As the number of employees working from home rose precipitously in response to COVID, business owners have had to find ways to make sure that workers – especially hourly ones – have been getting their work done. They’ve employed a range of solutions, from highly technical to profoundly human.
Before the pandemic, about 25 percent employees worked from home at least part of the time, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report of survey data gathered in 2017 and 2018. Recently, that's changed — 88 percent of global respondents to an online poll by consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics released last month said "they were working at home during the pandemic."
In addition, the survey found that 76 percent and 82 percent of home-based workers — globally and in the U.S. respectively — "want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over." (The survey was based on the responses of 2,865 global employees in March and April 2020.)
El Paso, Texas-based real estate broker Brian Burds says his business matches the survey's findings. Burds had 12 home-based workers before the coronavirus arrived — now, it’s looking like he’ll have a lot more.
“After the stay-at-home orders were lifted, we have reviewed taking this to our entire staff and reducing our office space dramatically,” Burds says. “I had a few employees ask if they could also participate in work from home and we accepted this as a new norm and are putting it into action currently.”
Remote Work Hang-ups
The new remote-first norm brings new challenges. Managers used to in-person check-ups with employees may be understandably nervous about whether people will be working when they say they are.
Technology offers one approach to addressing potential performance issues. Some employers have been installing software that monitors employee’s activity by counting computer keystrokes, recording website visits and even taking photos with laptop cameras. The software has often come either pre-installed on company computers or has been installed by workers through emailed setup files.
Tracking software may occasionally be part of the performance solution, but its issues and limitations need to be recognized, says Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Indianapolis-based Remote Leadership Institute and co-author of The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.
“It can also be wildly misleading,” Turmel explains. “Because you can measure basic activities but software doesn’t give you context. You know someone might not be typing at a given moment, but not why.”
Ultimately, there are a number of ways to ensure that you’re able to track performance of employees while working from home, but trusting your employees is going to be the key to success.
—Flynn Zaiger, CEO, Online Optimism
Monitoring can’t reliably tell, for instance, whether an employee is not typing because he or she is napping, or because a pet, child or other family member is creating a distraction.
Employees, of course, may also be uncomfortable with that level of technological oversight. And some evidence suggests that it’s not necessary, because home-based and other remote workers are, contrary to expectations, actually more productive than on-site employees — a 2020 study of Japanese teleworkers found that employees' productivity increased after they began remote work. (One caveat: The productivity boost only happened when the number of work hours was not excessive.)
Techniques for Managing Home-Based Workers
While evidence that home-based workers are likely to keep doing their jobs without supervision is encouraging, managers used to having employees in view may feel like they’re not capable of delivering on their own responsibilities. Experts and businesses owners say these are the keys to managing home-based workers:
1. Re-examine roles and duties.
First, decide what home-based employees will have to do and how managers will support and supervise them.
“Everyone needs to be extremely clear on the expectations,” Turmel emphasizes.
Unflinching discussion and clearly written documentation about the requirements for hours of availability, units of output and other performance measurements will help make working from home effective.
2. Set new expectations that fit the situation.
Focus on productivity, not presence. While some jobs will continue to have specific hours, most expectations will focus on completing an adequate volume and quality of finished, rather than whether someone shows up for work on time. Time does play a role, but primarily in terms of making deadlines rather than punching time clocks.
“Creating items that must be complete within a defined timeline is the only way to keep remote employees on task,” says Burds. “Humans in general tend to work to deadlines and when those deadlines are open-ended we tend to lose focus on what tasks we want to complete.”
Burds notes that this requires him to know how long it should take someone to perform a task, and then to communicate that expectation to the employee.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Experts advise communicating often and predictably. Turmel suggests using videoconferencing when possible to have virtual face-to-face interactions rather than relying on sporadic emails.
Flynn Zaiger, CEO of New Orleans digital marketing agency Online Optimism, uses project management software to give supervisors up-to-date status of home-based workers progress on assigned tasks. That’s not the same as monitoring, however, and it doesn’t replace communication.
“Our team also does department check-ins three times a day to ensure everyone is working towards one of their tasks,” Zaiger says.
If technology isn’t the perfect solution to managing home-based workers, it may not be completely useless. For instance, work management platforms of the sort Zaiger uses can also help businesses coordinate and manage remote teams.
And Burds says he sometimes finds monitoring technology useful for new workers.
“The software can assist in the tracking. We traditionally will use the software during the beginning of an employee’s career with us, but, as we get into a flow of expectations and the employees work ethic, we remove the software requirement and begin to track based on task completion,” he says.
So... Do You Really Need Productivity Tracking Software?
Working from home offers sizable benefits. Many firms will realize sizeable cost savings due to reduced need for real estate. Others will find they are better prepared in case of future disasters.
Turmel suggests that when it comes to realizing these benefits, monitoring technology that counts keystrokes and tracks website visits is only modestly helpful.
“For most jobs you’re better off creating metrics that measure output over time, rather than specific behavior,” he says. “We all know people who go to the office, show up on time, stay late and still manage to waste time.”
As Zaiger puts it, human rather than technological factors will likely be most critical.
“Ultimately, there are a number of ways to ensure that you’re able to track performance of employees while working from home,” he says, “but trusting your employees is going to be the key to success.”
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