If you are charged with measuring productivity, you may want to revisit the goals you are attempting to achieve first. Setting clear, measurable goals is paramount to where the productivity is occurring, whether in-office or by remote. So says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a research-based consulting organization that focuses on science and data to improve workplace practices and strategies.
“The only measure of productivity that matters is how well someone is doing at meeting their goals. Assuming those goals are properly set, align with the organization’s overall mission, and are measurable, where and when someone works shouldn’t matter.”
Work practices may need to be rethought in terms of productivity as well, Lister said. She suggests unpacking and examining different elements, in the following example, asking what could be done differently and how.
“For example, asynchronous processes can dramatically improve productivity and meeting effectiveness. Instead of having to coordinate schedules and interrupt workflows, people should be allowed to opt-out and watch a recorded version of the meeting,” Lister said. Regarding the “where,” she refers to the continuous move to remote work and its evolution in the hybrid space. Remote work statistics don’t support the often-thought images of people watching television or taking naps because the big boss isn’t watching. Lister says productivity studies show “uberwork,” or overworking, is more of an issue to be concerned with, as your remote workers often plow through lunch and into dinner with work duties if they aren’t reminded to remove themselves from work.
So how do you measure remote productivity? Lister offers a pragmatic approach tempered by thoughtful consideration behind strategic use of an employees’ time to improve processes early on in the work dynamic.
“You measure performance the same as if the people were in the office. You don’t really know what they’re doing sitting at their desks.”
When you capture analytics from a productivity perspective, many variables come to mind — and it depends on how you define productivity in the first place. Microsoft redefined this broad-sweeping term by developing an algorithmic breakdown of smaller tasks designed to fit the smaller windows of productivity experienced — especially in light of the move to hybrid work.
Employees are trying to meet family needs at home that may interrupt their day. There might be two hours between school drop-offs and they need to jump on video meetings with co-workers or clients in other time zones. Juxtaposition that with an in-office day that may occur at regular intervals with different expectations related to day-to-day tasks or purposeful project planning strategy sessions. Navigating these differences in what a workday looks like now, compared to just over two years ago, almost requires an enterprise to adapt its traditional approach to productivity.
Well-being, collaboration, and innovation
Jaime Teevan is chief scientist at Microsoft. She, along with researchers from across Microsoft, completed 50 research studies across multiple divisions and departments, from engineering to facilities, in what the team considered, at that time in January 2021, to be “the largest compilation of research related to the pandemic’s impact on work practices available to date,” called The New Future of Work Report. Since then, more studies have been conducted and results published as the pandemic has continued to challenge business operations in a manner never before seen.
Teevan’s research supports Lister’s comments and also digs deep to examine employees’ “well-being, social connections, and collaboration and the innovation they bring to drive business success.” By conducting this research, Teevan hopes managers can broaden their views on productivity.
According to GWA, 4.1% of the workforce in the United States worked at home half-time or more prior to the pandemic. That number rose to over 50% during the pandemic proving that remote work is possible for many more employees than employers formerly imagined.
“I haven’t changed my prediction since early in the pandemic. Between 25-30% of the U.S. workforce will be working from home multiple days a week. This is higher in some countries and lower in others.”
She notes that smaller and larger companies are quicker to lean in and embrace maintaining productivity through remote work; mid-sized employers with 100-1,000 employees are pushing more for in-office.
“I think we’ll go through a period of adjustment. As employers get comfortable with one or two days, it often expands to three or four days.” Lister’s research and that of many others suggest 20-25% of people want to work from home all the time and another 15-20% want to work from an office all the time. The rest want a mix between home and office days.
“Historically, remote work has been most common in the tech industry, finance, and health services. I expect these industries will continue to lead the way, but we have proven that it works for some in almost any industry,” she noted.
Microsoft fully embraced the research aspect around productivity, employing multiple methodologies such as physical measurements gained through EEG, interviews, and even large-scale modeling exercises. With Teevan’s permission, AOTMP® has included key learnings she later shared in an article posted in the Harvard Business Review in late 2021.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention, and as a mother and researcher, trying to manage the boundary between work and home brought a lot of invention into my life. For example, while most productivity research tends to focus on eliminating distractions, I began to imagine what we could do if we used the micro-moments we have each day productively. This led me to develop approaches to algorithmically break tasks down into microtasks that fit more easily into the fragmented way we actually work. The resulting concept, which we call microproductivity, expanded the way we think about productivity at Microsoft.
