Remember the “good old days” when you could see people in their cubes so you could tell they were working? Wrong! Seeing people with your eyes doesn’t guarantee their productivity and performance. But with Performentor, it’s obvious that having a fully remote team racks up our salary expense while having a negative impact on productivity. What’s to be done?
Remote Teams Are Here To Stay
As a human resource advisor, I often hear leaders wonder out loud when “everyone is going back into the office.” It’s a fair people strategy question. It’s also a telling one that presumes that things will go back to how they were before. But trying to force things back to how they were is like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It’s difficult, messy, and not terribly effective.
Why is that? There are lots of reasons, but mostly it’s because some kinds of work are truly better suited for the solo work environment that typifies the work-from-home setup. It also grants more flexibility to the worker to manage their schedule in a way that optimizes their life rhythms, which includes both work and non-work. Not everyone functions well with that degree of freedom, but many do.
The Secret to High-Performing Remote Teams
With the shift to virtual work, you may be left wondering whether a team that no longer meets face-to-face will meet the same levels of productivity as those in person. The annoying answer “it depends” applies here. Sorry! No easy button for you to push here.
The key is to focus on defining and measuring actual performance instead of proxies like being in the office or showing up to meetings. You might think this is hard, and maybe it is, but it’s actually an incredible gift.
“One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.” – Jason Fried, founder and CEO of project management tool Basecamp
The Downsides of Remote Work Teams
You are right to be concerned about over relying on remote staff. Research points to the difficulty that remote teams face with the development of social norms and how this can impact work productivity. For instance, teams who work asynchronously can lose the norm of taking breaks. Without rest, productivity can suffer.
Optimal Performance is Rhythmic
Longer work hours do not indicate more thorough work or better performance. Simple issues may seem like they have simple solutions. However, new problems can often arise.
Using the break-taking issue as an example, when employers schedule set breaks, employees may perceive this as incompatible with a remote workstyle or even invasive. One problem is fixed while another is brand new.
With issues like these surfacing, employers are left continuously seeking out better ways to track and maintain productivity in their virtual teams.
Tracking Productivity is Harder Than it Sounds
Assessing team productivity can be tricky, especially if we limit ourselves to old solutions. Common approaches to tracking and measuring productivity include using technology to monitor employee browsers and evaluating individual performance.
Tracking the performance of virtual teams calls for clearly defining employee roles and forming processes to easily track results. One main reason for this is that it is in writing for all parties to refer to instead of hoping the other party knows what we intend inside our heads. When leaders actively communicate what productivity looks like for their role, then both parties are far more likely to be on the same page.
Communication is More Than Telling, It’s a Conversation
Perhaps you rely on annual or quarterly performance reviews to provide feedback and guidance to your team members. Be aware of the recency bias! What is that? That refers to a tendency to only consider the latest behaviors and outputs from employees when providing feedback about a lengthier period of time. Ideally, performance feedback should take into consideration learning curves and work done over time, and the best way to accomplish this is to have regular lines of communication on as frequent a basis as possible.
Role-Specific Measures and Metrics Help Tell the Tale
Using metrics to measure team performance is an option and one that could be a blog post all on its own. Evaluating team progress and performance is important in a remote environment.
Again, real performance focuses on the successful completion of duties that relate to each team member’s role. Not just the appearance of performance. Using metrics to measure team performance is an option and one that could be a blog post all on its own. Evaluating team progress and performance is important in a remote environment. Again, real performance focuses on the successful completion of duties that relate to each team member’s role. Not just the appearance of performance.
Keep in mind that successful team functioning can often be a matter of good communication, so measures and metrics ought to enhance the clarity of the communication and not take the place of it.
Team Productivity is Individual Productivity
When discussing team performance, it is important to consider individual performance. Research on productivity in software teams found that the most notable thing that predicted how productive a team perceived itself to be as individual productivity, even better at predicting team productivity than interaction, unplanned work, and meeting times.
To enhance how individual worker feels about their productivity, researchers suggest that HR offer employees tools and resources such as improving remote work equipment, ensuring workers have all necessary materials, and providing team training. Team training is another way for employees to gather support from their colleagues, leading to more engagement with others. When an employee trusts that they can exchange information with others, they become more productive workers. As the individual’s productivity goes up, so can that of the team.
