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Increasing productivity and managing the WFH challenge

Written by Ally Maughan on Thursday, 10 September 2020. Posted in Leadership, People

Over the past few weeks, many business owners have been asking us how to improve their business productivity whilst facing the ongoing challenge of working during through the ebb and flow of restrictions.

Increasing productivity and managing the WFH challenge

Over the past few weeks, many business owners have been asking us how to improve their business productivity whilst facing the ongoing challenge of working during through the ebb and flow of restrictions. 

The question for business owners right now is whether their business is suffering from the lack of interaction due to home working – not whether an individual employee is more or less productive. 

The press is full of commentary about the distractions of WFH, and how to get the most out of people still home-based.

Perhaps of more interest is whether a CEO can positively impact the performance of a business, and try to identify or solve the problems caused by remote working. 

We have to go a bit further back in time to find an organisation that has moved from full choice home working to bringing people back to work: both Yahoo and IBM are big company examples. 

Bringing people back to the office

In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was behind HR’s edict ending working from home, saying: "to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices."

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings," it says. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

What is worth face to face?

As the founder of People Puzzles, an almost virtual business, we have always celebrated key events by getting people together, specifically for planning meetings, strategy, learning events, induction, and opportunities to socialise as a team. 

During the past few months, I’ve been noting the things that are going to get missed. For example new initiatives in certain departments that used to be discussed casually now need a different forum, and opportunities to collaborate take the required effort to pre-plan rather than just naturally occurring. People have always moved around departments as a way to get promoted, and it cross-fertilises our businesses, adding tremendous value when this happens. So often this is a result of relationships, casual conversation and unplanned opportunity. 

After all, the office environment gives a number of advantages over working from home, including learning and development, the potential for coaching, socialisation, escaping the home, a change of routine, spontaneous thinking, catching up and laughing with colleagues. 

Bringing people back together to have meaningful conversations and interactions is already critically important, and I think that we (CEOs and People Directors in particular) have an important role in advising and curating this across our businesses. 

Personal productivity vs collaboration efficiency

Exploring this concept, I went on to find a really interesting old article from 2017 detailing IBMs move from a remote workforce back to the office. It highlights the difference between personal productivity vs collaboration efficiency. 

If your job requires you to work alone, studies suggest remote working can increase productivity if people can choose how and when they do it. But if your role requires you to collaborate, efficiency is impacted by distance and it is done quickest face to face. However good your broadband, teleconferencing or messenger system, face to face beats distance communication every time. And it is strange that the more we see each other, the more we communicate:

“Waber, working alongside researchers from IBM, found that workers in the same office traded an average of 38 communications about each potential trouble spot they confronted, versus roughly eight communications between workers in different locations.”

Top concerns of Managers

Although this is from the US, this pre-COVID image provides some useful intel on the concerns of managers of remote teams: 

And all of these continue to apply today, probably amongst additional concerns over wellness and mental health. 

So what next? 

With most things that you want to improve, having a metric to measure where you are now and a goal for where you want to be will help. With productivity that is no different. 

 Productivity can be calculated as output divided by input. Crudely, that can be calculated as turnover divided by salary cost or hours of work. Alternatively you could measure it through surveys of both managers and individuals. 

There are three factors at play that relate to performance, where business performance is about inspirational leadership and enablement, team performance is about the sum of the parts being greater than the whole, and individual is about effort multiplied by impact. 

Using these levers to lead into a productivity review from a business perspective, whilst helping individuals at home to do their best work, allows approaching the productivity challenge from both sides. 

But enabling individual productivity at the expense of business collaboration, problem-solving and efficiency cannot do us any favours in the long term. 

But what if the team want to keep working from home: should I let them, and what are the implications?

According to many reports, many employees have enjoyed working from home so much that they want to continue for the long term. 

We’ve already explored the personal and organisational productivity angle above, but is it right to let our teams choose their work location, and could it cause problems later?

Long term WFH implications

Contracts of employment should state a place of work. Currently that is likely to be the office unless your team are already home or field based. As such, your team will fund their own transport to and from the office or work location. If you decide to make them home workers contractually, you may wish to write regular office visits into the contract. It is worth taking advice on this so that you don’t end up with a liability for travel expenses to the office when they do come in (which may also have tax implications).

