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As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, practices for working remotely have become entrenched. The onus is now on employers to adopt more sophisticated and sustainable ways to monitor the levels of output from their staff. Paul Golden reports.

In a world obsessed with data, it is only to be expected that academics and business experts have spent much of the pandemic period trying to determine the impact that remote working has had on productivity.

Advocates of flexible working have long argued that associating productivity with physical presence is an ineffective approach to maximising employee output. COVID-19 has provided an unexpected opportunity to test the validity of this theory, and the findings of early research appear to be supportive of it.

More than three-quarters of the almost 3,000 office workers surveyed for a May 2020 report by Global Workplace Analytics said they were fully productive working from home and the average respondent was “giving back” half the time they saved on commuting in additional work time. The report estimates that an employee allowed to work their preferred number of hours at home would add more than four and a half days to their productive work time each year.

Research conducted by consulting firm Eden McCallum found that 43% of the businesses canvassed reported increased productivity, compared with 29% who said remote working had a negative impact.

Peter Thomson, founder of working practice consultancy WiseWork, says employers can be broadly divided into two types – those who don’t trust staff to work on their own and want to check on them using activity-tracking technology, and those who believe if employees are given clear guidance as to what is expected of them, they can be trusted to get on with it.

“The second group of companies is more productive because most employees respond positively to trust,” he says. “People who work for companies that track their activity will log in on time but will often do the minimum amount of work possible.”

Remote workers can become less productive if they are not in regular contact with managers. This can also lead to feelings of isolation, which can become detrimental to mental health over time"

James Gribben, Be the Business

Understanding staff output

This begs the question: why do companies still use activity-tracking technology? Thomson believes the answer lies in management who don’t know what level of output to expect from their staff and instead focus on time by ensuring those staff are at their desks for eight hours a day.

“Very few contracts of employment include productivity targets, so people employed by time will make the work fill the time available – or even claim they can’t do their work in the allotted time and claim overtime,” he says. “In contrast, paying for results incentivises people to find smarter ways to do their job.”

According to Thomson, many managers have been surprised to learn that employees have been at least as productive while working from home during the pandemic and that in some cases teamwork has even improved.

The importance of improving management skills is also highlighted by James Gribben, Head of Communications at Be the Business, which is a charity sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It operates as an independent organisation to support companies and their boards to reach their full potential. He suggests that many managers have received little to no training, and the effects of this will have been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic.

“Formal training can really help, but there are other effective ways to improve leadership skills, such as mentoring schemes or peer learning groups,” explains Gribben. “Access to this sort of information and support can reap huge rewards and can help managers communicate more effectively with employees, empowering them to express new ideas and share their thoughts.”

Gribben says that while there are a variety of actions businesses can take to create a culture that works for everyone, the most important is keeping lines of communication open and encouraging this within the employee network.

“Remote workers can become less productive if they are not in regular contact with managers. This can also lead to feelings of isolation, which can become detrimental to mental health over time,” he says. “Employers should keep in touch with employees however they can, whether that is through daily calls, virtual meetings or group activities.”

Where appropriate, this should include non-work-related discussions in order to maintain a balance between professional and personal relationships. It is also important to consider that some employees might have childcare or other caring responsibilities.

“In the first three months of lockdown, we experienced the equivalent of three years of technology adoption,” observes Gribben. “There was a seismic shift to online, which has turned old practices on their heads and driven a need for fast decision-making and digital skills.

“We also saw a huge amount of business model innovation, with businesses pivoting their products and even creating new ones. Some of these products will become established. The innovations that businesses were pushed into will definitely give leaders the confidence to try new ways of creating value and becoming more productive in the future.”

Permanent change?

The Social Market Foundation, an independent public policy thinktank, believes COVID-19 will lead to a permanent change in the way people work. But its research director, Scott Corfe, is keen to stress that we are effectively going through a massive experiment and that it is too soon to draw long-term conclusions.

“We don’t yet fully understand the productivity implications of homeworking,” he claims. “For example, it is very difficult to train and mentor staff remotely – a lot of learning in the workplace happens informally by observation.”

Corfe is not suggesting that everyone should return to the office every day, but he says companies will need to rethink how they use them and that offices will need to be redesigned with less desk space and more spaces for collaboration, which will require a smaller overall footprint. He also suggests some companies are making long-term decisions without knowing how to maximise productivity between office and homeworking.

“These decisions are being made by senior management, who are more likely to have room at home to work comfortably and are not bothered about losing out on the learning or social interaction that takes place in the office, which is of much greater value to more junior employees,” he adds.

Gemma Dale, Human Resources Consultant and Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, goes even further, suggesting that the stress of working through a global pandemic means businesses should not be thinking about ways of improving their productivity but should instead focus on supporting employees in light of the potential for burnout and exhaustion.

“This will be true for many months to come,” she says. “If companies really want productivity, the best thing they can do is to empower people to work in the way that best fits their life and other commitments.”

Fast forward more than six years and one of the most controversial aspects of the coronavirus-era productivity debate is how — or even whether — employers should use activity tracking tools, such as Hubstaff, Prodoscore and Teramind."

Paul Golden

Strike a balance

Dale’s advice to employers looking to create a healthy work culture and encourage teamwork among staff forced to work on their own is to provide training, support and guidance on creating effective work-life balance. “Leaders should be role models for effective working practices themselves and talk regularly about wellbeing and mental health,” she says. “They should also create opportunities for people to come together on a regular basis for work and non-work – although the latter should not be mandated, as not everyone wants enforced fun.”

