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Remote productivity

Six ways to empower a dispersed workforce.

Man working from home computer

There’s a meme about remote employees floating around social media. It goes something like this:

Manager: You’ll need to return to the office in person soon.

Employee: But I’ve been enjoying working from home.

Manager: Yes, but it’s my job to micromanage you. If you’re remote, then I’m irrelevant.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Can managers effectively oversee their teams remotely? Do employees need someone actually looking over their shoulder in order to be productive? Has the pandemic exposed a layer of management whose only function is to micromanage?

Perhaps the real question company leaders need to be asking is “How can we empower workforces – both remote and in the office – to do the best work possible?” Hint: It has nothing to do with micromanaging.

Just as quantity doesn't always point to quality, productivity doesn't always correlate to value.

Defining productive

While management may feel more comfortable seeing workers physically at their desks, that illusion of oversight offers little more than a false sense of security.

In fact, mounting evidence shows remote employees are more productive. A Prodoscore Research Council survey evaluating 900,000 data points from nearly 7,000 employees showed a sharp increase in productivity from 2019 to 2020. A study by Great Place to Work® of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home. By measuring employee productivity from March to August of 2020 – the first six months of stay-at-home orders – and comparing it to the same six-month period in 2019, they found productivity had, indeed, improved.

Aside from the obvious time savings of not having to commute and avoiding water-cooler conversations, there is something to be said for the flexibility of remote work. No two employees are the same, and study after study shows people are productive during different times of the day . And, as companies become increasingly global, this flexibility becomes even more important.

So, if where and when employees work doesn’t seem to matter as much to their productivity, it stands to reason that how they work is vastly more important.

At the end of the day, some employees are simply more productive at home than others. But even those working overtime aren’t necessarily producing the most innovative, customer-focused outcomes. Just as quantity doesn’t always point to quality, productivity doesn’t always correlate to value.

While measuring quality is infinitely more difficult than measuring quantity, our increasingly digital environments are making data easier to qualify and outcomes simpler to quantify.

“Unless you’re giving people new tools, pushing them to be more productive means pushing them to work longer hours or rush through their work, both of which increase stress levels,” says Dominic Price, work futurist . “As leaders, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with this because our team members can’t think creatively or bring their full abilities to bear on a problem if their brains are too busy feeling anxious or exhausted.”

No one is saying employers shouldn’t be measuring what they are trying to improve. But they should be asking themselves if they’re measuring the right things. While measuring quality is infinitely more difficult than measuring quantity, our increasingly digital environments are making data easier to qualify and outcomes simpler to quantify.

“Instead of telling IT admins to set up 10 new load balancers this quarter, we should tell them to improve site performance by 10 points. Instead of telling a marketer to publish five blog posts, tell them to increase web traffic by five percent,” says Price.

Or, as Kevin Warren, CMO of UPS puts it, mine the data to make better decisions. When tasked with helping UPS to appeal to new markets and customer segments, Warren used information that was already available in more meaningful ways. “UPS was swimming in data,” he says. “However, we weren’t quite as tuned in being able to distill the data, and make this march from data to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to insights, and then insights that give you a predictive element.”

If an organization is playing a traditional numbers game, achieving productivity is easy. It’s the outcomes that are harder to measure and influence.

Controlling outcomes

Leaders feeling as if they are expected to simply trust employees and hope for the best should rest easier; achieving meaningful outcomes is far more within their reach than they realize – even with a remote workforce. Let’s circle back to the new tools Price mentions. No matter where a workforce is located, the tools an employer provides them are well within their control.

All the high-level conversations surrounding digital transformation can be drilled down to enabling the organization to function at its best, no matter what challenges arise. To put it simply, pivoting on a dime is possible if a workforce is  – both in mindset and execution. With a solid digital strategy, and a workforce that is open to change, it shouldn’t matter if employees are under management’s nose or in a hot air balloon (preferably with wifi).

To promote a truly productive workforce, consider these questions:

  • Do employees have access to the information they need?
  • Is it easy to collaborate with the people they work with most?
  • How do they communicate needs or issues?
  • How are they incentivized?

Each of these questions speaks to the ability of employees – whether in the office or not – to spend their time wisely, working on the value-added initiatives that make a real impact.

