Sustaining productivity in a virtual world - PwC
Productivity, despite an initial drop, soon improved during lockdown and got back on track, which on first reading looks like good news. But those results hide a potential problem that appears when you look harder at the data: there is greater variation around mean performance in the weeks after lockdown than before. This suggests that productivity has been propped up by a cohort of superachievers (around one-third of the total sample), which has disguised a fall in productivity among the rest.
Superachievers have worked harder and longer than before in the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic — perhaps because they have benefited from fewer distractions, or have fed off the adrenaline of the crisis. The rest of the employees found things more difficult; remote working doesn’t suit everyone, for practical or emotional reasons or a combination of the two. This breeds stress and fatigue, which present risks to engagement, performance, and mental health. “I’m feeling Zoomed out” is a familiar lament. The challenge for leaders is to find ways to tackle performance, because they cannot rely on superachievers to keep making up the shortfall for much longer.
The key question about the productivity data is whether it is sustainable as people start returning to work in the coming months, when businesses will see more of their people working from home as part of a hybrid model when the COVID-19 crisis has largely passed. We don’t think it is, unless leaders take direct steps to address the differences in performance among employees. To do this, they will have to invest in the underlying systems and processes that will help teams work in a productive and engaged manner. Here are five key points for businesses and leaders to bear in mind when developing ways to make remote working a success and sustain performance and engagement.
Define the right set of KPIs. Effective performance management of remote workers calls for holistic indicators. These metrics could include measures such as the number of touch points between teams, or individuals’ mood levels, or how people are coping with their workload. Well-being and happiness, of course, mean different things to different people, so the data isn’t a definitive measure — but it can open up a discussion for people to explain and explore (if they wish) the reasons they’re not feeling great, and allow for the option of getting support.
Create a connected team. Regular meetings help maintain a connected team and sense of community, even when people are working remotely. Frequent touch points create opportunities to discuss performance, well-being, priorities, and any issues at hand, as well as to celebrate successes. Just 15 minutes allow participants to review the key metrics that matter most.
Develop the role of leaders. Leading a remote team requires a strong emphasis on specific leadership skills — such as empathy, the ability to foster a sense of community, and the employment of digital skills that maximize the use of technology — and this should be recognized in leadership training and development. Team leaders may need specific coaching in order to successfully manage underperformers; for example, it’s far more challenging to hold a difficult conversation remotely.
Build in positive recognition. Regular recognition not only helps maintain a positive working culture, but is also an important driver of productivity. Recognition becomes even more important in a remote environment in which managers don’t have access to the physical and verbal clues they might pick up on in the office, and there are now fewer “watercooler” opportunities to provide on-the-spot acknowledgment. Leaders should identify fresh occasions to express recognition, tailored to individuals in a meaningful and genuine way. Technology can help here through techniques such as gamification: Performance leader boards or competitions with prizes can encourage desired behaviors.
Use structure to deflect distractions. Even before lockdown, our data suggested that as much as 30 percent of a team’s time was spent on non-value-adding activities. There is a risk this percentage could increase in a new hybrid work environment as a result of home distractions, child care, and the tendency of some to feel burned out after a long day of virtual conference calls. Building clear structure into team schedules — such as short daily catch-ups, focused time for specific activities, and breaks — helps support the focus of a dispersed team.
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