With much of the United States working from home either full-time or part-time since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, many companies have changed their policies on telework going forward.
In this episode of Radio Advisory, host Rae Woods sits down with Advisory Board's Serena Bernthal-Jones and Rachel Zuckerman to discuss how the Covid-19 epidemic has changed perspectives on telework—and how managers can still keep their staff engaged while working from home.
Read a lightly edited excerpt from the interview below and download the full episode for the whole conversation.
Rachel Woods: I think in general, there's this broader commentary about working from home as having a bad rap. I would say I especially hear this when I speak to the C-suite. Why do you think working from home has this kind of bad reputation?
Serena Bernthal-Jones: Well, to tell a short story here, I was on the phone with an HR leader the other day from an organization that just made the call to have all their administration staff work from home permanently going forward.
For context, this was actually a pretty big deal because previously, like you said, they'd really struggled to get C-suite buy-in for any type of remote work before. What's interesting though is the epidemic, like many organizations, forced them to pivot and actually see the benefits of remote work, to the point where they want to hold onto those gains.
So they were really intentionally utilizing these last 11 months as a test case to show internally, to win over stakeholders, that yes, our workforce can be as productive remotely, and to intentionally hold onto this going forward.
Rachel Zuckerman: I think it's interesting you use the word productively, because one of the pieces of major pushback I hear about working remotely is this fear of reduced productivity; I think that is one of the things that gives remote work a bad reputation.
And I think the other pushback I hear the most is this fear that it will kill a company culture and that there will be a decline in engagement because people just aren't interacting in person. And it's hard to have that cohesive culture when people aren't together.
Woods: Let's talk about the productivity angle. If there is a fear of productivity dropping off, what can managers actually do to make sure that productivity remains high?
Zuckerman: Well, I would start by saying that I think there's a bit of a misconception that working from home automatically means lower productivity. I think the concern comes from the fact that when you're remote, you can't necessarily see what your employees are doing. And if you can't see it, you can't know for sure that it's happening, which can be tricky as a manager and employer.
But I don't think that equates to lower productivity—and I think there are things you can do as a manager to give your team the best shot at working productively from home.
Woods: My productivity is totally higher working from home. I don't know about you guys, but I feel like I can get a heck of a lot more done when I'm not commuting to the office every day.
Zuckerman: I agree. I feel like I am almost too productive, in fact. It's hard to step away from my computer sometimes because I'm just in this office all day.
But I think there's this divide between what you're doing at home and what your manager can see, and sometimes that's hard to square as manager who's responsible for a team.
Woods: Rachel, I want to go back to the point you made about not being able to step away from the computer. And when I think about productivity, I'm also starting to be more acutely aware of the cost as well. Because while working from home has definitely been a benefit to a lot of us, it also has the potential to really blur the lines between work and home, making work-life balance even harder to achieve. And that worries me when I think about burnout trends.
So I think when we think about the role of managers here, it's not only keeping tabs on your team's "productivity," but also keeping an eye on whether they're online at all hours, whether you're modeling good email behavior, etc.
Bernthal-Jones: That's such a good point because everybody is worried about productivity going too low, but what you're saying is you should be maybe equally worried about productivity being too high. It's about setting expectations for both a floor and a ceiling, especially if you want to keep these people around.
Woods: Absolutely. And when it comes to setting kind of this floor and ceiling, I think the role of the manager becomes perhaps even more important than maybe the rules of the road that are set by the organization itself. Any advice for actual managers out there?
Bernthal-Jones: So when we're working with leaders, we give them a few questions to gut check productivity expectations. So for managers, I'd say ask yourself: How am I measuring individual productivity on my team? Have I explicitly shared that with them so are they aware of how I'm measuring it? And then finally, how are you helping your team prioritize the most important work and what actually needs to get done? So three things very much in a manager's control.
Zuckerman: I would echo just how important it is to clearly define how you're measuring productivity. Because I think—especially remotely—it's easy to fall back on indicators such as how often they are online or how quickly they are responding to emails, even though those might not actually be indicators of what you want them to accomplish.
Woods: And we should also say, in a world where some in the workforce are also dealing with crises of their own at home and managing school or taking care of kids or family members, it should not be a knock on them if their green light isn't blinking at the right time.
Zuckerman: I agree. And if I can add just kind of one more thing on this point of productivity, I think I would encourage managers to just recognize the extraordinary circumstances that we're all living through right now. We're living through an epidemic, political upheaval, social inequity that has become really apparent this year, just unprecedented amount of illness and death, and that is all unavoidably going to impact our team's productivity.
And I would argue that it should impact our expectations for productivity as well because, yes, we're all managers and employees, but ultimately, we're all humans living through a challenging time.
And I think as a manager and an employer, you're going to be better off in the long run if you give your employees the flexibility and support to navigate just the incredible number of stressors that they're dealing with right now.
Woods: So one of our colleagues and friends, John League, actually shared with me something that he does as a manager that stuck with me so much, I wrote it down on a post-it and put it in front of my desk. And it says that productivity is a result of mental health, not the other way around. And I think about that all the time.
Bernthal-Jones: Rae, one other quote to add to that sticky note potentially—a friend said to me early on in the pandemic is we are not working from home, we are at home during a crisis trying to work.
So I think just grounding in that and resetting that expectation both for ourselves and our teams is a really important one as well, to Rachel's point.