How to manage productivity in the new normal

How has remote work and the pandemic impacted employee productivity?

How to manage productivity in the new normal

Employees across Asia believe their productivity has remained the same or higher over the past year despite the global pandemic, according to a recent study. Microsoft found that about three in five workers in Japan, for example, have managed to maintain their productivity levels compared with the previous year. This is much higher than the global average of only two in five professionals.

However, the sustaining high levels of productivity have resulted in an exhausted and stressed out workforce. The same Japanese workers reported feeling zonked out (48%) and stressed (45%). Globally, more than half said they feel overworked, with another 39% feeling exhausted because of the longer workdays.

Microsoft also studied trends across their digital collaboration tools and found a spike in the average number of meetings and interactions. Between February 2020 and February 2021, they found that time spent on video meetings has more than doubled globally, aside from a short dip during the December holiday season. The average video meeting is also 10mins longer now, and users are chatting about 45% more daily, including after hours (42% more).

READ MORE: Why technology can harm your work-life balance

What’s the best way to measure productivity?

It’s clear then that remote employees are present during working hours and even putting in extra effort after hours, but there are more ways to measure productivity than just time spent on online collaboration tools. Monitoring only that specific aspect of a workday can run the risk of regressing to a time when productivity meant showing your face in the office or attending meetings all day, whether they’re useful or not.

“In the past, we measured productivity in terms of hours you spent on the job and if you’re able to maximise the returns,” said Loh Siew Kim, HR partner at Lenovo Singapore. “Today I think many of us are very aware that it is not reasonable to measure a person’s contribution based on [the amount of] face time.”

A shift to remote work has especially shown that it’s ideal to measure productivity by looking at an individual’s output and contribution to the team or business. “It’s never about being physically present in the office and different metrics are set for different jobs to measure the outcome and deliverables,” she told HRD.

READ MORE: 'Forced' overtime the greatest productivity killer

Has remote work impacted productivity?

It should be said that leaders at Lenovo have been taught to set metrics and expectations around productivity more or less the same way from the time ‘before’ because the tech giant is no stranger to flexible work arrangements – even in pre-COVID times.

Despite this, a handful of employees have likely felt in a difference in their productivity levels in the past year as they’re the rare group of staffers in the company who have had to work strictly from the office. This is due to the nature of their work, where they deal with highly confidential documents and information on the daily. But with the pandemic and mandated policies around remote working, they too have had to shift gears and may felt the highs and lows of adjusting between working at the office and at home.

Since they weren’t used to working remotely, leaders had to take the time to help them discover how to thrive and perform in a home setting. Loh’s team was also involved in helping these employees adapt to the different processes and deal with all the changes. “We took the approach to help employees who have been coming to work in the office for the past maybe 10 years or so, on how to work around some of the processes,” she said.

READ MORE: Is remote work for you? Key factors to consider

Top learnings about managing productivity during a crisis

Managers clearly have a crucial role to play in helping employees cope with all the changes in their workday – it really can mean a hit or miss in terms of productivity. If the employee has a bad experience during the transition period and continues to struggle on their own, productivity may take a hard hit for longer than if a manager were to step in and help them along.

This means even though everyone’s working remotely, managers must pay attention to their team members’ day-to-day experiences while working from home. Admittedly, building this relationship can be tough when you don’t get see each other in person, which is many can attest to it being a top lesson for them thus far. “The top learnings in the past year mainly dealt with a manager’s approach to working from home,” Loh said. “How can they build the connectedness with team members?”

Additionally, going fully virtual was a learning curve for everyone, including leaders who had to figure out how to make meetings effective and concise. Not enough and the team might not have enough opportunities to collaborate – too many and employees may be at risk of burnout and Zoom fatigue, just like how the Microsoft study suggested. Managers thus had to figure out a way to help employees make better use of their time while working from home, and also contribute to the team and the business.

READ MORE: How social isolation is killing productivity

What to do when employees seem less productive

And then there are days when employees seem less productive than usual. What can leaders do then? Instead of jumping to conclusions and calling staff out for slacking off, Loh suggested asking the team member what’s really going on and genuinely listening to what they have to say.

“It all boils down to understanding, mutual trust and respect,” she said. “This is a crisis so people may react in ways that they have never done before because of personal challenges and situations. So I think managers must build the rapport with employees.”

While you can’t help solve their problems, showing some empathy can go a long way in strengthening the relationship and enabling an understanding about the peaks and troughs of employee productivity throughout their time with the company – be it in a crisis or not. “The manager will need to be able to understand each worker as an individual,” she said. “Everyone has a different set of challenges that they can’t control and may linger when they come into work.”

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