While the scope of this post is remote team productivity, it is important to recognize the individual. If one team member is not productive, the entire team may feel the repercussions.
How HR Can Enhance Remote Team Performance
“HR’s role as a team builder is to help the team become more cohesive and productive. Teams often lose their motivation or focus midway through a project, so HR must nurture and support members along the way. HR can assist in planning a team-building event to help members clarify their focus and renew their energies to complete the project successfully.”Source: SHRM article about Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams
So far, we’ve addressed some difficulties with remote teams and how you can gauge productivity. Below we provide two big takeaways for employers and HR professionals to boost remote employee productivity.
Using Technology Wisely
There are a growing array of technologies that help you monitor productivity and provide forums for communication. A non-exhaustive list includes things like Slack, Teams, Bonusly, AskNicely, Peoplelogic,ai, and All Elements. There are also tools that enable you to monitor computer activity. Warning, though, that every technology can be gamed! For example, there are apps that periodically move an employee’s mouse so they appear to be working even when they aren’t. A baseline of trust and shared purpose must pre-empt the use of these kinds of tools.
Leveraging technology can really improve team communication, and therefore performance. However, you do want to be sure you are using technology in the right way – as a tool for success. Keep the purpose of employee engagement and productivity in the forefront of your mind with technology usage. For example, use text-based tools such as Slack, instead of email, to relay quick messages. For problem-solving sessions, video technology is more useful.
With remote work, employers often have systems already set up. These should be used to their full extent, utilized in ways outside of just communication. For instance, you might use technology to encourage employees to take breaks. Another option is saving messages for delayed sending when work is done off-hours is one way that technology can help workers have good boundaries between their work and personal time. It’s good to remember that remote workers often work more hours than their in-office colleagues as they try to prove their productivity.
With the adoption of technology comes the need to maintain it. Investing in quality technology and resources can make a real difference in how productive a worker perceives themself to be, and can increase their engagement. As programs become outdated, employers should refresh them with newer technologies or with updated versions (when possible and useful). This gives employees access to better tools to complete their work in more efficient, productive ways.
Communicate Intentionally to Facilitate Collaboration and Role Clarity
Deliberate communication can help with role clarity, scheduled interactions, and accountability.
In a remote team, it is important that your team understands what is expected of them, especially before formally assessing their performance. Clearly communicating what their job responsibilities are can help keep employees on track, increasing productivity. If a worker is unaware that their role involves certain commitments, the team may suffer from missed deadlines or an increased workload. Creating the context for employees, such as ensuring that teams meet before commencing work, can pave the way for success.
Role clarity goes along with maintaining accountability. Consider how you can take an active part in managing accountability. Intentional communication relays to the team what is expected of them. Keeping employees informed of their duties, meeting times, and responsibilities helps to avoid misunderstandings and misplaced blame.
Scheduling interactions with team members can enhance innovation. It can also help your team deal with virtual distance, generating an environment that allows for psychological and emotional connections to form. As discussed, scheduling events can have a negative effect on productivity, mainly stemming from incompatibility with employees’ remote workstyles. Therefore, employers should still schedule interactions, but they should be intentional and clear about the purpose of each meeting. Communicating the reasons for these interactions – whether it’s to meet others or brainstorm better ideas – helps employees recognize why the employer is stepping in.
Contact us for more information about Performentor’s fractional HR services and how we work with clients to assist them in managing team productivity.
References & Resources
How to Collaborate with a Hybrid Workforce. Rockwell, K. (2021)
The end of the active work break? Remote work, sedentariness and the role of technology in creating active break-taking norms. Rudnicka, A., Cook, D., Cecchinato, M. E., Gould, S. J. J., Newbold, J. W., & Cox, A. L. (2022)
An Exploratory Study of Productivity Perceptions in Software Teams. Ruvimova, A., Lill, A., Gugler, J., Howe, L., Huang, E., Murphy, G., & Fritz, T. (2022)..
Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams. SHRM Toolkits.
Straus, E., Uhlig, L., Kühnel, J., & Korunka, C. (2022)
How To Track Performance Without Micromanaging Virtual Teams. Woloch-Addamine, G. (2020)
Building and Leading High-Performing Remote Teams. Hirsch, A. S. (2019)