Productivity in the age of flexibility: are remote workers less productive?

'The more comfortable you become and the more you trust the system, the more productive you will be': academic talks about performance management and flexibility

Productivity in the age of flexibility: are remote workers less productive?

New data released by Statistics Canada (StatCan) has revealed the working habits of remote workers, and it offers valuable insight into how employers should be thinking about productivity and performance measures in today’s landscape.

It showed that work from home (WFH) employees are saving an hour and half to two hours per day on average in commuting and personal care compared to their on-site peers – and they’re not filling it with work, they’re spending more time on leisure, their kids, and household chores.

“Working at home may be a key tool in balancing the competing demands of paid work and unpaid work, including household chores, and caring for children,” the report’s authors stated.

“Teleworkers may reallocate their commute time to taking care of their children, or they may be able to do more household chores on days when they work from home.”

Productivity means designing new workflows to fit into today’s flexible work models

The report is the first data collected on daily time use since the COVID-19 pandemic giving an indication of how Canadians are actually using their time when they’re working from home. While WFH employees may be working the same amount of hours, the authors said, they are not necessarily optimizing the hours they are working.

But that’s not their fault, says Sarah Mahabadi, assistant professor of strategy, entrepreneurship and management at the Alberta School of Business. It’s up to management – and HR – to design their workflows in ways that suit the changing environment.

“We cannot just use the old system and expect that people would perform the way we want them to perform because that's not going to happen,” says Mahabadi.

“There was a day when everyone used to come to the office, we would set the workflow, and we would design the jobs in a way that was suitable for working in the office, when everyone was working at a proximity to each other. Now we have had COVID, and we had post-COVID where we started having work from home or flexible work arrangements … now people do not necessarily always come together in the same location. They cannot as easily go to each other and ask for help, support, feedback, it's just not possible. And so the patterns of coordination and collaboration is different.”

Performance management systems that fit flexible work

Flexible work arrangements, Mahabadi continued, improve the well-being of employees, but not necessarily productivity if there is no reliable framework in place for them to benchmark progress – this includes reorganising teams and determining who is responsible for ensuring work is done smoothly.

“When there is a system in place, when there are checking points in place, when there is support in place that is written and designed for these new working arrangements, then people feel more comfortable,” she says.

“The more comfortable you become and the more you trust the system, the more productive you will be.”

Once workflows are redesigned, performance management systems also need to be redesigned to fit, Mahabadi says, for example, shifting performance measurement markers from hours worked to deadlines or quotas met, regardless of the time it took or when the work was done.

“Now you cannot see when people get in, because you're not getting in at 9 a.m., and you cannot see how hard they work because you don't have a camera in their home,” she says.

“But what other systems should you put in place? Is it the project deadline? Is it that one person per team is responsible to make sure that everyone is working smoothly on the tasks that they have been given? Is it that there are determined check-in points where managers go in and make sure the project is moving smoothly? Is there a report system that needs to be put in place?”

A system like this, she explains, puts performance measurement markers and controls along the way, which ensures work is getting done, but also that employees are being supported along the way, not just after their work is completed.

“It's all about transparency. It's all about having a system in place that is transparent enough for employees and managers at the same time.”

Individual-level support for remote and hybrid workers

In order for these new systems to truly be effective, employees must be kept on board with transparent and regular communication about why they are being put in place, Mahabadi says.

Knowing how and when their performance is being measured, and knowing there are supports in place if they need assistance, are important factors in employee productivity with flexible schedules.

“There are periods where people can work more intensely, and there are periods where people can work less. So if there is a system in place where I can see how much you're progressing overall, then you do not need to worry too much about having the same level of performance all day every day,” Mahabadi says.

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