Shifting the norm and managing staff productivity is never easy.  Imagine this scenario:  Mary is a thirty-year-old accountant.  She has spent the last 9 years of her life commuting to work five days a week.  At work, she has an office.  She has structure and interaction.   All of a sudden, she is told she cannot go to work.  Mary shares a two-bedroom apartment with a flatmate.   Her flatmate is also working from home.  The dining table they have is hardly large enough to accommodate one person, let alone two persons, working together at any one time.  Mary does not have a desk in her bedroom.   How is Mary going to cope with working from home reality? 

As employers, we make the mistake of assuming that every one of our staff can easily transition to remote working.   We have not visited their homes.  We do not understand the challenges they may be facing.  Yet, we expect them to be able to continue to deliver the same quality work as previously.

Whether we want to admit it or not, working from home is a challenge. It is as challenging for the employer as it is for their staff. It is in our nature to worry about monitoring.  After all, who wants to pay a full salary for their staff to binge on Netflix, right?  Of course, there is numerous software available that we can use to monitor our staff.  We could even try constant video sharing as a form of surveillance.  But how many of us want to go down the road of intrusion?

Fortunately, there are measures employers can take to promote staff productivity who work from home.  Geographical distance is not an issue for productivity if employers understand what is at stake, know their strengths, reassure their employees and allow them some flexibility.

How to manage staff productivity in a pandemic

1. Identify stakeholder impact

Examining what is at stake for your stakeholders is the first step towards developing a plan to manage remote working.  Your stakeholders include customers, employees, suppliers, community, partners and of course, yourself.  Every group will have their urgent needs that you should fully understand and prioritise.   Some of these needs are new things and may require creative problem-solving.   Expect some tension to arise from the different groups as trade-offs become inevitable.

What are some of the possible employee trade-offs?  Your staff having no office to work from is a trade-off.  You, having less control over what your staff is doing during a normal 8-hour workday is also a trade-off.

Identifying all the trade-offs make it easier for you to assess the situation and to plan a course of action that can keep the business going.

 2. Identify your strengths

What organisational processes do you have that can make the biggest difference to your stakeholders?  For example, a strong balance sheet that can keep workers employed during the crisis.  Or a good IT infrastructure that could transition into an online platform immediately.  Or even an existing customer database that you can immediately transform into an online marketing campaign.

Address the issues posed by the crisis by looking at how you can leverage your company’s existing strengths to solve the problem.   The more organisational problems you can resolve the easier it is for your staff to continue working effectively.

3. Conduct a work from home assessment

Understanding exactly how your organisation is going to transition to a remote work model is important to make it easier for your staff to function at home.  The questions you need to be asking yourself are:

  • How do we get every member of our team to understand their roles and responsibilities?
  • What medium of communication are we going to use to communicate with one another?
  • What are the tools we can use to collaborate work from a distance?
  • What schedules do we want everyone at home to follow?
  • How do we keep track of staff tasks?
  • What technology do we have currently to support WFH?
  • What technology do we need to acquire to make WFH effective?
  • How do we manage stress related to work from home?
  • How do we keep our staff engaged with their work at a distance?

Getting your entire team on board will help keep everyone accountable and therefore ensuring productivity is not compromised.  The Australian Government’s Flexibility Readiness guide is a great tool to get started.

4. Give staff a psychological safety net

The crisis is not normal.  This is not business as usual.  The disruption caused to professional and personal lives can have a psychological toll on your workers.  Staff can feel stressed and confused about their situation.  Any form of stress will affect work performance.

According to studies done by Google – one of the world’s best employer –psychological safety at work means allowing employees to speak their mind, to try new ideas, and to express how they feel without being punished for doing so.    Employees who feel safe with their employers and with other workmates are more likely to admit mistakes, to collaborate and to accept new responsibilities.

In a pandemic, employers can create a psychologically safe work environment by being transparent with their staff.  Do not be afraid to share how the pandemic is affecting your business, what you think may happen in the future, and how you are going to help your staff.

Give your employees the platform to say what they think or how they feel.  If they believe they can do so without censure, they will feel less frightened by the events and more motivated to work.

5. Be a leader

Now is the time for authentic leadership.  Communicate early and frequently – even if you do not have all the information on hand.  Remember that your staff are looking for a leader who can show empathy.

Be honest and truthful with your staff.  Don’t deny, blame or sugar-coat the situation.  Stay nimble and be proactive with changes.    If you keep your cool and stay strong, you will help your staff balance their perspectives.  Once they have confidence in the company’s ability to handle the crisis, they will become less stress with their situation and more focus on their jobs.

6. Be flexible

An employee working at home with young children is not going to be able to give your business the 100% attention that you have become accustomed to.  Instead, be flexible with working hours.  Think about the tasks that have to be carried out then give your employee as much flexibility as possible for them to schedule their day so they can complete these tasks.

If you want your staff to be more productive when they work from home, don’t stick to a strict 9 to 5 regime.   Managers will be more effective if they are flexible.  If it means your employer has to work from 7 am to 3 pm then let it be.  If they have to go offline at noon and only log on again after 3 pm, so be it.  The important thing is to focus on the outcomes not on the actual hours worked.

7. Implement huddles

Workplace meetings are a key organisational function.  We use meetings to distribute information, explain policies, brainstorm solutions, promote leadership, provide feedback, train staff, encourage creativity, and to build relationships.  With extended working at home hours, meetings have become one of the few ways we can connect with our employees.

However, this new working scenario could mean the end of traditional boardroom meetings.  Staff working from home may not be able to give leaders their 100% presence in a meeting.  Long extended periods in a boardroom cannot work when there are constant family disruptions.

One of the ways around this dilemma is to have more regular but shorter huddle meetings.  Huddles are 15-minute quick catchups between managers and their teams. They are focused, precise and timely.    Depending on your team and the nature of the work your organisation is involved in, you can either have huddle meetings with the group, an individual or a combination of both.

Here are some simple rules of engagement:

  • Use meetings to outline expectations
  • Stick to the agenda
  • Avoid unnecessary updates
  • Allocate time for things you want to talk about and things your staff may want to share
  • Ask about employee wellbeing
  • Answer their questions
  • Listen to what employees are saying.  Show empathy and share frustrations

Use meetings as a way to define accountability.  You let your staff know where they stand, and they let you know what is in their way.  You then work out a solution together.  It’s a win-win for both.

8. Get staff involved

Build a sense of common purpose by getting your staff involved in the strategies that will help the business survive the crisis.

The more ownership you give the staff, the more of their trust and respect you will earn.  Sharing a common goal in a time of crisis can help people bond.  It creates a set of values that will survive long after the pandemic is over.

9. Create opportunities for connection

Staff wellbeing directly affects the way they work and how they work.  The best way to help them stay engaged in their job is to create opportunities that allow them to connect with the organisation beyond that of tasks and duties.

Engineer events that are not just work-related.  Make it fun so they feel like they are part of a larger organisation.  A virtual pizza lunch once in a while is not a bad idea to get the team feeling supercharged.  Incorporating games into tasks is also a good idea. Competition done correctly promotes teamwork, collaboration and a sense of achievement for teams.

This is a pivotal time for employers to step up to the mark and take on the challenges of creating a work environment that can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances.  If you do this right, your staff will not only stay productive, they will become loyal advocates of the organisation.

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