Before COVID-19, working from home (while it was growing in popularity) was still frowned upon by many leaders, primarily due to concerns over productivity loss. The notion that an employee could ever get the same amount of work done at home that he or she does in the office was a concern to many managers and business owners, even in today’s digital world. But research proved over and over again that working from home could actually increase productivity, by the equivalent of about 3 extra weeks of work a year, and so people continued to push for better flexibility and remote opportunities. Before the outbreak of a global pandemic, it would have been absurd to me that anyone would believe productivity would be lost. But in current conditions, even I can admit that the concern is growing invalidity and many employers are likely wondering how to address it.
In 2015, Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist known for his research showing the benefits of working from home, concluded a two-year study, in partnership with a China-based travel company that employees over 16,000 people, on the effects of working from home. In his research, he found that allowing remote work from home produced a 13% increase in performance (practically a full day’s work!) and a 50% decrease in employee attrition. Did I mention that the company also saved about $2,000 per employee on rent due to reduced office space? Since then the work-from-home movement has only gained momentum with people shouting its praises and encouraging businesses across all industries to create a work-from-home policy (myself included).
Fast forward to today: companies no longer have a choice in allowing their teams to work remotely, but rather, have been forced into allowing it whether they like it or not. The appearance of a novel virus has forced businesses to create remote work practices and find new ways to connect and manage their teams, a task that is growing more difficult as managers are having to focus more than ever on managing their teams while being mindful of their mental, emotional, and physical health. Learning to be empathetic and understanding as their teams are learning to balance the new noise and demands on their time. How do we expect employees to be productive while working from home under the conditions we now find ourselves in? Truth is, they might not be. According to Bloom, this global movement to work from home in an effort to maintain output and efficiency might actually generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years.
So, what’s changed between then and now with regards to working from home? Why is the guy who has been all-in on the work-from-home movement saying the opposite of what his research found not more than five years ago? What’s changed, according to Bloom, is that there are now several factors that weren’t an issue before. Here’s what they are, and what I think, from an employee’s perspective, you can do to help your team navigate them and reduce the likelihood of loss in productivity.
Working from home prior to a global pandemic included sending kids off to school at the beginning of each day. Parents of young kids are finding it challenging to manage the daily responsibilities that now include full-time teacher, entertainer, and keeper of passwords for all fifty million apps they’re now having to manage to keep their kids on track with school. Ok, so maybe it’s not 50 million, but you get my point. It’s a lot for anyone. Then we have to take into account that millions of parents are doing that on their own, without the help of a partner or spouse. How can a manager compassionately manage their workload? How can they keep their same demands of output when they know the weight their teams are now under? As a single parent myself, I know the struggles of finding a schedule that works for my family and allows me to help and care for them while also ensuring my job is getting done. So if you asked me those questions, this is what I would say:
- Be Kind. We all adjust to change differently. Some will roll with it as though nothing has changed for them. Others will really struggle to figure it all out. I was somewhere in the middle. Working from home was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but doing it while also being a full-time single parent and full-time teacher was not something I ever thought I’d have to do (shout out to teachers – we love you, we need you, we appreciate you!). It took me a couple of weeks to adjust, and a little longer to help my kids adjust. But we’re figuring it out, and each day that passes produces a little more routine for us and a little less pressure for me. Being able to take the time to adjust (at my own speed) was only possible because my boss was human. He was empathetic to, and understanding of, the new predicaments I was being faced with, probably because he himself was struggling with the same things. I don’t think there has ever been more connected to the #InItTogether movement than right now. Be “in it” with your team.
- Be flexible. Understand that your teams’ schedules may not exactly be 8 to 5 anymore. Give them their best chance at being able to separate home and work life. For some, that might mean only working 3 to 4 hours during the day, and another 3 to 4 hours at night. For others, maybe it means working a little less during the workweek and putting in some hours on the weekend. For me, it means that I do a lot of work at night so I can be more present for my kids and what they’re needing during the day. Work with your team to help them create a schedule that allows for flexibility and ownership. If they have a say in their schedule, they’re more accountable to the outcomes that having that schedule allows for.
In Bloom’s experiment, one of the requirements for employees to be able to work from home was the availability of a home office or dedicated workspace. A place where they could shut the door and minimize distraction. Many employees who are now forced to work from home might not actually choose to do so if given the choice. Some don’t have that dedicated space that has proven to keep employees most productive. They’re working at kitchen tables, bedrooms, back porches, or even bedroom closets (don’t laugh, it works). Others might have the space but simply enjoy the community their work environment provides. For me, I am fortunate to have an actual home office where I can close my doors, get some focused time in, and give kids evil looks if they even attempt to walk in. But I know some of my fellow teammates don’t have that same luxury. Often, our workspaces in the office are filled with things that drive and motivate us. Hard-earned awards, inspirational reminders of why we grind every day, or, if you sit in a sales pit like I do, random shouts of support and excitement at another deal closed. The space we work in motivates us. In the office we support and encourage one other, challenge each other, and create drive and ambition, which often leads to innovation. Bloom’s research shows that face-to-face meetings are necessary for that to happen. Going into the office helps keep employees connected, not just to each other but also to the company. One of the requirements of his experiment was that all employees had to work in the office once a week. So, what happens when that’s no longer an option? How can we maintain that level of innovation and creativity that we’ve come to expect from our teams when the one thing that stimulates it isn’t an option?
