One of the most common worries of remote work is that the lack of manager-employee visibility will lead to a drop in productivity. So let’s start the analysis here. To predict the probability of employees shirking in a remote working environment with any degree of accuracy, you’ll need to first need to understand your constraints on an individual and the organisational level.
To start, variations in productivity among remote workers depend a lot on the nature of the job. There is evidence to suggest that employees whose jobs are highly complex, require a greater level of concentration, problem-solving, and do not require significant collaboration or social support/consensus, tend to be more productive under remote working circumstances. This could be task-based or results-oriented work, common among professions such as graphic design, sales, IT support, etc. In a recent study from Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, a randomized control trial was used to evaluate the productivity of call centre employees when working from home. The effect was a 13% lift in performance, as measured by working minutes per shift, with limited spillover effects. The main reason for the lift in performance is that the call centre work was naturally more suited telecommuting as it requires little in-person face time and the quality of the performance is easily measurable. What was interesting about the study is that the nature of the increased lift in performance was also consistent across employees with varying levels of motivation and prior experience. So as an Org leader, it’s worth evaluating what proportion of your employees are actually in roles that lend better to remote work and plan accordingly.
When making decisions related to remote work, leaders tend to place more emphasis on finding the right incentives to deliver results. There is, however, a very real practical concern: some employees just have a more distracting home environment. These could include care-taking responsibilities, a partner who also works from home, a lack of space to work, etc. Studies have shown that those with a less complicated home structure tend to be more productive. In these scenarios, setting an incentive-based productivity benchmark could feel unfair to many. Remote working means that the line between professional and personal will become more blurry so it's worth taking the time to get to know your employees and their circumstances.
Trust & Communication
When the work requires more collaboration and teams are separated by location, culture, and time, trust is critical to building a productive team. The importance of trust is highlighted even more when teams have little experience working with each other. Teams with significant cultural differences, varying communication style, or personalities make it especially difficult to build trust in a virtual environment. If you choose to adopt a WFH policy, it’s worth considering whether your teams and especially your managers are equipped to deliver on these key activities that build trust:
- Ability - the knowledge that individuals have the skills required to carry out their responsibilities - is a prerequisite to building trust. Managers can facilitate this process by letting teammates know of each other's competence and build credibility amongst teammates.
- Role ambiguity also creates a lack of trust when collaborating in a team. Managers can minimise role ambiguity by clarifying responsibilities which in turn provides a framework on how team members should interact with one another and minimise misunderstandings.
- Assigning team leaders and clarifying expectations is an important component that sets the tone for what is expected to the wider group. Employees should be clear on what is good, better, best when it comes to communication and treatment of their team members.
- Any trust-building activity requires solid communication. Every employee communicates differently virtually. Employees will need to be encouraged to better understand their teammates' communication style and mannerism to avoid misunderstandings.
The good news is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that on average, remote working can increase output due to time saved from commuting and longer hours when working at home. However, in your decision to make remote work a long-term policy, it's important to recognise your own company's constraints as there is ‘no one size fits all’ approach that guarantees performance. Ultimately, what underpins good decision-making is the ability to incorporate a diversity of thought throughout the evaluation process. Having a wide range of perspectives is a good way of ensuring that all types of employees and their capacity to work remotely are taken into consideration.
Every firm's circumstances are different. If you want to discuss whether your organisation could benefit from a more permanent remote working policy, feel free to contact us and our team would be happy to provide more context-specific advice.