In this challenging time, the question of productivity is not whether or not leaders can trust their people to continue to work hard from home, but whether leaders can give their people the clarity, resources, and psychological safety they need to be successful in their transition to remote work.
I’d never been scared at work before.
Eight months into my first job out of college, I had hit my groove: work kept me busy, but as long as I met all my deadlines (and I did), I was doing a good job.
I thought I had it all figured out. Then one day, I went into the office around 9 a.m., just like normal, and then did all my work until it was done, just like normal. Then I checked my phone and was horrified by what I saw:
You see, this organization didn’t have the type of company culture where it was OK to go home early. Most days, I worked past 5 p.m.
I had no idea what to do. Ask my boss what to do next? He was on vacation. Work ahead? My to-do list was done and my inbox was empty. Invent work to do? That just seemed wrong.
So I sat there, wondering how to fill the next seven hours. I’m sure you can guess the sort of thoughts that go through your mind in that situation:
- Did I do something wrong?
- Am I supposed to be doing something else right now?
- What if people see how little I’m doing right now? Will they think I’m a slacker? Will they see me as expendable?
Here’s why I bring this up: COVID-19 has changed how companies work. As the coronavirus spreads and governments extend their shelter-in-place orders, many organizations are shifting to remote work.
This dramatic change forces leaders to reevaluate their expectations around employee productivity:
- Some employees will make the transition easily, getting just as much done as they would going into the office
- Others will struggle to adapt to remote work, only able to operate at a fraction of their usual productivity
If you haven’t communicated clearly and set expectations around productivity during the COVID-19 crisis, your employees are almost certainly dealing with thoughts like the ones I was having.
In this challenging time, it’s essential for leaders to give their people the clarity, resources and psychological safety they need to be successful in their transition to remote work.
Here’s what we at Great Place to Work® have learned about how to do that:
How you can help your employees when work is uncertain
I manage a small team at Great Place to Work that has been working remotely due to COVID-19 for a few weeks now.
On day 1 of our new arrangement, we held a team meeting where I laid out:
- How our work might change due to the pandemic
- Projects they can work on that would add value to the company if their normal work slows down.
I ended by saying, “if it’s 3 p.m. and you’ve done everything you can that day on your normal work and the side-projects I mentioned, please take a safe walk, call your family or watch a movie. Please don’t feel that you have to invent busy work for yourself if our usual volume of work isn’t there during this crisis.”
There's only so much we can control our circumstances right now. Some people simply won’t be as productive as usual during this period. Leaders need to recognize that and create psychological safety for their people.
If an employee can only do about 70% of what they would normally do while working remotely, make it clear that you understand and won’t hold them accountable for the 30% they can’t do.
Some employees may find they have additional bandwidth while working remotely. While you don’t want to overload them, this is a good time to explore creative and productive ways to use that additional bandwidth.
Properly equip your people
I once spoke to a man who used to work the omelet station at a hotel. He told me a fascinating story about when he came to the brink of a mental breakdown due to a poor-quality pan.
The pan was in bad shape, which made it nearly impossible to properly flip an omelet. As he served up omelet after ugly omelet, he endured disappointed looks and comments from guest after guest.
He hated the shame he felt from consistently falling short of expectations. He also resented management for equipping him with substandard cooking equipment and ignoring his pleas for improvements. Eventually, he bought a new pan with his own money and brought it into work.
It’s frustrating to feel that you were set up to fail from the very start.
It’s crucial to make sure that your people have what they need to be as successful as possible in their new situation; whether it be technology, communication or something else.
To set your people up for success:
- Tap into the knowledge of any pre-existing remote workers.
Did your organization already had employees working remotely before COVID-19? If so, reach out to them to discover and share their best practices for working remotely.
- Remove bureaucratic barriers
Waiting for weeks for your resource request to be approved is maddening.
If your employee says they need a second computer monitor at home to do their work, believe them. Now is not the time to make people jump through hoops.
- Check-in often
For many, transitioning to remote work won’t be like flipping a switch, so it’s important for leaders to frequently check in on their people throughout this process.
In addition to running employee surveys, one best practice for doing this at scale is to create a “Virtual Ambassador” role.
Virtual Ambassadors are responsible for checking in with virtual employees to find out:
-What has been working well
-Challenges employees are facing
-Other feedback they may have
They then share this feedback with leadership.
This role typically requires 6-8 hours per week. When selecting Virtual Ambassadors, consider employees whose duties include tasks they can’t perform while working remotely. They’re likely to have extra bandwidth, and they may appreciate the opportunity to contribute in a different way.
Your company culture can get stronger even while you’re apart
The coronavirus has disrupted business, forcing organizations to adapt and improvise.
Even as the uncertainty inherent in these times stresses teams, you can build and strengthen your company culture. It all starts with care and communication.
For more advice on managing during — and after — the COVID-19 crisis, visit our dedicated COVID-19 resource page.
Are you concerned about being out of touch with your employees’ feelings in this brave new remote world? We’re here to support you with our weekly Q&A and discussion, "Together".