Without the right tools, it’s impossible to forge connections and gain the oversight necessary to maintain an effective remote workforce. Foundational solutions can make all the difference:

1 - Mobile capture

So many functions benefit from the ability to capture, access and process content such as photos, forms, documents and signatures, and store them on a single, centralized platform accessible on a mobile device.

2 - Electronic forms

An easy-to-use electronic form can be accessed anywhere at any time, making it an important tool for collaboration and remote working culture.

3 - Workflow

Think of a workflow solution as an automation engine with an electronic routing system that enables organizations to process work more efficiently. With a simple and flexible user interface, all tasks are captured and managed in the system, which easily accommodates remote-work culture.

4 - Web portal

A dedicated web portal on a centralized platform enhances the way organizations conduct business transactions and communicate with remote employees, external partners and customers. With web-based access to enterprise data, documents and real-time interactions, organizations can enhance collaboration between users at any time, from anywhere.

5 - Enterprise file share

A secure enterprise file sync and share (EFSS) solution is critical for sharing documents, reports and content containing sensitive information. When collaborating between a remote workforce and external stakeholders, an EFSS tool provides a fast and secure way to share and review content.

6 - Cloud-ready

A cloud-based hosting platform built specifically for content and document management provides a secure, reliable and cost-effective solution for a remote workforce, without adding strain to IT departments. This allows organizations to centralize siloed IT systems on a single platform while providing support for prolonged work-from-home situations. Being hosted in the cloud also provides access to real-time data from anywhere, and complete visibility into processes enables accountability among employees.

Encouraging meaningful work

Let’s consider, once again, that manager who is having a hard time moving away from micromanaging. Joseph Folkman, a behavioral statistician and founder of two leadership development firms, states that there is a better way for managers to evaluate productivity and effort than simply seeing employees grinding away at their desks. After examining a dataset of 9,755 individual contributors, he clustered 48 behaviors into “five dimensions that were most influential to managers on their ratings of productivity and effort”:

1 - Takes initiative:

Seeing a need and voluntarily taking on the task to meet it.

2 - Consistently delivers results:

Keeping managers informed about what has been done and what needs to be completed.

3 - Displays expertise and good judgement:

Including creating opportunities to present these qualities in a remote setting.

4 - Is a role model/walks the talk:

Showing character by doing the right thing – even when no one is watching.

5 - Willingness to stretch:

Folkman says, “Effectively working remotely will require some new skills or may challenge you to do something that has been outside of your normal wheelhouse. Managers are always impressed when their reports are willing to try something new or take on a difficult assignment. It sends a signal about their work ethic and desire to be highly productive.”

While a quick skim of these “dimensions” seems to put the onus on employees to step up and make themselves more visibly productive in the eyes of managers, look closer: each one provides opportunities for managers to encourage and enable this behavior.

For example, do employees have insight into what imperatives need to be met? Is it easy for them to communicate outcomes to managers, or are they simply checking off tasks? Are there resources or pathways to improve employees’ skill sets and knowledge so they feel confident taking on new and challenging projects?

Again, leadership has the ability to set the workforce up for success by providing the communication tools, transparency and insight that empower them to not just do the work, but to make the results meaningful to the organization.

Leadership has the ability to set the workforce up for success by providing the communication tools, transparency and insight that empower them to not just do the work, but to make the results meaningful to the organization.

When PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was faced with stagnant growth, they discovered employees were struggling with old and broken systems and processes. PwC’s employees – or “citizens” – were frustrated because they felt they couldn’t easily utilize the tech solutions the company was offering to its clients. Instead of forcing employees to make the best of the situation and just work harder, Suneet Dua, chief product officer, transformed the way PwC’s 280,000 worldwide employee base used their digital tools.

Dua led what he called a “citizen-led revolution” that involved a discovery process to determine where skills gaps existed before establishing a digital laboratory, creating digital accelerator jobs and developing a skills app that PwC made available to the public.

The company’s $3 billion investment paid off with a more knowledgeable, more deeply invested workforce. “Our results have been phenomenal, our outcomes quantitative. The great margin and revenue have been phenomenal,” he says. “If you can change the culture at scale, you have a firm that can’t be stopped.”

The question shouldn’t be “Are people more or less productive at home?” Everyone has the potential. The question should be “How can we enable, empower and encourage the kind of work that makes a real impact?” No micromanaging required.

The question shouldn’t be “are people more or less productive at home?” everyone has the potential. The question should be “how can we enable, empower and encourage the kind of work that makes a real impact?” no micromanaging required.