Monday Mornings with Madison

Measuring Productivity in the Remote Revolution, Part 1

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Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

A few weeks ago, Microsoft informed its employees that it will allow more staff to work from home permanently.  Although the vast majority of Microsoft employees are currently working from home due to the pandemic, the company’s new “hybrid workplace” guidance said it would allow far greater workplace flexibility even after their offices reopen.  Microsoft employees will be able to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week.  Or managers can approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for permanent remote work will give up their assigned office space, but can use Microsoft’s touchdown offices.  Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s chief people officer, said “The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us to think, live, and work in new ways.  We will offer as much flexibility as possible to support individual workstyles, while balancing business needs and ensuring we live our culture.”

Microsoft will likely not be alone in embracing this decision to move toward an increasingly remote workforce, and it isn’t the first company – tech or otherwise — to try it.  But Microsoft might also not be the first company to eventually rescind it.  There is precedent that company-wide remote work arrangements are difficult to sustain.

Case in point.  In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ended the company’s telecommuting policy and required all 12,000 of its employees to all work at the company’s facilities again.  It was not well-received, but it appears it was the right move for Yahoo.  They weren’t alone.  Other companies also tried remote work policies, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard.  All three companies called remote employees back into the office and reported an increase in productivity and innovation after employees returned to office settings.  The reason Mayer cited was that while “people are more productive when they’re alone, they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”  This concept was later expanded on in a paper titled “The Power of Presence:  Being Present in a Virtual World,” which was published seven years ago at the CoreNet Global Summit.

The Remote Revolution

So, if remote work was shown to be conducive to individual productivity but an impediment for collaboration and creativity, why is it spreading now?  Well, obviously, Covid made remote work the alternative to shutting down altogether.  In such a scenario, remote workers were better than no workers.  But that doesn’t fully explain it.  The trend toward more remote workers had been on the rise since well before Covid.  In fact, International Workplace Group reported in 2019 that over half of global employees already worked outside of their main office headquarters at least twice a week. So the “remote revolt” was on the upswing since before the pandemic.  However, Covid pushed the telecommuting transition into high gear.  Why?  Three reasons.

  1. Travel has become more affordable, making it possible for companies to have employees fly to the corporate office as needed.
  2. Connectivity software (Zoom and Skype) and WI-FI connections are more prevalent and powerful.
  3. Production has become less mechanical and more digital. Work typically produced on an office computer is now portable. Therefore, any business using virtual communications is now remote-friendly.

However, until this year, the list of companies hiring remote employees or allowing existing employees to switch to telecommuting was still in the hundreds, not thousands.  Yahoo, IBM and HP aside, some businesses were again looking at remote workplaces as a permanent option.  Amazon, Dell, Apple, and Hilton were employing virtual workers in various departments in 2019.  And companies like Automattic and InVision – each with over 700 employees, $1 billion value (each), and strong employer ratings — had zero offices.  So clearly there have been some successful and sustainable remote workplace operational models.

That might be encouraging to business now because, with more than half of all employees working from home now and an increasing desire to offer it as a permanent option going forward, companies in a multitude of industries will likely need to continue offering remote work as an option.  If so, those companies will need to develop better ways to monitor and measure productivity and develop their own sustainable virtual operational models.  After all, productivity equals profits.  But busy-ness is not synonymous with beneficial.  Action does not equal achievement.  And engagement does not always generate earnings.

A review of the companies that tried large-scale remote work and failed as well as those that tried it and succeeded is instrumental in determining how to embrace remote work for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.  Here is the key takeaway from those models.  When it comes to switching workplace employees to remote positions, quick operational updates to existing work practices can function… temporarily.  That was evident when companies pivoted and shifted gears as Covid hit.  The problem is that it is not sustainable long-term.  Converting to true virtual operations requires a fresh start in how productivity is measured and results are managed. If a company isn’t fully invested in or intentional enough to make this fresh start, then eventually remote work leads to micromanagement, isolation, miscommunication, and burnout.  And that will eventually either kill the remote work policy or the company itself.

Common Remote Workplace Errors

Here are some common errors made when companies went from a strictly in-office work policy to either a hybrid or fully-remote work policy.

Error 1:  Failed to Set Expectations

Without outlining expectations and setting rules for behavior, schedule, environment and accessibility, a brand will quickly become as vague and unstructured as its workers’ own home environments.  People will wear casual clothing, work whenever they feel like it, and attend virtual meetings while at their local, noisy Starbucks.   The success of your remote initiatives requires a company to create and distribute an offsite standard operating procedure identifying unacceptable behaviors and best practices in order to standardize internal and external interaction within the company.

Error 2:  Measured Results without Providing Structure

Busy is not synonymous with beneficial.  Being present doesn’t automatically result in productivity or profitability.  Action does not equal achievement.  And engagement does not always generate earnings.  Most managers already know that it is important to measure results, not minutes, tasks or keystrokes.  And distributed teams in particular must embrace results-based operational models.  But, while that does require managers to trust employees more and provide asynchronous communication and automated workflows, that does not mean employees should be given total 100% independence.  While results may be prioritized, people are still doing the work.  Remote employees need to collaborate frequently and be made to feel that they belong and matter. Otherwise, they will feel isolated and undervalued.  Individual contributors should be empowered to set their own goals and schedules, but also stay connected social and informationally with the team.

Mistake #3: Failed to Overhaul the Workplace Culture

Trying to fit new square pegs into old round holes is ineffective.  Having in-office workers continue work-as-usual while other employees work from home can create a drastic imbalance of accessibility, opportunity and loyalty between onsite and offsite workers.  It puts remote workers at an advance in work-life balance but at a disadvantage in career progress, engagement and loyalty.  This cultural imbalance is a primary cause of hybrid remote/in-house workplace failure.

Work experiences for both worker types must be equalized in new, creative ways for utilizing meetings and resources.  For example, digital paperwork and hard-copy materials should be kept in a central, accessible platform. Remote workers should swap with in-house workers so that everyone gets time doing remote work. Meetings should include all key staff, not just the ones who are in the building.  Decisions should not be made in the absence of remote employees.  Etc.

Companies that were forced to allow employees to telecommute in order to continue working during the pandemic will have a decision to make soon about whether to rescind remote work after the pandemic is over, adopt a hybrid model, or embrace a full remote workplace going forward.  It is a decision that could make or break companies and will likely affect turnover rates.  This decision should not be made lightly.   After all, the Owl Labs 2018 State of Remote Work report found that employees who work remotely at least once per month were 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their jobs than their desk-bound colleagues.  And the report also found that remote workers were 13% more likely to stay in their current job for the next five years than onsite workers.  A key factor in that decision will be the company’s ability to keep productivity high, turnover low, and enable collaboration and creativity.

Next week, we’ll look at how companies should measure productivity and results in the remote revolution.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.”
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin America


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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