t be brought to work, but people are complex, and worries such as finances, family, and health are bound to impact a person’s working life. Employees who are unhappy within their roles, with their teams or workload, are also unlikely to be efficient, effective workers.

The 2017 State of the American Workplace report found that 51% of the U.S. workforce is ‘not engaged’ at work, meaning that they’re not focused on or interested in their work. This is often due to difficulty in ‘switching off’ from worries and interpersonal friction. Sensitive and tactful management can go a long way towards improving these kinds of issues in the workplace. Still, without direct employee contact, problems can be harder to identify and manage.

The distracted employee

Distractions in the workplace are among the biggest drains on productivity, and 70% of workers feel distracted at least some of the time at work. Office workers also waste an estimated third of every day unnecessarily distracted from their work. It’s no shock to find that distractions reduce productivity. If employees spend three hours out of their day chatting at the coffee machine or scrolling through social media, they will not be as productive as employees who remain engaged with their work for most of the day.

Working from home only changes the types of distractions an employee is subject to. In a conventional workplace, there may be the distractions of a typical office, such as impromptu meetings and fellow workers' chatter. Remote or flexible working, however, provides all the distractions of a person’s home, with none of the social workplace pressure to appear busy.

Tired businesswoman sleeping on the desk in the office

Too many meetings

With remote meeting solutions like Zoom and Microsoft Teams growing in popularity, this saga continues in remote settings. The same workers also consider around half of these meetings to be ‘pointless.’ It’s not just the attendees' time, but the time spent waiting for everyone to arrive, booking rooms, and preparing presentations, which, according to the same report, 91% of the attendees simply daydream through.

Office workers report attending, on average, a staggering 62 meetings per month.

Streamlining communications doesn’t just save overall productive work hours; it also helps preserve the sense of engagement and worth that people have at work, improving their overall experience and making a happier – and more productive – workforce.

Home workers and the productivity threat

Switching to home working could be the result of forward-thinking management strategy, a cost-saving premises restructuring, or the worldwide threat of a deadly infectious disease. However, remote working isn’t as easy as just doing the same work from a home computer. A Pulse report on Millennials’ working preferences during COVID-19 shows that 36% found the transition to remote working difficult, and 34% believed they were less productive when working from home.

This reduction in productivity is likely to be more complex than just the obvious changes – the ability to make endless cups of coffee and stare at social media without raising a frown from the boss or a co-worker.

The biggest experiment in remote working is happening right now, unplanned because a deadly virus threatens the world’s health. These are strange times, and so any conclusions about people’s ability to self-manage that are drawn from this experience should be taken with caution.

There is a fine balance to find and maintain optimum efficiency in the workplace, especially when the workforce is distributed. Careful management can enable productivity by ensuring that remote workers feel trusted, valued, and still within the organization's remit.

Ways to Maintain Great Productivity

International Workplace Group (IWG) predicts that by 2022, around half of all workers will work remotely. 30% of corporate real estate is expected to be devoted to flexible working. The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited this shift and has meant that people have been expected to adapt very quickly to a very altered state of working. People, however, have proved their adaptability. Even within a landscape of huge uncertainty and restriction, people have continued to work and to interact.

This sudden need for remote working was unexpected, and yet people adapted. The future is unknowable, but one thing that’s certain is that people should prepare for more home working and adapt their business structures to allow for it. Not only to permit remote working but to ensure that remote working works for them.

Simple adaptations can help managers help their employees remain productive even through great changes. These adaptations should ensure that employees feel supported, while also ensuring that they continue to be as engaged and professional as they would in a traditional workplace environment.

Three Important Ways to Maintain Productivity No Matter Where an Employee Works

Employee Monitoring

In a traditional office space, it’s not hard to notice the person who’s just coasting or, more importantly, the employee who needs support and guidance. When your employees are scattered among their own homes, it’s not necessarily so obvious. There are increasingly sophisticated tools for employee monitoring, with varying responses from those employees being monitored. At some levels, the monitoring of employees in their homes isn’t significantly different from the way they’re monitored in an office. Engaging with teams, meeting targets, and monitoring emails are all useful across the board.

Employee monitoring doesn't have to be intrusive, but having the right tools for the job is important. More businesses use monitoring technologies every year to ensure their employees are appropriately engaged and productive, and Gartner predicts that this is only set to increase.

The future of remote working will necessitate the use of smart tools to monitor workers. Innovative steps are being taken to help enterprises maintain productivity and security in a changing workplace landscape. Behavior monitoring and analytics toolkits such as Veriato’s insider threat detection solution use a range of approaches to enhance the remote workplace. A smart combination of User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA), User Activity Monitoring (UAM), and Data Breach Response (DBR) provides a proactive, streamlined, and responsive approach to risk and outcome.

The use of these ecosystem-based, smart technologies, offers a novel approach to recognizing risk, identifying changes in employee behavior and even attitude, alerting the appropriate people, and enhancing tracking capabilities. Some systems offer statistics and specifics in an adaptive user interface offering risk scores to give an at-a-glance guide to concerns.

businessman hand working on laptop computer with digital layer business strategy and social media diagram on wooden desk

Employee Investigations

Monitoring alone can go some way towards incentivizing a workforce to stay on track. When monitoring is combined with analytics and investigation, the data gathered can go towards informing future activity. A coherent approach to employee investigations means that lessons can be learned from incidents and events. If any employee behavior impacts productivity, this can be treated as a learning point, and positive changes can be made.

Comprehensive toolsets like Veriato Investigator, provide the means to investigate suspicious behavior or known incidents. These tools offer the employer the power to get every detail of all computer activity remotely, seamlessly, and invisibly. From simple management issues like too much time surfing the web to critical violations such as data theft and misconduct, an informed employer can keep their staff and their business safe.

A Culture of Productivity Awareness

Behavior monitoring and investigation are essential parts of an employer’s toolkit, but a culture based on productivity awareness can help alleviate risk. In many cases, maintaining a productive workforce is a ground-up endeavor. Organizational psychologists have long held that a happy employee is a productive employee. It makes sense that employees who feel valued, and who value the work they do, take more pride in that work.

A culture of workplace value can also be looked at from another angle, as people who understand the ripple effects of a decline in productivity may be less likely to slack. Having both individual and team goals set for employees helps engage awareness of productivity and can make people feel that they’re an important part of the organization. The physical environment of a remote employee isn’t necessarily something that employers can have any control over. However, being able to pick up on changes in attitude and behavior can help managers identify problems and support their workers before problems become insurmountable.

Conclusion

The ability to enable large numbers of employees to work remotely could be incredibly valuable, even essential. Necessity has catalyzed a switch that was already partly underway. Flexible and home working, already an attractive proposition to many employees, might become a required option for office employees in a post-pandemic world. COVID-19 has created a ‘dry run’ scenario for a shift to huge-scale home working, whether people wanted it or not.

Technology can revolutionize the way people work, but ensuring that they keep working takes an adaptable management style and a scalable and flexible supervisory structure. By 2022, the global mobile workforce is expected to exceed 1.87 billion people. Managers and executives can turn this to their advantage in the coming years. Enhanced employee analytics means targeted support and problem-solving. This is a unique opportunity to facilitate a shift in worker ethos and enable an engaged, happy, and productive mobile workforce.

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