A recent study of 12,000 employees working from home in the COVID-era uncovered some interesting data on how we enable employees to be more productive when working from home. The research suggested that four elements consistently came up in the research of those who were performing better.
Workplace tools, social connectivity, mental health, and physical health can make up to a 400% difference in employee productivity.1
1. Workplace Tools. Employees who were satisfied with their tools were about twice as likely to have maintained, if not improve, their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who were not satisfied with the tools they had to do their jobs.
Video conferencing, project management, and collaboration tools all fell into this category, along with virtual whiteboards.
What to do: Think back to how work used to get done in the office and how productivity and collaboration tools, factoring in the office environment, enabled employees to be productive. Then look at the tactical realities of what infrastructure they will have supporting them at home.
Maybe collaboration was as simple as leaning around a shared cube wall and asking your cubemate for their input. Collaboration like this can be hard to mimic since no one is in a shared space anymore. Keep this in mind as you consider what workplace tools you are currently using and what additional tools may make sense.
What do they need to connect: Do employees need to connect to the company network to get their job done? They will need a computing device of some kind, the Internet, possibly Wi-Fi, and a secure way to connect. While VPN is a good solution to work from home occasionally, this shouldn't be a long term or permeant solution. VPNs are Virtually Perfect for Napping because productivity is not top of mind for anyone that has used this technology for a few eight-hour days, and if that is you, you know what I mean.
What do they need to collaborate: Do employees need to collaborate with team members to complete their work? Do they need a desk phone? Is the company expecting them to use their mobile phones, home phones, or an app on their computer? How about a headset?
Sure, there is an email. Do they need a chat platform or a presence system to see who is and is not at their desk to get a quick question answered?
Think tactically. What can be eliminated and/or what must be duplicated for the Work from Home employee to be successful?
2. Social Connectivity, or how tightly integrated employees are with their co-workers, was a significant driving factor in the research. Employees who were happy, or expressed satisfaction, with their co-workers, are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks than those dissatisfied with their connections.
What to do: Look at how employees collaborated when everyone worked in the office. Was collaboration mostly analog with employees getting up from their desks and physically relocating to conference rooms or to one another's offices to share ideas and work together on projects, or was there one or more applications facilitating this communication? Think about applications like Slack, Teams, chat, digital whiteboards, GoToMeeting, etc. that allow employees to assemble and work in the same digital space while not being in the same physical space. Now, look at that another layer removed, with employees trying to work from home.
For employees that primarily worked alone at the office likely saw some productivity increase as the pop-ins and impromptu meetings came to an end, giving them some of their time back, adding to their productivity.
Employees who worked primarily in groups or teams at the office are likely not as productive if there are no tools to allow them to recreate in digital form what they left behind, working closely with their peers in the office.
Beyond "Can employees connect securely from home to work" the question is, "how do we recreate the collaborative work environment we had in the office, at home?" or "What digital tools best replicate our collaborative nature and the way we work together?"
How do they learn from one another? How do they innovate? How do they handle complex workflows that require many hands before the job is complete?
3. Mental Health. Employees who have maintained or improved their mental health were approximately two times more likely to maintain or improve their productivity.
What to do: Take a look at what "work from home" really means for employees. Do they have a serene environment at home with a home office or a good, ergonomic space to work eight hours a day? Or are they hunched over the coffee table trying to get work done, simultaneously entertaining small children, homeschooling others, and going outside when they need to be on conference calls?
What happens at home is mostly taboo in terms of engagement, but when home becomes the office, it might make sense to have more tools available to address some of the more challenging work from home issues.
Some companies have gone as far as to provide or stipend for home office furniture, improved internet speeds, provide headsets, and VoIP phones. Some use flex scheduling to allow employees to use time to balance out their obligations and still get their work done or do a blend of work from home/work from the office days.
It all begins with something as simple as a conversation with your direct reports to understand what challenges they are likely facing in their environment.
4. Physical Health. The corporate wellness programs promoted by health insurance companies full of people who professionally handicap health risks for their group insurance plans have been telling us this for years. Employees in good physical health are more productive. This survey of 12,000 employees pointed to a 2x improvement in productivity on collaborative tasks for those who have experienced better health than those with worse physical health.
What to do: First, understand we are not just talking about exercise. This extends to sleep, nutrition, and potentially creating new work routines. Many employees work longer hours when working from home as the visual cues of when to start and stop work are removed. It might be important to know that what was once an eight-hour day is now routinely 10-12+ hour days.
Let's face it two little paragraphs on paying more attention to physical health will probably not change any behaviors. On the other hand, a simple chart from research compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and other healthcare sources might shine some light on how a little attention in this area impacts the big picture.
With COVID, our first mission was to survive as people. Secondarily, keep our organizations (or paycheck, life's mission, retirement, you pick) alive. In some cases, employees took one for the team working with bubble gum and bottle caps trying to find a way to get their jobs done in the early days.
Outside of maybe workplace tools, no one thought about the other factors in this article because survival was the priority. Several months later, it is time to rethink the temporary work conditions that helped our organizations survive and retool with a longer-term view of how we enable our organizations' literal hearts, the employees. We need to be productive, stabilize our lives and company foundations, create value, and a booming economy once again.
79% of respondents who indicated they were satisfied or doing better on all these four factors, workplace tools, social connectivity, mental and physical health, said they have maintained or improved productivity on collaborative tasks.
Of respondents dissatisfied or doing worse on at least three of these factors, only 16% (from a small sample size, with a confidence interval of +/- 3% at 80% confidence) said they have been able to maintain or improve productivity.