Season 2: Unlocking productivity

Gary Cookson Director of EPIC, and author of HR for Hybrid Working.

How to use remote senses and empathy to drive productivity in the workplace

As the shift from office to hybrid and remote modes of work continues, how can we ensure employees are productive when a manager hasn’t got close physical proximity to them?

Is productivity for a remote or hybrid worker the same as when they are face-to-face with their manager? And how do we guarantee such employees are engaged and motivated to perform?

This article will cover the fine balance between the needs of the manager, and the employee, and how workplaces can adjust to accommodate both.

Sensory deprivation

It can be hard for a manager, used to being around their team and using multiple senses to discern things about them, suddenly being deprived of the basic information they have relied upon to make judgements about performance, productivity, and engagement.

There is a fine line between asking for too little information about what individuals are doing—which risks greater isolation and withdrawal from remote or hybrid workers—and asking for too much information—which risks being viewed as micromanagement and stifling.

Generally, employees consistently state that remote and hybrid working is something that has a positive impact on their productivity and performance, and other aspects too.

However, managers often have a slightly different view—while recognising the positive aspects, they can be unsure how they are supposed to manage when deprived of some of the sensory aspects of management—if you can’t see or hear someone doing something, how can you be sure they are?

If individuals and teams are still managed on how much of the day they are working, then we are missing something. The focus of leaders managing hybrid teams needs to be on results and outputs. They can work out whether these are because of people working longer or not, and reroute tasks and time as needed. Employees are beginning to use their time and skills in different ways. Many will cope with this change, but many could struggle.

Requests from above

To keep employees engaged, consider how to subtly change what you do. Work harder at communication to keep everyone informed of significant events. Help people collaborate and review each other’s work, and give each other feedback so that communication is not exclusively funnelled through the leadership.

Encourage the sharing of performance information and agree how this will be developed and feedback on the process. Work harder at recognition—ensuring individuals and teams feel valued and encourage team members to do the same with each other, keeping people connected and keeping workflow on track.

Routines are essential–for individual and team meetings, and other processes. As is good communication, encouraging the sharing of information across the team. Keep an eye on what is happening within the team, read between the lines of communications, and pick up on what isn’t being shared or said. This gives you an opportunity to be more social than ever before, increasing rapport and easing communication and feelings of isolation, despite the lack of face-to-face communication.

Data takes away guesswork

Work with the team to help them develop their own performance measures. Reporting and creating digital methods to collate and share this information should be a focus for any manager.

Productivity needs to be monitored, but you may need to increase the frequency of management interactions (while decreasing the duration) and of things like 1-2-1 meetings, to be able to manage their time and tasks better.

If you need help judging how engaged your team is, widen the data you gather. People tend to leave a virtual wake behind them—we should notice that.

Be careful of reaching a conclusion from any isolated piece of data and triangulate as much as we can—but notice what people say and how they say it, and the things they don’t say. Keep an eye on the outcomes they achieve versus the apparent effort involved in achieving them.

Listen, assess, nurture

Gather feedback by listening to what is said about other people in the team by the team. Being a team player can be rewarding, but as a manager if you miss good work, or fail to spot a slacker, both individual and team spirit and reputation can fall.

Learn to spot the contributions people make and the ones they should make but don’t, and notice interactions between people and how they play out. This will help you spot the star players, and potential leaders in your team to nurture.

Are people working excessive hours or in an unpredictable pattern?

Explore how people feel as their whole selves, for example, what is happening for them, what is on their mind, what steps they are taking to look after themselves, and what help they may need.

Doing all of the above will not only increase your team relationships, your reputation in your company, and your people management skills, but it will hone your ability to get the best out of the team you have, to create the team you want.

Final thoughtsbeing human

Ultimately, we are dealing with human beings. Our focus should be on the human being and not on the task if we are to unlock productivity.

We perhaps need to redefine what we think productivity is—a good day for a manager could be how much time they have spent checking-in with their team members, and how they have made each person feel when doing that. A good day for a remote or hybrid employee could be something different entirely—but unless we ask them, how would we know?