The COVID-19 pandemic gave birth to the remote and hybrid work trend that many organizations have adopted and built into their workplace culture, with more flexibility over where exactly they do their work given to employees–provided, of course, that the work is completed.
With employees now out of sight of their coworkers and supervisors, the conversation is now turning to whether the distributed work model is as conducive to productivity as once hoped. The running belief for the nearly three years of the distributed work experiment is that by eliminating a two-way commute and merging home lives with personal lives will essentially give employees more time to work and make collaboration more purposeful.
Distributed work and productivity
The demand for hybrid work, or at least some level of flexibility, has been proven in countless surveys of big tech firms and analysts. However, whether productivity has improved or not is up for debate.
According to the raw data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm business sector labor productivity–calculated by dividing an index of real output by an index of hours worked by all persons– decreased by 1.3 percent in the third quarter of 2022.
Meanwhile, manufacturing sector labor productivity also decreased 2.9% in the quarter, and nonfinancial corporate sector productivity also decreased 1.8%.
There are a variety of factors at play here, including a looming economic recession, geopolitical considerations and mass tech layoffs, so distributed work can’t be to blame for it all.
In contrast, Microsoft reports in its recent Work Trends Index report that 87% of employees say they are productive at work, and data from the Redmond, Wash. IT giant suggests that those employees are being truthful. The company says the number of meetings per week has increased by 153% globally for the average Microsoft Teams user since the start of the pandemic.
Double-booked meetings have also increased by 46% per person in the past year, and meeting declines and tentative RSVPs have grown by 84% and 216%, respectively. In an average week, 42% of participants multitask during meetings by sending an email or ping to a coworker.
However, what employees desire for a workplace structure isn’t necessarily what corporate leaders want, as 85% of leaders told Microsoft that their confidence that hybrid employees are being productive is being challenged.
Is employee tracking software the answer?
Some organizations have turned to employee tracking software, but that can do more harm than good, says Kimberly Harris, director of people operations at Poll Everywhere.
“I actually wouldn’t really see any benefit from it,” Harris says of employee tracking software.
Seeing data on how many hours employees are working does not exactly paint a picture of how productive that employee is or if they are meeting expectations or not.
“You can put in all the time you want, but if it’s still not what your manager is looking for, then what?” Harris says.
Instead, trust is the key to a healthy relationship between executive leadership, managers and the distributed workforce. With the watchful eyes of corporate IT or human resources professionals on employee endpoints and behavior reporting back with data on how much time the user spent logged in, that trust is effectively broken.
Essentially, employee tracking software runs counterintuitive to a workplace culture that values communication and collaboration. If employees are being tracked, then communicating what they’re working on, and their progress is devalued.
“That establishes a different culture at an organization,” Harris says. “What does that say about you if you can’t even clearly communicate or effectively trust that your folks are doing the work, so you have to track them with this tool?”
Establishing this culture makes corporate leaders seem overly concerned that employees are inherently lazy if left to work out of their homes, and this is a term that Microsoft calls productivity paranoia. Even though the number of hours worked, meetings and other metrics are increasing, some leaders are still untrusting of remote employees.
In its report, Microsoft says leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t physically see who has work-related apps and windows open on their computers or who is scrolling social medial as they walk down the hall.
Compared to in-person managers, hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work (49% vs. 36%). In addition, managers report that they have less visibility into the work their employees do (54% vs. 38%), Microsoft reports.
“Productivity paranoia risks making hybrid work unsustainable,” Microsoft’s report says. “Leaders need to pivot from worrying about whether their people are working enough to helping them focus on the work that’s most important.”
Ensuring productivity in a hybrid work model
Microsoft, which essentially offers solutions that can help managers track their employees’ productivity, says employees and managers should instead establish a relationship that helps employees prioritize their workload.
More than 80% of employees say they want managers to help them prioritize their workloads, but less than a third say their managers have ever given them clear guidance during one-on-one meetings. This is an organization-wide issue, as mangers themselves say more guidance on prioritizing their own work (74%) and more clarity from senior leadership (80%) would be helpful.
Elsewhere in the report, Microsoft establishes that the answer to productivity paranoia is communication feedback, employee insights and setting goals that align with company directives.
Likewise, Harris says leaders and managers should lean on a results-oriented framework and clear expectations and deadlines.
“It doesn’t matter how long someone is spending on something, because people have different sets of skills and could be able to do something more quickly than others,” Harris says. “I don’t think the amount of time spent on something is necessarily correlated to results.”
In addition, leadership and managers should be on the front lines of establishing trust, and they must do it efficiently and effectively.
“Being able to trust that our managers are creating environments where it’s OK to be honest about where you’re at is really important,” Harris says.
Instead of tracking employee productivity, Harris suggests tracking engagement. However, that doesn’t mean how often employees come to Zoom happy hours or engage in other pandemic-era culture-building initiatives that only pay lip service to an organization’s wellness policies.
Harris suggests companies ask themselves: “Are people connected to the work? Are people going to refer your company to friends? Are people believing in the mission?”
Virtual happy hours and regular meetings designed to build culture can produce results, but organizations should also work to get the most value out of their in-person time together. When employees are in the office or if the organization holds a retreat or event periodically, that time should be both structured and engaging, but also generally a good time.
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