Health and Safety considerations

You have a legal responsibility to provide a safe workspace for your employees, which includes any home-office set up. During COVID, this wasn’t anyone’s primary consideration, but as things become more normal, and people work from home for longer, it is going to become an increasing issue. If your team have bad backs or other health issues from working from home, it is likely to become your problem at some point. 

Employers are responsible for HSE work-station assessments, and providing the right equipment for people to work safely. For example, that could require you to buy a new desk, chair, monitor or laptop docking station, and then perhaps phones, printers and ink for your WFH staff. 

You may wish to set up a survey for your team, asking them about the equipment they currently have, encouraging them to work through a health and safety assessment of their home working station, and then identifying what is missing, and what they need to make it comfortable. Some of our team members may not have a suitable location to work in their homes, and I doubt any of us want to get into funding their ability to rent a larger home to make a better desk space. This does then potentially cause friction between those who can work comfortably at home, perhaps because they are a different age bracket, than those who can’t, and therefore you don’t think it is safe for them to do so. 

If you do agree to permanent WFH, you can allow them to take company equipment home with them, which you would need back at the end of their employment. If you still need that equipment in the office for the days they are in, that also has budget implications.

Potential cost challenges

There are various cost implications to work through around allowing a move to working from home. There is the matter of additional equipment, and perhaps a working from home allowance to cover heating and lighting in the home (currently you can pay £6 per week tax free towards these expenses among other HMRC schemes). 

However, there may be some very interesting savings potentially available. Firstly, if you have been used to paying a big city allowance (eg London Weighting) to encourage people to work in an expensive area, this may not be necessary on a long-term home working contract. Of course, you would need to consult about any salary change, follow the correct process, and ensure buy-in from your team members. It also means that the work could be done anywhere in the country (or in the world), so you could advertise any future roles to do similar work in an area where salaries are generally lower. You also may need less office space, but that does depend on the ability to move to a smaller work location. 

Set a good pattern

There may well be merit in both allowing more home working and flexibility in the future, and ensuring there are still opportunities to get together for collaboration, to further develop the company culture, ensure great training and onboarding, and generally stay in close relationship with our teams. 

There is no need to rush into a quick decision at the current time (unless you are renegotiating office leases), and it is perhaps worth focusing now on setting a good pattern for collaboration and working together, plus ironing out any issues with your productivity at the moment. 

Setting a pattern and a rhythm for your teams will avoid the issue where the extroverts dash back to the office and the introverts find any reason to work from home for as long as possible. The impact on your business of having one type of voice present for face to face discussion and decisions could have a lasting impact that would not benefit your business. 

Extend the trial

For the past six months we have been in a giant global experiment, and working from home has allowed us to avoid complete lockdown. For most of the UK, we are now able to return to a slightly more normal work experience as the epidemic rumbles on and infection rates rise and fall. 

Rather than agree to any long-term changes with your team, we encourage you to really engage with what is going to work well for the business, for teams and for individuals 

Continue to bring people back into the workplace for purposeful, safe meetings, and stay in close contact with the team so that you can revert to full office working in the future, if that is what is best for business collaboration, continuing with as much flexibility as you can to aid individual productivity for those tasks which are best done quietly at home.  

After all, we know from recent research that top talent requires two things; an environment in which they can continuously learn and grow, and the opportunity to collaborate with other top talent which provides stimulation and challenge. Our top performers are likely to want flexible working rather than home working, as they will see the benefit in being in the right place for meaningful interaction. 

Stay focussed on managing individual performance and setting great KPIs

Wherever your team are working, nothing escapes the need for clarity of roles, aligned organisations and a great focus on individual productivity and KPIs. The business, teams and individuals all need to be focused on delivering the right work for an efficient and successful company. 

At both a corporate and individual level, we need meaningful KPIs to track performance, so that we can be data driven and not subjective in how we manage. 

At People Puzzles, we know that improving productivity across a business is not a single activity, but a programme of change. What you need will differ based on industry and the makeup of your workforce, to ensure that you are best placed to succeed.

About the Author

Ally Maughan

Ally Maughan

Ally Maughan started People Puzzles in 2010 because early in her career she recognised that people problems were often the biggest, single factor holding a company back from growth.

Ten years later, and with her hand-picked team of over 50 experienced People Directors, Ally has personally worked with more than 100 SME and mid-tier companies and is now leading a scale-up business herself.

Results oriented, Ally delivers her own blend of business insight with direct, practical advice firmly based on commercial realities and outcomes. Her specialist knowledge includes people management, organisational structure and high performing teams.

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