Business Trends

Why remote working is undermining productivity and personal health


Wayne Zwiers, founder & CEO at Basalt Technology

With second and third waves of the pandemic threatening businesses worldwide, leaders across sectors are considering the optimal way forward for their workforces. While many businesses have adjusted to a fully remote way of working, it is likely that most in the knowledge-based, IT and professional services sectors will opt for a hybrid approach – whereby teams will come into the office for meetings and strategic sessions, but will do the bulk of their day to day work remotely. This is enabling finance teams to radically reduce operational overheads and many other office-related expenses, but there are undoubtedly many other ‘costs’ to remote working that are not yet being fully understood and considered. Indeed, although many leaders have enthused about how productive their teams have been while working from home, there are various risks and grey areas lying beneath this popular narrative that require closer scrutiny.

To begin with, what is productivity in this new, digitally-fuelled world of work, and how is it being measured?

Arguably, too many managers and leaders are seeing their employees glued to their screens for over 15 hours a day, often working late into the night, and calling this ‘productivity’ and engagement. These long hours are also the result, in many cases, of too many video conference meetings during the day – which not only exhaust employees and take up their most productive hours, but they extend the workday unnecessarily. It also points to a lack of insight and empathy on the part of leaders: how much strategic or creative brilliance can you expect from an employee who has been at his/her laptop for over 12 hours in a day?

In essence, managers and leaders are playing the short game, not the long game, with their employees – and fostering a culture whereby burnout and mental health challenges will become (and are already becoming) very commonplace.

To address this dangerous trend of mislabelling overwork as ‘productivity’, leaders should consider ways to support a more balanced and naturally engaging way of working…

Place emphasis & energy on outcomes/deliverables

To move away from a toxic culture whereby managers measure productivity by time spent on screens, leaders must instead begin to develop ways to monitor and measure outcomes or tangible deliverables. A value should be developed and attached to each deliverable, and this can be achieved by creating a matrix that clearly captures deliverables, time spent, business value, etc.

We do this within our own business, and teams have very specific KPIs and outcomes to achieve for each quarter. Our outcomes-based ethos is described as ‘subtract in order to multiply’, which essentially means taking on less and doing more high quality work (so that less becomes more!).

Simplify, simplify, simplify

As the new virtual working mode becomes more entrenched, we are seeing a flood of new productivity and collaboration tools enter the corporate space. And while most of them bring a swathe of benefits, there is a risk that the introduction of too many different tools is starting to undermine our ability to do high quality, immersive, focused work. In addition, companies that incorporate a variety of technology platforms and channels without carefully considering and integrating each one risk exposing employees and IP to data theft and cyber vulnerabilities.

Again, within our business the guiding ethos is to simplify and streamline – and we examine and audit our technology tools every quarter to make sure that we are reducing complexity where we can. In addition, it is critically important to set rules and boundaries around how these tools are used. With video conferencing, for example, place limits on how many people can be on one call, and definitely limit the number of video calls allowed in one day. When there are brief queries or questions, encourage team members to pick up the phone and have one-on-one conversations (instead of scheduling time-consuming meetings each time).

Embed a culture of empathy & enthusiasm

The global pandemic has underscored the importance of a leadership style that can embrace empathy – and use authentic compassion to support employee wellbeing as well as drive business performance. The Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy Study 2020 revealed just how critical empathy is becoming: in 2020, 74% of employees surveyed said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer, and 80% said they would switch companies for equal pay if the employer were more empathetic. Notably, when asked who has the most impact on building a culture of empathy, employees’ top response was their manager, as opposed to their CEO, co-workers, or their HR professionals.

“Therefore, an organisation’s best approach may be to empower change agents throughout its levels,” the report noted. “CEOs must set the tone for empathy from the top and deputise leaders to carry that message through the organisation.”

Ultimately, businesses are only as healthy and as engaged as their people – so unless leaders start to embrace more sustainable and balanced ways of working, their business results will start to reflect burnout and ill-health. On the other hand, leaders now have an ideal opportunity to reshape work cultures and rewrite rules that have long since become outdated…as well as to make more of an impact than ever before.

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