“Fast forward to March 4, 2020, when the boundary between work and home truly came down and Microsoft sent its Seattle-area employees home to work. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were at the start of one of the greatest disruptions to work in generations, and it created an opportunity for us to expand our understanding of productivity yet again,” according to Teevan, referencing the New Future of Work project.
Teevan said that the findings clearly show managers should rethink their definition of productivity “that considers the hybrid paradox — one that not only factors in how much work people get done, but how they actually work when the boundary between work and home no longer exists.”
She also noted that Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey conducted with 30,000 global workers one year after the pandemic’s start, along with the company’s annual employee survey, showed productivity remained the same or higher. This might be great for business, but of concern is some of the information learned, such as 54% of employees said they felt overworked and 39% reported feeling exhausted.
Productivity may be up, but at what cost? Collective brainstorming and other benefits such as connecting with co-workers are harder statistics to capture. Perhaps, suggested Teevan, a sustainable approach to counter burnout can be found through hybrid work opportunities that build on what makes each environment, work and home, unique.
“When in the office, prioritize relationships and collaborative work like brainstorming around a whiteboard. When working from home, encourage people to design their days to include other priorities such as family, fitness, or hobbies. They should take a nap if they need one and step outside between meetings. Brain studies show that even five-minute breaks between remote meetings help people think more clearly and reduce stress.”
“Likewise, watch out for the risks each type of work carries with it. People can avoid the long commutes they used to have by staggering their schedules to avoid traffic. Encourage them to set boundaries at home so they don’t work every hour of the day just because they can.”
Teevan said time may prove to offer answers for each person to find their rhythm.
“The trick is finding what works for each individual,” Teevan said. “Over the next few months, ask people to take the time to reflect on when and where they feel the most or least productive. Have them ask themselves: Do I seem to work better in the morning or evening? When I work from a certain location, are there fewer interruptions? Do I feel more focused?”
Set some parameters to promote collaboration, while making intentional expectations to make meetings and contact times most effective.
“A key aspect of making hybrid work productive is finding a compromise between individual workstyles and team needs. One way to do this is by making team agreements. At Microsoft, we’re asking each team to create a set of team norms that define how they’d like to work together in our hybrid workplace,” Teevan said.
“Individuals can share how they work best. Teams can establish meeting-free days or plan regular in person team meetings. To avoid one person’s flexible working hours becoming another person’s after-hours messaging, managers can set norms around the times of day responses are expected.
“It’s also important to ensure hybrid meetings are as inclusive and intentional as possible. Use a hand-raise feature to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and, if you’re using meeting chat, assign a moderator who’s separate from the person running the meeting to follow the chat and bring key subjects into the conversation. These things are particularly important if the remote people are more junior than those in the room.”
Take some time to consider that some people are physically present and some are dialing in and attempt to bridge that gap to make the group feel more connected. Joining online meetings if you are early can promote some friendly conversation before the sleeves get pushed up for the work at hand. Reconsider policies about requiring people to keep their display on, knowing that it is the preference, but probably indicates a situation may have come up within the home to interfere with that option.
“Under the old definition of productivity, coordinating team collaboration around individual workstyles and thinking hard about whether your team should change its meeting practices might have seemed unnecessary, high maintenance, or even awkward,” Teevan said. “With the new definition of productivity in mind, these activities are essential.”
“In the simplest sense, innovation often requires people getting together to exchange and prototype ideas and brainstorm solutions, balanced with time for individual focus and reflection. If done right, hybrid work can create exactly those conditions,” Teevan said. “If done wrong, those important social connections can erode and impact innovation. Thinking of productivity more expansively — by optimizing for the conditions that spur innovation — can help hedge against those risks.”
Teevan offered these tips:
“Consider what work should be done remotely versus in-person.” Individual, routine tasks are easy to accomplish remotely. Brainstorming for projects, however, may be a better task in-person, and then revisited as the project progresses. Welcoming new hires in-office may help create a foundation of connection that fuels innovation and supports remote work that follows.
“Encourage your team to build relationships with people outside their immediate circles at work.” New ideas can be found outside of environments someone is surrounded by regularly. Ideas and collaboration can blossom, and this should be encouraged and employees should seek these opportunities themselves.
As you measure productivity within your team, department, or enterprise, consider it a bit more broadly. And don’t forget to measure how you are addressing employees and opportunities in the areas of these three drivers: well-being, collaboration, and innovation.