By Mike Gaburo, CEO, Igloo Software
2020 turned the world and the workplace upside down. Even as “normal life” returns in many quarters, business leaders are still navigating uncharted territory in 2021 as they work to maintain employee engagement after more than a year of working remotely. Questions about in-the-office versus continued remote work are flooding town hall meetings everywhere. Keeping employees engaged and productive no matter where they work has taken central stage. Is there a correlation between remote work and productivity? Of course, there is. Can the two concepts co-exist? I think so.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative, there is mounting evidence to suggest that productivity has actually dropped since the start of COVID-19. A study comparing the productivity of employees before and during remote work showed that the total hours worked increased by nearly 30%, but total output remained approximately the same, lowering productivity by nearly 20%. In other words, employees worked harder to produce roughly the same output during COVID—the opposite of a productivity gain.
These results make sense considering how working from home often blurs the lines between work and personal life. While outcomes of studies like this will vary by region and industry, it’s clear employees are becoming burnt out and less engaged — which often means decreased productivity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. While employee engagement may be a challenge for some organizations right now, it’s possible — with the right, employee-focused approach — to maintain engagement and increase productivity, even when working from home.
Offices are finally beginning to reopen in the U.S., but most are only doing so at a limited capacity or only bringing in employees on certain days of the week. Many employees will continue to work from home to some degree, so we need to embrace this hybrid work environment and prioritize employee engagement to avoid burnout and a loss of productivity — because working remotely doesn’t have to mean those things.
Facing adversity with remote work
While working remotely certainly has its perks, it also has drawbacks which erode productivity. A lack of work-life boundaries has led to many employees reporting they work more hours now than they did when they were in the office. Working longer hours over a long period of time can decrease productivity because exhausted employees tend to work more slowly.
Those working remotely also face Zoom fatigue, IT issues, and other distractions at home. But one of the most challenging aspects of remote work is that employees can no longer enjoy in-person experiences like stopping by a coworker’s desk to chat, eating lunch with friends, and other in-office traditions that make work more fun and rewarding. These experiences are extremely difficult to replicate virtually.
But organizations don’t need to accept the “same output stretched over more hours” remote work productivity tax. With the right strategy, tools, and people, it’s possible to build a more engaged and productive hybrid workforce.
How to increase employee engagement and productivity
Companies need to engage employees as they continue to work remotely. You can accomplish this by creating more workplace flexibility, clearer expectations, and a sense of fun in a remote work environment — all strategies that focus on human touch. Here’s how to get started.
- Offer flexibility
Freedom and flexibility are crucial to employee happiness and engagement. In the office an employee might take a 45-minute lunch break with coworkers, but when they’re working from home they might feel guilty if they step away from their computer for a break.
This shouldn’t be the case. You need to set clear, realistic expectations for employees to establish flexibility in your company’s remote work environment. If an employee needs to take a quick trip to the grocery store, eat lunch or spend 30 minutes with their child in the middle of the day, they should be able to do it without guilt from their employer. In addition to keeping people fresh, offering workplace flexibility shows trust and pays off in the form of better morale.
- Encourage employees to take time off
Due to travel restrictions that limit vacation options, employees have been taking less time off. Unused vacation time costs U.S. businesses $224 billion per year and can contribute to decreased productivity.
Taking time off — even if you’re not going on vacation — is good for mental and physical health, creativity and productivity. Establish clear paid time off policies and lead by example to encourage employees to use their vacation time and disconnect from work. Right now, many people feel that since they aren’t going on vacation, they shouldn’t use their paid time off. So encourage them to take breaks for mental health days or to do things they enjoy. Create an environment where people can reconnect with their life outside of work and not feel bad about it.
- Create fun in a remote work environment
Enjoying oneself at work is important for employee productivity, engagement and creativity, but working remotely strips employees of in-person fun like happy hours and deskside chats. You can still create fun in a remote work environment by hosting virtual happy hours or establishing one Friday a month as a half day to encourage employees to get outside. It doesn’t have to be anything grand, but initiatives like this make a positive difference in your employees’ well-being.
You can also use technology like a digital workplace platform to provide communication channels for employees to discuss both work and non-work-related topics. Through this virtual water cooler, employees can talk about things they normally would if they were in the office. A digital workplace platform helps you easily implement new initiatives, which can improve company productivity. And initiatives and technology like this help you more easily cultivate a strong company culture and keep employees engaged — even when you’re working remotely.
Engagement increases productivity
Just because you’re getting more time out of your employees doesn’t mean they’re working more productively. Remote work is here to stay, so we need to create hybrid work models that don’t squeeze people harder with no increase in productivity—that’s a recipe for disengagement, burnout, and turnover. To ensure your team excels in the new (and permanent) world of remote work, encourage your people to take time away, offer them flexibility, and use digital tools to help create virtual fun and interactions. To make the new world of hybrid work more productive and sustainable, leaders need to invest in the human side of working remotely. It takes more than fast broadband and a stand-up desk to get the most out of the hybrid workplace!