Hybrid work is here to stay. Some managers bemoan that their remote teams are less productive, while others celebrate remote work for generating higher productivity. Let’s examine both sides.

Scenario 1: Productivity decreases with remote work

If your team’s work requires collaboration, there can be a decrease in productivity. Research has found that when organisations didn’t change their operating model well enough to support remote work – including implementation of new performance management processes – collaboration suffered a reduction of 34% in productivity (Bick, Seywald, & Welchman, 2020).

Another study by Yang, Holtz, Jaffe et al. (2021) used extensive data from over 61 000 US Microsoft employees to study the effects of remote work on collaboration and communication. The results showed that the collaboration network of employees waned and became more siloed with fewer connections between different teams or departments. Communication mediums changed to more asynchronous communication.

Both of these factors may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across boundaries in an organisation and, consequently, harder to innovate. The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, calls this the “Great Paradox” where employees desire both flexibility and social connection. Unfortunately, remote work doesn’t always provide sufficient social connection.

Scenario 2: Productivity increases with remote work

Other research has found an increase in productivity. Productivity is an individual or team’s rate of output, i.e. how efficient they are at completing their allocated tasks. Some studies have found remote employees to be between 13 and 35% more productive (Nevogt, 2020). However, in some of these studies, the employees were call-centre employees with repetitive, easily measurable tasks. In other studies, the employees had different jobs and did not work remotely every day. The exact mix of days in the office versus remote days differs per study. A lot of studies are subjective, with respondents self-rating that they feel more productive.

The reasons for an increase in productivity include longer hours worked by remote employees because of less time spent travelling, fewer distractions and fewer sick leave days taken (Nevogt, 2020). While that may be good initially, employees may burn out in the long term.

Furthermore, just because something can be done remotely doesn’t mean that is the most effective way to do it. Employee onboarding, coaching and mentoring, negotiations, brainstorming sessions, teaching and training are best done in person. Relationship-building, especially with new customers and employees, is also best-done face to face (Lund, Madgavkar, Manyika, & Smit, 2020).

A productivity increase from remote work will also depend on your industry. The McKinsey Global Institute analysed 2000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries to determine which tasks, jobs and industries were more conducive for remote working. They found that the potential for effective remote work is concentrated in the finance and insurance, management, business services and information technology industries (Lund et al., 2020). Not all industries are going to get a productivity boost.

Getting the conditions right for productivity

The right mix of conditions for maximally productive remote work is also not yet known. The famous study of call-centre employees that reported 13% higher productivity when working one day a week from home had stringent requirements. To work from home, you had to have no children in the home during the workday, have a separate room to work from (not a bedroom or kitchen) and have fast broadband internet on equipment that the company installed for the specific call-centre employees at home (Myska, Shebbeare & Lufkin, 2020). This is not possible for many South Africans, even those with white-collar jobs.

The conditions for the perfect hybrid team setup are not yet known. It will take many more years of research to determine the long-lasting impacts of this change. Even so, each individual organisation and team will have to find what works for them.

Three things you can do to create a high-performing hybrid team

  1. Focus on purpose and culture

The biggest impact on remote employees’ productivity comes from their perception of the organisational culture and leadership. Employees who experienced a positive organisational culture with strong values of care and camaraderie reported higher productivity. Employees who felt that their leaders showed understanding and communicated transparently also reported higher productivity (Kazi, 2021).

To consider: What is your organisation’s purpose? Does each member of your team know how their tasks help achieve the organisation’s purpose?

For example, a construction company’s purpose may be to build “safe, sustainable housing complexes for residents to enjoy fulfilling lives”. Everyone in that construction company, whether at the construction site or in the office, should be assisted by their managers to see how their spreadsheets, calls to suppliers and deliveries contribute to building homes where their customers will enjoy fulfilling lives.

It is also important to find out what makes each team member of yours “tick”. Consider the case of a financial controller managing two finance administrators in the finance department at this construction company. Their manager reminds them at team meetings that paying their suppliers timeously ensures good supplier relationships and can, therefore, build their customers’ homes within the agreed time. He shows them the end result of their tasks. But the finance administrators also have their own personal sense of purpose that they would like to fulfil in their work. One may get a strong sense of purpose from innovation and enjoy continuously improving systems and processes. Others may enjoy teaching others and pride themselves on mentoring their finance interns.

When team members aren’t in the office and working alongside one another each day, it can be harder to feel a sense of purpose. Managers must thus be much more intentional to bring purpose into conversations in team meetings and one-on-one check-ins.

It is also important to have a high-performance culture in your team. A high-performance culture is focused on outcomes. A manager of a high-performing remote or hybrid team is not obsessed with inputs and outputs. Inputs can include examples like the number of customer calls made or the number of hours logged. Outputs can include the number of sales made or the number of invoices processed in a day. In a high performing team, yes, we push for good work done (inputs) and generating our outputs, but it’s more about what those outputs achieve for the organisation and customer. We will expand on this in point three below.

  1. Set clear expectations around performance

While being intentional about communicating purpose, you also have to be intentional about communication performance expectations when managing a remote or hybrid team. You can’t assume that everyone knows what they need to do. You can’t rely on walking by someone’s desk to check in on how they are doing and what they need help with. In hybrid and remote work teams, you have to slow down to speed up. This means putting in careful effort upfront into planning work, allocating tasks, and setting expectations in order to speed up during execution.

So, how should you communicate around performance expectations? Make use of weekly team meetings so everyone knows what is expected of them, their colleagues and as a team. Short one-on-one check-in meetings, quick calls or even a WhatsApp message is useful during the week to determine if employees are on track or need any support to execute their tasks. This is not to micro-manage them but to be sufficiently hands-on, so they feel supported. You can also proactively assist with any issues arising. Performance discussions are useful to give reinforcing feedback for work done well. They can also redirect feedback for work that was lacking and plan a way forward to improve future performance.

When setting performance expectations, consider:

  • Does the employee know what to do by when? This includes the task and the quality standards
  • What is the RACI for this work? In other words, who is responsible, accountable, consulted or informed?
  • Does the employee know how to do it? What coaching and support might they need to achieve the task?
  • Does the employee know who they are meant to be working with?
  • What are the work arrangements for getting the task done? This includes the employee’s working hours, hours expected for them to be available to be contacted and what type of communication should be an email versus a WhatsApp versus a call versus an online meeting versus a face to face meeting.
  1. Monitor and measure the right metrics

Managers need to review their remote or hybrid team’s metrics to determine if they are relevant. A good productivity metric is something that employees can influence or control and is directly tied to your business goals. Key performance indicators (KPIs) for remote employees must be clear and limited; you shouldn’t have a huge number of KPIs. There is a reason why they are referred to as key performance indicators.

Focus on the metrics that will help achieve outcomes that link to the organisation’s purpose. For example, in a sales environment, sales are important but repeat business from customers is even more important to show achievement of organisational outcomes like customer satisfaction. Hence, a repeat sales metric would be more important to emphasise and celebrate as a manager than calls made (an input) or sales made (an output).

Moving forward as a high-performing hybrid team

Leading a hybrid team to high performance is less about how the work gets done and more about setting the right context for success. This context includes setting purpose and focusing on outcomes, not inputs and outputs. Establishing context includes clear performance contracting with employees to ensure they understand what needs to be done and how success will be measured. Then, let them loose to succeed!

By Elizabeth Ross


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