How to balance the productivity and wellness of remote teams

It requires being flexible.
It requires being flexible.
Image: REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
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While numerous studies have dispelled the myth that employees are less productive when they work from home, the pandemic has undoubtedly affected many people’s ability to focus.

In PwC’s latest survey of nearly 300 CFOs at US companies, 34% said they expect to lose productivity in the next month due to a lack of remote capabilities. That’s a notable improvement from about eight weeks ago, when 63% of finance executives were forecasting a decline. But if working remotely is going to be the new normal for many companies for the foreseeable future—and it likely will be, as 43% of CFOs told us they plan to make certain roles permanently remote—business leaders should ramp up productivity now, especially if they want get their business back on track as quickly as possible.

Here are three strategies to help your remote employees be more productive while still being mindful of your people’s wellbeing, given the uncertainty that will likely continue for the next year or longer.

1. Don’t lose your empathy when the crisis recedes

It’s been gratifying to see so many leaders put their people’s safety and wellbeing at the center of their decisions throughout this crisis. Empathetic leadership will continue to be essential as you adapt to leading a remote team. Not only is leading with empathy the right thing to do, but people are more likely to be productive when they feel engaged and supported.

Remote teams in particular need:

Autonomy: Trust your people to do what they need to do in order to juggle work with their other responsibilities. Studies show that leaders who give remote employees true autonomy and flexibility see greater employee productivity.

Community: Working from home can reduce opportunities for interactions and relationships. Encourage team building and explore ways for people to connect and get to know each other as people, not just coworkers.

Inclusion: Employees who feel like they’re being left out or overlooked are less likely to be as engaged or motivated to produce. Unfortunately, a remote work environment can make it easier for bias to creep in, and for people to feel hidden. Reinforce respect and model inclusive behaviors yourself by giving everyone an opportunity to contribute.

Support: Burnout is a major contributor to productivity loss. With many employees working longer hours from home than they were before the pandemic, it’s important to encourage time off. People may be reluctant to miss work because they want to demonstrate their value at a time when companies are laying off workers. Try this approach: give your whole team the same day off. One of our clients, a major tech company, is considering this, so that everyone is guaranteed time off, and nobody has to feel guilty or worry about what they’re missing.

2. Keep upskilling

For many companies, the sudden shift to remote work has underscored the need for their people to develop strong digital skills and adapt to new ways of working. From wrestling with technical challenges to figuring out how to collaborate without face-to-face interaction, many employees are losing hours learning how to navigate remote work.

In the US, 37% of CFOs tell us they plan to accelerate automation and adopt new ways of working as they transition back to on-site work. For this reason, it’s important to make time for people to develop new skills. Employee development and upskilling sometimes gets sidelined when leaders are focused on ramping up business, but on remote teams, productivity will drop if people are struggling to keep up with technology changes or new collaboration tools.

3. Address productivity challenges individually

Sometimes the simplest way to help remote employees be more productive is to figure out what’s holding them back and work with them one-on-one to fix it. Maybe it’s a technical issue: they need an ergonomic chair, a better set of headphones, a laptop upgrade. Maybe they have children to homeschool or family members to care for. Maybe they’re struggling with anxiety.

There are a lot of factors that can affect individual productivity, but you won’t know what each person is facing unless you create a means for them to communicate with you. Give your team ways to share their personal situations and challenges if they choose, so they can get the support they need.

Also consider offering enhanced benefits, such as compressed work hours, flexible schedules, expanded mental health resources, or help with childcare. These targeted benefits can help people address their personal constraints so they can better focus on work.

Productivity is possible, even in a pandemic

Increasing productivity doesn’t happen overnight. It’s realistic to expect a learning curve as you work to raise productivity among a workforce that isn’t used to working remotely.

But it is possible, even in a pandemic, to lead in a way that makes it easier for people to balance their responsibilities, manage their stress, and focus on work. Putting these practices in place now can help remote teams steadily improve their ability to collaborate and problem-solve, and ultimately produce.