Almost a year ago, Boris Johnson announced the start of the first UK lockdown.
We were told a three-week lockdown was required to "flatten the curve".
12 months on and most people continue to work from home as offices around the country – and the rest of the world - remain shut.
And, despite the apparent initial success of the UK vaccination programme, workers seem unlikely to return to the office from the kitchen table or sofa any time soon.
One of the many questions about this huge and sudden homeworking experiment surrounds productivity.
Sure, with the right IT, decent broadband and access to Zoom, most of us can do our work from home.
But are we doing as much of it and to the same standards?
The answer to this productivity question is going to vary from business to business and the nature of the work that is being carried out. But the overall picture seems positive.
A recent survey from Capgemini showed that less commuting time, increased flexibility and virtual collaboration tools led to employee productivity increasing at 63 per cent of organisations during the third quarter of 2020.
It also showed that 70 per cent of organisations believe these productivity gains are sustainable beyond the pandemic.
But there are challenges that put this sustainability in doubt. More than half of workers have concerns about being ‘always on’ and more than half of new joiners feel disengaged.
Whether or not you are experiencing productivity gains or are simply concerned about whether current levels can be maintained against a backdrop of continuing uncertainty about so much of life, there are steps managers can take.
This is key. And if anything, you should be over-communicating.
That does not mean an endless succession of video conferencing meetings – we know 'Zoom fatigue' is an increasingly talked about issue.
You can communicate in different ways.
Video updates, for example, can easily be filmed and edited on your smartphone, and your teams can view and absorb them at a time that is convenient for them.
‘Another meeting that could have been an email’ is a bit of cliché. But there remains some truth in it. So, consider whether you could effectively and concisely communicate what you need to say in an email.
As well as regular team meetings and updates, don’t forget to factor in time for short one-to-one meetings with your team members.
Remote employees need to see how their work contributes to business goals.
It can help with motivation and anxiety about what the future could hold, particularly when there is so much in the media about the economic impact of covid.
To keep the focus on these goals, you can consider breaking them down. What does the team need to achieve this week? What is the key thing we need to achieve this week?
Then show them how achieving those goals will help them meet monthly, quarterly and annual targets.
You don’t realise how much you rely on those informal workplace conversations until you can no longer have them.
Sharing ideas around the water cooler, discussing the football or what is happening in Love Island are all part of working life.
This social aspect of work can be crucial to workforce happiness.
And without it, people can feel isolated, which in turn, can affect productivity.
So, create opportunities where employees can talk and have some fun together. You could build breaks into existing team meetings.
Or you can organise meetings where the whole aim is to have fun. You could consider having a cocktail making class, for example, or a happy hour.
Whatever you decide, get into the habit of having regular team social time.
You could also consider team bonding tools like Donut and RandomCoffee. These were around before we were all sent to our bedrooms to work, but are expected to take off and are a good way of getting people to talk and not discuss work.
Slack and even WhatsApp groups also present opportunities to continue to have those crucial informal conversations.
With so much feeling uncertain, it has never been more important to celebrate successes, achievements and reaching milestones.
It helps to maintain motivation and, when individuals are praised, it can help others to see the levels they should be trying to reach.
Some organisations will have formal recognition programmes.
But you don’t need anything too sophisticated. It could be as simple as inviting a senior leader to come along to the next team meeting.
Or you could look to make it more fun – and social – by having a reward evening where prizes are delivered to homes.
You could consider a sliding scale for rewards. Pizza, perhaps, for meeting expectations and a new headset for exceeding them.
Related Page: Rewarding Good Performance
There can be a temptation with remote working to micromanage.
Not seeing your teams can make managers feel uneasy. It is a hangover from the pre-covid days, where working from home was often viewed with scepticism.
But constantly checking in with your people to see what work they are doing is a dangerous pitfall.
It creates an impression of suspicion and a lack of trust. And that will impact negatively on morale and productivity.
People need to feel that they are trusted to do their work.
But what if it is the other way around and one of your team members keeps contacting you with problems and issues they are experiencing?
Quickly dealing with every "what should I" or "how do I" question can feel like the best way of overcoming issues and enabling your teams to get on with their work.
But it is an approach that can leave managers feeling overwhelmed and it is effectively micromanaging by default. And it doesn’t improve the resilience of team members.
A better approach could be to turn these conversations around by bringing in elements of business coaching.
So, instead of trying to find the solutions, be curious. Ask the questions that will help them work out how to overcome their obstacles and hurdles.
Coaching can take the form of formal, detailed sessions, or it can be introduced into everyday conversations.
What is the situation you find yourself in? How do you think you can solve it? What is stopping you from doing that?
Three simple questions and you have just coached.
Similar to falling into the micromanagement trap, it can be easy to become focused on how we get work done rather than the work that is produced.
Do your employees need to be at their desks 9-5 Monday to Friday?
Or can they be given the freedom and flexibility to their work when it best suits them? Perhaps when they have done the day’s home-schooling or essential shop.
Leaving our people to their own devices and allowing them to work when they want can feel daunting.
But does it matter how and when the work is done if the outputs are the same and teams are accomplishing what we want them to?
Working from home will be convenient for some. Many are finding they can work better remotely.
But home-working isn’t a level playing field.
It is a lot harder to feel motivated and continue to be productive if you are working in a cramped flat rather than one of those nice garden offices people keep sharing on my social media timelines.
Others may be feeling burnt out or stressed with the pressures of balancing work with all the other home life.
You may not be able to address all these challenges, but you can create an environment where people feel they can speak openly about them and their concerns and where they feel supported.
Additionally, you could consider providing free mindfulness sessions for your teams. You could also encourage them to use the time when they would have been commuting to get a little exercise or fresh air.
When we first locked down, it was initially a case of muddling through. As long as we could get online, we could work.
But with a return to offices continuing to appear distant, your teams must have the right equipment.
This may sound obvious. But not being able to work comfortably or have the equipment you need to do your job properly will do little for morale or productivity.
The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
Keen to find out more about business coaching? Get in touch to see how our Institute of Leadership and Management business coaching courses and bespoke training options can help. Or, click here to learn more about becoming a business coach to others.
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Even before the coronavirus lockdowns, more workplace communication was taking place remotely through video conferencing software.
Whether your organisation uses Zoom or Teams, the flexibility offered by these formats means they are here to stay.
And that means the skills needed to communicate on them effectively have never been more important.
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