THE NEW NORMAL - ‘Productivity has not fallen’: what businesses have learned from WFH
The New Rules of Work
‘Productivity has not fallen’: what businesses have learned from WFH
A healthier work-life balance could be carried forward into the workplace of the future. The pandemic has transformed the way workers and companies operate – probably for good. For many, this is welcome news.
Since March, millions of workers have confirmed what many work-from-home veterans have long known: being out of an office can actually increase individual productivity.
That perhaps counterintuitive conclusion is something that Glenn Hanton, senior director for technical support EMEA at ServiceNow, has consistently observed since he and his team began working from home, in March. “The first thing that became obvious was that our technical support staff around the world were actually more productive,” he says. “They began taking on more cases and closed them faster.”
As a result, he adds: “The customer satisfaction scores from our post-case surveys are the highest they’ve ever been.”
This proof that people can work productively from home could spell the end of conventional notions of the need for common workplaces – an end Hanton would welcome. “My view has always been that it’s not about how long you spend in the office, it’s the output that you produce and the value that you add to your team and your company,” he says. “I’m hopeful that as we move into the post-Covid world – be it more working from home or hybrid working – that negative focus on how long you’re in the office will get watered down and disappear.”
Studies indicate that many remote workers have grown to feel more positive about working from home.
“The key thing businesses have learned from the sudden shift to home working is that it works for them and their staff,” says Prof Alan Felstead, research professor at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, and co-author of a recent report on home working in the UK. “Survey after survey reveals that productivity has not fallen and that most of those working at home in lockdown would like to continue to do so when social distancing restrictions are lifted.”
Freedom can foster creativity
Along with dispelling the myth that it encourages less productivity, home working has also challenged the assumption that it stifles creativity and problem solving.
Of course, brainstorming sessions held in office meeting rooms can be effective, but many workers who have made the switch to a full-time home office have found a different kind of creativity while making their own work routines.
For instance, they might have their best ideas when they go out for a walk, take a quick shower or idly flick through a magazine – all of which are usually easier to do from home.
While improved productivity is undoubtedly a good thing, Hanton is also keen to prevent burnout among his staff. “We’re sending out regular surveys to staff about their morale,” he says, “and I’m checking in on them.”
That’s particularly important for younger employees who are more likely to have roommates – or live alone – as well as those caring for children or other family members. “Many organisations have acknowledged the mental challenges for each employee, and responded by learning about their personal circumstances and providing tailored support systems,” says Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner.
These support systems will continue to be an important feature of the new workplace along with organisation-wide days off, which can help to reduce burnout. However, Hanton has found that some staff need an extra nudge to take longer breaks when travel is restricted. “We try to encourage them to take time off even if they’re not able to go anywhere,” he says. “We advise them to just unplug, take some time out, spend some time with their family.”
Another big lesson from the mass shift to home working is that it couldn’t have happened without today’s technology – video conferencing being the prime example. “We have all learned to use video conferencing as part of our daily lives and realise that we don’t always need to meet face-to-face to get results,” says Felstead. “It is unlikely that we will stop using these technologies in the future. Nevertheless, some face-to-face encounters will still be needed – we are all human after all.”
Technology has helped in other respects too.
ServiceNow’s digital workflow solutions, accessed through the cloud, have also helped break down silos during the shift to a more distributed workforce. The company’s own technical support teams span nine different regions worldwide that have been working in closer collaboration since the advent of the pandemic.
“Decisions now take into account more perspectives from different parts of the world,” says Hanton. A lot more all-hands, managers and check-in meetings have also taken place, “so staff are hearing from their leaders, their managers – people further up the chain – an awful lot more than they did before”.
Remote work presents some challenges, to be sure. Serendipitous meetups at the coffee machine, inspiring unplanned conversations with a colleague, and even the benefits of being able to speak with someone eye to eye have become casualties of the pandemic-era, remote-work routine.
As a result, employees may start to feel less attached to their employers. “Companies should have a strategy not only to maintain employee performance, but also to build emotional social connections to help retain staff,” says Kropp.
The chance to develop a more personalised structure to each work day creates a healthier work-life balance, which for Hanton and his team, has been one of the few positive outcomes of the current crisis. Not to mention not having to endure daily commutes.
“I’ve heard comments like: ‘I can break off from work and go and pick my child up from school,’ or ‘I can get more involved when it’s homework time,’” he says. “Some of our staff were also commuting two hours each way, so they feel that’s four hours a day they’re no longer wasting sat in traffic.”
He believes this increased awareness of the work-life balance is something that will be carried forward into the workplace of the future. “For those people that are all about work, all about their career and how they can progress, something like a pandemic might make them realise what’s really important,” he says.
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