Remote Workforce Challenges: Managing Employee Productivity

Protiviti recently introduced the U.N.I.T.E. checklist to share leading practices that help manage remote teams in today’s rapidly shifting work environment. With most of the world now several weeks (or more) into remote working arrangements, we are expanding on our original checklist to explore one specific area of concern observed with our clients and teams: effective, actionable and empathetic methods to address the time component of the “IDENTIFY a Dedicated Workspace (and Time)” practice area. While particularly relevant at the present time, the utility of this guidance will likely persist well beyond the current pandemic.

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Working remotely has its challenges in the best of situations. But with the additional layer of uncertainty that we are experiencing today, the home working environment can feel extremely disruptive and stressful for some team members. A conscious, empathetic approach enables companies to better navigate these challenging times and effectively support their team members who likely are dealing with more than just workspace and connectivity concerns. Empathy is a critical and powerful tool that is embedded in the approach and practices defined in this post.

Defining a Workday

A common hesitation of organizations moving to mobile workforces is the presumption that employee productivity will fall due to shortened employee workdays, more frequent interruptions, and reduced attention on assigned tasks. These are legitimate concerns requiring proactive management. Ironically, the opposite effect is just as likely: where workdays are extended and employee personal time is decreased, since there is no official start or end to the workday. Below are some helpful tips for structuring a workday and effectively pivoting between work and home life in lieu of a more formal boundary, like the daily commute.

  • Bookend the day with standups – Many teams have adopted a daily standup meeting as a means of better engaging remote team members; however, switching to two brief standups, one at the start of the day and one at the end, can help team members better “bookend” their workday. In addition to reinforcing accountability for assigned tasks, the standups can also promote empathy by providing a forum for increased communication amongst the team members regarding challenges related to their workday and working situation.
  • Change clothes – Getting dressed for work in the morning (even if more casual than your normal work outfit) serves as a great transition into “work mode”. Similarly, changing out of work clothes at the end of the day can help get into “home mode”.
  • End with a personal task – Drawing lines between work and personal life can be as simple as scheduling time for a personal task. When a commute no longer exists, taking a walk through your neighborhood, a daily workout, reviewing your child’s homework, or other family activities can help create this separation and better enable decompression after the workday
  • Shut down the digital tools – Turning off the computer and stowing other digital tools (like your phone) serves as a physical reminder to turn your attention away from work at the end of the defined workday. Many times, the effort to restart the computer is enough of a line to keep work and personal life from blending together.

Tracking Productivity

Ultimately, a workday is about a defined amount of productivity. If people want, need, or must have a flexible workday, where work and personal time intermix, then it becomes increasingly necessary to closely track productivity to meet the desired workday output. Organizations and managers should look to support team members by promoting methods that are both effective and empathetic to help drive and track productivity when workdays are less defined. In addition to the more burdensome method of recording each task’s time in an Excel spreadsheet throughout the day, here are some creative ways to track time, borrowed from agile methodology practices. Any or all can be adopted, depending on preferences and circumstances.

  • Timebox – Agile timeboxing techniques, where work is broken into small, attainable blocks can help drive productivity in the workday. Maintaining focus for hours on end is often impractical when working from home. Defining smaller timeboxes of work can help the tracking of productivity by counting the number of “work units” completed in a day. Clear start and stop points of each timebox also allow for the scheduling of personal/family time throughout the day. Consider scheduling meetings in 25 and 50-minute blocks (rather than 30 or 60) to provide team members with break times to grab a cup of coffee or to help their child get a snack before jumping into the next meeting.
  • Size the Effort – T-shirt sizing (from XS to XL) is an agile relative estimation technique to quickly and informally assign effort and track productivity when a large list of tasks needs to be completed. A productive workday can be planned, or reviewed, by the number and size of the tasks completed. If too many tasks are sized as L or XL, this system can prompt managers to consider whether the task can be broken into several smaller sizes. Story points are an alternative unit of measure borrowed from agile methodology that describe the amount of effort a team member spends to complete a task. Like the T-shirt sizing, knowing how many story points someone can normally complete in an average workday helps define and track daily productivity goals.
  • Timeclock – A timeclock can be as simple as a stopwatch or smartphone beside your computer that can be manually started and stopped throughout the day to account for any interruptions, versus time spent on work tasks. For the more tech savvy, home assistant services, such as Google Home or Alexa, have stopwatch and time tracking skills that can be used. There are a wide range of products, such as eBillity, Harvest, Toggl timer, and actiTIME, that provide voice-enabled timers and summaries of your daily productivity.

Conclusion

Whether you are an employee trying to navigate a new remote working situation, a project leader managing a distributed team, or an organization transitioning to a mobile workforce environment, understanding the challenges, incorporating tangible techniques and tools, and applying a heavy dose of empathy is paramount.  Small shifts in protocols and behaviors can pay large dividends when it comes to managing productivity and maintaining a necessary work–life balance.

Sarah Riesenberg, Senior Consultant  with Protiviti’s Technology Strategy and Operations practice, contributed to this content.

Jason Brucker

Managing Director
Technology Consulting – Strategy & Operations

Rodney Thompson

Associate Director
Technology Consulting – Strategy and Operations

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