Employers Face Challenge Balancing Remote Work, Productivity

Remote Work Technology

For years, businesses have tried to glean insight into the performance and productivity of their employees, whether through employee monitoring, tracking, data collection, evaluations or some other method. Since the rise of remote and hybrid work began during the Covid-19 pandemic, these efforts have become increasingly important, even as tension about productivity began bubbling up between employees and employers.

Some media reports say productivity has been on the decline since the pandemic began, others – including CNBC – say employees today are working more while producing less. During 2022, productivity dropped three consecutive quarters for the first time since 1983.

On top of all this, there’s the question of just how productive remote workers are. Employers still wonder whether their remote and hybrid staffs are as productive as they would be in the office. With so many sources of information offering different data and opinions, they find it’s hard to know what to believe.

The problem of productivity didn’t start with the rise of remote work, said WeSpire CEO Susan Hunt Stevens. Rather, she said, today’s new working conditions put old problems into the limelight.

“When workers were in-office, managers thought people were productive because they could see them. But sitting in my chair doesn’t mean that I am focused, nor does it mean I’m working efficiently or effectively,” Stevens said. “Many people, I believe, relied on line of sight to be a proxy for productivity and impact.”  

Engaging Employees

Meanwhile, some believe that the challenges they see are not an issue of productivity, but rather of engagement.

“It’s not about ‘in the office’ or ‘not in the office.’ That’s missing the point,” said Meg Bear, president and chief product officer of SAP SuccessFactors. “It’s about connecting deeply with what individual employees need, so that they can bring their best selves to the things that you need them to do for that work relationship.” 

And consider, Bear adds, “Trust in the employee relationship is about the outcome of what they do, not the mechanics of how they do it.”

For some people, the move to virtual or hybrid work hasn’t been easy. Employers, managers and employees have all had to learn a whole new way of working. As a result, some engagement problems have arisen.

“[Now] we have a bunch of leaders who only know how to solve the engagement problem in person, whether that be with town halls, meetings or groups,” said Stevens. “There’s a whole cadre of executives who have no clue how to drive engagement in a hybrid or remote world now suddenly managing hybrid and remote employees. No one gave us a handbook on how to do it. Well, we’re all making it up.”

Leaders, she notes, may manage hybrid, remote and global workforces as a matter of course from now on. “So, we have to learn how to get better at it fast,” Stevens said.  

Technology’s Role

Also at play here is technology. For years, companies have used tracking and monitoring software  to “ensure” employee productivity. However, some reports suggest that monitoring may be doing “more harm than good.” According to the BBC, “surveillance can lead to stress, cause employees to quit and even make workers do their job worse – on purpose.”

However, technology can be leveraged in other ways to improve productivity while aligning with company values – and quashing any friction between employers and employees. Amy Leschke-Kahle, vice president of performance acceleration at the Marcus Buckingham Company an ADP Company, recommends letting technology be an enabler rather than a pain-point in order to embed practices “into the fabric of an organization” that helps engage employees.

“Tech gives us the ability to take advantage of scale — to take advantage of nudges and timing, and that’s how you create this sustainable ecosystem of people doing great work.” Leschke-Kahle added. By doing so, organizational values that keep employees engaged can be implemented and sustained without needing HR to remember any of the work involved.

Image: iStock

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