How can you sustain productivity in a virtual world?

Maintaining productivity levels among remote employees is an enduring challenge. Leaders will need to take direct steps to address the differences in performance among employees. They will need to invest in underlying systems and processes that will help teams work in a productive and engaged manner.

Here are five key points for businesses and leaders to bear in mind when developing ways to make remote working a success and sustain performance and engagement.

Define the right set of KPIs

Effective performance management of remote workers calls for holistic indicators; key performance indicators (KPIs) aren’t simply a matter of sales calls made or reports filed. Business KPIs that track both productivity (in terms of output) and effectiveness drive focus and accountability within the team, but well-being and collaboration KPIs should be added too. They can help predict productivity, or provide early warnings when people are feeling strained.

These well-being and collaboration metrics could include measures such as the number of touch points between teams, or individuals’ mood levels, or how people are coping with their workload. Well-being and happiness, of course, mean different things to different people but it can open up a discussion for people to explain and explore (if they wish) the reasons they’re not feeling great, and allow for the option of getting support.

Create a connected team

Regular meetings help maintain a connected team and sense of community, even when people are working remotely. Remote workers actively seek out opportunities to connect so having frequent touch points creates an opportunity to discuss performance, well-being, priorities, and any issues at hand, as well as to celebrate successes. I’d like to refer to these daily “huddles” – even if it’s just 15 minutes to allow participants to review the key metrics that matter most.

Develop the role of leaders

Leading a remote team requires a strong emphasis on specific leadership skills — such as empathy, the ability to foster a sense of community, and the employment of digital skills that maximise the use of technology — and this should be recognised in leadership training and development. Team leaders may need specific coaching in order to successfully manage underperformers; for example, it’s far more challenging to hold a difficult conversation remotely.

Some leadership skills in a remote environment are more esoteric, but no less important. Remote workers need to feel a sense of empowerment in order to give their best, for instance. Leaders will need to create an environment in which teams take ownership of their work and of their preferred working style when they are away from the office.

Organisations will need to adapt their leadership development strategy in order to create leaders who can bring out the best among their remote teams. This development strategy should also recognise the different demands placed on leaders in this new environment; adding recovery time to schedules and monitoring the well-being of high performers will be essential in the months ahead.

Build in positive recognition

Regular recognition not only helps maintain a positive working culture but is also an important driver of productivity. Recognition becomes even more important in a remote environment in which managers don’t have access to the physical and verbal clues they might pick up on in the office, and there are now fewer opportunities to provide on-the-spot acknowledgment. Leaders should identify fresh occasions to express recognition, tailored to individuals in a meaningful and genuine way. Technology can help here through techniques such as incentives – performance leader boards, competitions with prizes can encourage desired behaviours.

Use structure to deflect distractions

As much as 30% of a team’s time can be spent on non-value-adding activities. There is a risk this percentage could increase in a new hybrid work environment as a result of home distractions, child care, and the tendency of some people to feel burned out after a long day of virtual conference calls. Building clear structure into team schedules — such as short daily catch-ups, focused time for specific activities, and breaks — helps support the focus of a dispersed team.

In this new virtual world, the winners will be those organisations that successfully navigate the specific challenges of managing remote teams. The variation in productivity levels during lockdown suggests that current performance levels are unsustainable because they rely on super-achievers pulling up the average, but the five points outlined will help organisations and their leaders maintain and improve productivity and engagement levels for everyone as we move into this new world of work.

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