- Stay Connected. Our only means of communication right now is virtual which means companies are having to be innovative when it comes to recreating social contact. Video conferencing instead of telephone calls is a great way to try and maintain social contact and recreate the emotional ties that “face-to-face” meetings often provide us, even if it is through a screen. It’s also important to make sure that you’re connecting as a team, and individually, one-on-one. Allow for a dedicated time of conversation that has nothing to do with work. Allow everyone to share what’s going on personally for them, to connect to each other on a more human level. Hearing about Roy’s son’s new Tik Tok video might not be relevant to work, but laughter goes a long way and providing a time of bonding will benefit your team greatly in the long run. We can’t be “all work” all the time. When this mandated work-from-home order is over, we’ll return to work, to the same teammates, and we’ll build on the connections formed during this time. Use this as an opportunity to build stronger team cohesion. Checking in, maintaining open communication, and actively listening are crucial right now in ensuring they feel supported and cared for. When they feel supported, they’ll feel more connected, and more likely to give their best.
- Create Challenge. Teams often thrive in competition. At DOCUmation, we are ALL about it. We’ve even had a video contest (many of our staff have newly formed TikTok accounts) paying a cash prize for the most fun video created by a teammate showcasing their life at home, with extra points for company spirit! This works for us, as a team. We like fun and silly. You could also create competitions aimed at addressing current projects or issues being faced by your customers, and watch the new and fun ideas fly! Sometimes our best ideas come from times of crisis and unrest. Just look at history. Some of the biggest names in business today were created as startups during the recession of 2008.
Most people who sing the praises of working from home also admit that they work from home by CHOICE. Some may be surprised to learn that of the 1,000 Chinese workers offered the opportunity to work from home, only 500 volunteered, and at the conclusion of the study, the original volunteers were asked if they’d like to continue working from home and half of them opted to return to work. Now, when I discovered that, I was blown away. Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to create their own schedule, work anywhere with an internet connection, and do so wearing whatever they want? But, in reality, it makes sense.
People rely on the social interaction they get at work. No longer having a community they’ve grown reliant on may cause individuals to feel isolated and depressed. When we consider the health risks, feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead to several health issues include stress-related sick leave and cardiovascular complications. Even for myself, I know that while I desire the opportunity to work from home and increase my quality of life, I would still opt to go into the office two or three days a week, too. I look forward to adult interaction and socialization. Not to mention, some projects just do better with face-to-face meetings. Our teams have been forced into an environment that they might otherwise not have chosen for themselves. The removal of choice due to our current environment and “an extended period of working from home…is building a mental health crisis”, according to Bloom. This awareness now leads me to ask, how can we support the mental health of our people right now?
- Take Breaks. Some people may go an entire day (or even a week) without any social interaction. Encourage your team to take walks, go for a jog, or find some other outdoor activity that can be done safely while social distancing. Taking a break and stepping outside have been proven to reduce stress. At DOCUmation, we’re starting a wellness challenge. We have locations across the state and we’re challenging our team in a combined effort to walk the equivalent of miles between all our locations. That’s 1,482 miles! I don’t know if we’ll reach our goal, but it’ll sure be fun to try, and a great way to encourage our team to take time for themselves.
- Be reasonable. Make sure you are assigning reasonable timelines and achievable goals. Don’t assume that because they’re working from home that they’re just sitting around watching Netflix all day and have even more time to get things done. It could be quite the opposite right now.
- Easy Access. Offer access to anonymous mental health services through telemedicine platforms. Employees love the anonymity and the availability of services at any time, not just during work hours.
- Emphasize Connection. Technology has produced many ways to help people feel less isolated. Apps like Whatsapp and Slack (interestingly both created during the 2008 recession) provide immediate and constant connections. Teams can share data on their current project while also sending the latest Tiger King meme or a picture of what they ate for breakfast (I mean, if your team is into that – mine might be…). Find what works best for your team. We’re helping our teams to stay connected as much as possible right now through the use of Zoom. Our company has opened up opportunities for our team to share their own talents with the rest of the company by becoming a DOCUguide. Guides can lead a ZOOMba class, host a 30-minute meditation session, a cooking class, or even a virtual yoga class during lunch. Whatever they can do, we want to share it. The really cool thing is, these shared connections can even include the family, too, further emphasizing connection outside of work. From my experience, kids love making a mess in the kitchen 😉 And remember, these connections and check-ins may be the only social interaction some members of your team are getting so ensuring that they feel like people and not just an employee will go a long way in building employee satisfaction and retention. They’ll be there for you because you were there for them.
Times are hard right now. It becomes even harder when the end is unknown. The days of micromanagement are fading. In our current environment, it’s practically impossible (and if you’re still doing so, please stop). It’s time for leaders to put their faith in the teams they’ve built. I believe that most employees are good, honest, hardworking people who want to be productive AND present, at work and at home. I hope leaders realize that right now, their job includes helping their teams figure out how to do that. That’s what I would want.