Many businesses were forced to adapt to a work-from-home model quickly in response to COVID-19. While there were new-found benefits for businesses and employees, there’s no denying that remote working comes with challenges – and managing productivity can be among them.
Smaller businesses, and those without the systems, budget or training to manage a workforce over multiple locations, may have felt the effects of waning productivity the most.
According to ACA Research, almost a third of SMEs (30%) say productivity is down among their home-based workers – and if you’re a small business with fewer than 19 employees the chances staff productivity has slumped is even higher (38%).
But there are relatively simple ways you can support and motivate your employees, encouraging them to stay productive and happy while working from home.
- Communication is key
Communication should be your number one priority, says Beaumont People’s Managing Director Nina Mapson Bone. She believes it’s where we’ve lost the most in the switch to working from home.
What’s missing is those incidental conversations – the kitchen banter as you grab a coffee, or the chat in the lift with people you don’t otherwise see as part of your role.
“As a manager, those interactions can be where you get the real lifeblood of some of the things going on in your business,” says Mapson Bone. “If a small minor issue comes up you can address that in the moment, but if you miss it and it goes unaddressed it can become a bigger issue down the track.” She says leaders need put a lot more time and effort into communicating with their teams than they realise.
Christina Kirsch, an organisational psychologist in the public service, is also an advocate for plenty of communication. She recommends creating opportunities for social connection and giving employees regular updates, as well as communicating to help teams define goals and identify focus areas.
Acknowledging achievements is also crucial when it comes to communication. “Nothing kills morale as quickly as a manager who claims credit and forgets to acknowledge others,” Kirsch says.
- Provide the right tools and training
Traditionally, this is where big businesses have had an advantage. Larger organisations tended to have well-established IT systems and cash to invest on training and equipment. Now, products such as Zoom, Teams, Mural and Miro have made virtual collaboration much more accessible.
Of course, ensuring your team has the right tech tools to work remotely is important, but don’t overlook the importance of the right furniture, Kirsch adds.
“The human body needs to have an ergonomic space,” says Kirsch. “If employees are sitting eight hours on a bad chair, or their monitor is not properly set up, they may end up with neck problems, or back problems. And that affects concentration, so a proper set up is absolutely critical for working effectively.”
Communicate the importance of an ergonomic space to your employees – the basics being a chair they can sit comfortably in and a screen set at the right eye level. If you can, providing equipment, reimbursement or assessments to help employees configure their home workspace could go a long way to preventing issues. Kirsch says setting up your staff to succeed is money well spent.
When it comes to training, there are ways to stretch your budget further: virtual ‘lunch and learn’ sessions are one way to offer training informally while fostering a culture of collaborative learning.
- Set realistic goals
With your team scattered in different locations, it may be a little trickier than before to keep everyone on track. Break bigger goals into smaller outcomes, and ensure each person understands their area of responsibility. Support staff to reach these goals with regular check-ins.
Kirsch says clear goals keep the team aligned to the longer-term targets of the business. It’s also a factor in employee wellbeing and engagement. “We all need a sense of achievement in order to be content and happy,” she says. “Without clear, attainable goals we have no sense of achievement and become demoralised and frustrated.”
- Encourage employees to set boundaries
At home it’s easy to let kids, chores, or the fridge, command some of your working time. Leaders need to help their employees create, and keep, clear boundaries between work and leisure.
Mapson Bone says the more the boundaries are blurred, the less productive people become. “You work back a bit later to make up some time and all of a sudden it’s 9 o’clock so you go to bed later, or you’re tired the next day and all of that doesn’t help with your productivity.”
Share with employees that creating a ritual to mark the start or end of their working day – walking the dog, changing clothes or even stepping out the front door and entering via the back – can help them keep work and home time more distinct from each other.
Kirsch recommends encouraging employees to dedicate a specific workspace in their home, and to do something productive or positive before they start work. They should also be taking short breaks at least every hour and a half. “Without regular breaks our ability to concentrate drops and our productivity is reduced,” Kirsch says.
- Prioritise wellbeing
Adjusting to new ways of working is challenging. There are different distractions, new technologies, blurred boundaries and assumed expectations. Add to that the loss of social gatherings, fewer holidays and soldiering on instead of taking sick leave, it’s not surprising some in your team may be feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.
“Be alert for red flags that an employee may not be coping,” says Mapson Bone. “You may not have the visual clues you’re used to, but emails at odd hours or a new reluctance to turn on the camera during video conferences can be indicators they’re having difficulties with workflow, focus or a lack of engagement.”
Mapson Bone says it’s really important for leaders to establish a culture of conversation around mental health. If you’ve got an Employee Assistance Program, make sure everyone’s reminded about it. If you don’t, identify and share community or government services that can provide further support when they’re finding things tough.
Working from home is here to stay
Kirsch and Mapson Bone agree flexible working arrangements are here to stay. While many businesses moved back to on-site working as COVID-19 restrictions eased, the work-from-home experience highlighted possibilities and benefits that many people will want to see continue – at least in some way.
In fact, 2 in 3 candidates say they want to continue working from home in the future, research conducted on behalf of SEEK shows. They also indicated that two days per week at home was the ideal number.
Remote work can come with challenges for businesses of any size. But focusing on communication, tools and training, employee wellbeing and realistic goal setting can help teams to overcome these challenges. That way, you can create the kind of flexible environment that can help your team to stay positive and productive – and may help you to attract and retain the best talent in the long run.
Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published November 2020.