According to Dale, the coronavirus crisis should wake businesses up to the fact that they often conflate presence with productivity and performance, and see presenteeists as being good employees.

In a speech given to the Engaging Business Summit in October 2020, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, said there were good grounds for thinking any initial hit to productivity from homeworking would lessen over time and even reverse. He also expressed the opinion that happier people tend to be more productive.

With the Health and Safety Executive estimating that 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20, it is clear that companies should consider how prioritising employee wellbeing can improve output.

When employers monitor employee wellbeing and health, workers don’t feel like they are under surveillance – they feel cared for and valued. Managers play a vital role, as they can be trained to look for signs from face-to-face or online communication as well as text-based interaction.

Ian Martin, Managing Director of Delphis Learning, outlines five main areas managers should be focusing on.

  • Behaviour: are employees missing deadlines? Have they become less responsive?
  • Language: are they using more pronouns (me, myself), absolutist words (always, nothing) or negative language (sad, miserable)?
  • Focus: is there a lack of concentration and focus? Are they making simple errors or more mistakes than usual?
  • Emotions: are their responses overly emotional, such as hasty sending of emails or an abrupt change in the tone of their communications?
  • Sleep: are they complaining of being tired or having problems with their sleep?

“Managers should act on these signs and direct employees to appropriate health and wellbeing support,” says Martin. “They need to provide positive feedback to team members and not leave them guessing if they are doing a good job, as this can lead to anxiety. Recognise and reward progress and achievement, but don’t praise workaholism. Technology can blur boundaries, so consider policies regarding the sending of emails in working hours.”

Box 1: The boss is watching

In October 2014, authors of a working paper produced for the Future of Work Project warned that passive monitoring technologies blurred the lines between efficiency-oriented and toxic or demoralising workplace surveillance.

They noted that overt surveillance was potentially becoming less relevant to productivity, whereas explicit efforts to achieve privacy in a heavily surveilled workplace gave workers a sense of control and autonomy.

Fast forward more than six years and one of the most controversial aspects of the coronavirus-era productivity debate is how — or even whether — employers should use activity tracking tools, such as Hubstaff, Prodoscore and Teramind.

Tyler Sellhorn, Director of Customer Experience at Hubstaff, says employers should emphasise benefits such as enabling staff to avoid frequent check-ins and work when they are most productive, as well as explain how the software works. “With our system, every team member has access to information their manager can see, and can delete time and the data attached to it,” he says. “The app only records data when the team is actively tracking work time. Screenshot notifications are on by default.”

Teramind’s monitoring feature can be customised to include disabling web monitoring when the user logs into a health or financial portal, or monitoring corporate email boxes and ignoring webmail, explains Eli Sutton, the firm’s Vice President of Operations.

“We take a variety of factors into consideration when reporting on productivity, including classification of websites and applications that are deemed productive or unproductive, reporting on active and idle time, and trigger-based alerts with supportive video playback of actions, so employers can investigate rather than jumping to conclusions,” he says.

But Gemma Dale, Human Resources Consultant and Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, rejects the notion that companies should monitor employee activity, stating that if an employer has to constantly monitor people to get them to do their job properly, they are failing as a leader.

“Give people objectives and get out of their way. If they don’t deliver on them, then deal with that,” she says. “Activity tracking technology is not sufficiently sophisticated to distinguish between quantity of work and the quality of the worker’s output, which is why it should not be deployed.”

With working from home blurring the line between the workplace and where people live, James Gribben, Head of Communications at Be the Business, says companies should encourage employees to log off at sensible times, take lunch breaks and consider the times they allow meetings to take place.

Box 2: Consultation and dialogue

Jurga Žilinskienė is CEO of Guildhawk, a language services company with more than 60 full-time staff in addition to contract employees. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, these permanent staff worked in the company’s offices in London and Sheffield, while the contract employees worked mainly from home.

“We had started to move more towards digital services and realised that we had to change, but we were only some of the way through this process when the pandemic started,” she explains. “We had planned to introduce homeworking from 2021.”

Žilinskienė says the company has always been focused on the output of its employees, “not to police them, but rather to understand the impact of how they work”. The company’s customer relationship management system includes activity analysis, but this is used to determine allocation of project resources rather than monitor individual workers.

Guildhawk decided in February 2020 that its staff would be working from home for the next three months come what may, which it believes helped staff by creating certainty. It also surveyed all employees to determine the feasibility of working from home in the longer term and kept them informed about the commercial decisions it was making.

“Constant dialogue between employees and their managers helped us figure out how each person could work more efficiently, and we introduced a weekly CEO briefing where they are informed about all the factors affecting the business,” says Žilinskienė

These initiatives have enabled the company to record an 18% increase in overall productivity since staff started working from home, which has allowed it to surrender its leases and reinvest the money saved by using a virtual office. bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

Further reading

The ICAEW Library & Information Service provides full text access to leading business, finance and management journals. You can read more on remote working and employee productivity through the articles below.
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  • Update History
    16 Feb 2021 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    First published
    17 Apr 2023 (12: 00 AM BST)
    Page updated with Further reading section, adding further reading on remote working and employee productivity. These articles provide additional insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2021 has not undergone any review or updates