It wasn’t too long ago (even though it feels like forever!) that a majority of American workers sat at their office desks and wished they could telecommute instead. The longing was based on a need to reclaim time in their day, and maybe improve their work-life balance. However, too many company executives worried that out-of-sight employees wouldn’t work as many hours, and wouldn’t be as productive working from home.
Now everything has changed; the pandemic has forced a vast majority of companies to implement widespread telecommuting, and as a result, the truth is revealed:
Employee productivity is not the result of where employees work, but whether they know how to manage their attention. Working productively at home requires the same set of skills necessary to be productive working from the office or anywhere. This set of skills is called attention management. It involves the ability to avoid distractions and match brainpower to the task at hand.
Employees who know how to do this can be similarly productive working from home, an office, a coworking space or a coffee shop. Employees who don’t will find that they suffer increasing declines in productivity over time.
Threats to Productivity When Working from Home
Below I outline from my experience with clients, three common threats to productivity for knowledge workers who telecommute from home: distraction, unrealistic expectations about accessibility, and a lack of trust between managers and their team members. Following each will be suggested solutions. The goal of the article is to provide answers to the question of how to be productive working from home.
1. Distractions at home threaten to decrease productivity
It’s true that our environment influences our behavior, but employees who are reactive to their environments can get distracted anywhere they work. Making the adjustment to manage our telecommuting work environment rather than the in-office work environment has “startup costs” that include finding a suitable place to work, setting parameters with family members who may also need attention, and establishing best modes of team communication, as well as timing of that communication.
But aside from the initial time and thought required to set up a new environment, distractions at home need not be any more challenging than those experienced in the office.
Distractions at the Office
It’s important to remember that everyone’s home environment is different, and many people are less distracted working from home. Employees, especially those who sat in open-floor plan offices, will recognize that there were plenty of distractions in the office.
Many companies, in an effort to embrace the purported “innovation” and “camaraderie” that were promised with open floor plans, failed to give sufficient attention to the importance of focus and “deep work” time.
So chatty colleagues, “emergency” problems, a manager’s latest brainstorm, another birthday celebration, and the football pool all pulled employees away from their most important tasks.
Distractions at Home
In the new normal, working from home can be rife with distractions, depending on your particular situation. Lots of households have multiple people working from home in them, and many have young children who need attention as well. Recently, SHRM polled 700 people about telework in the time of COVID-19. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they are disrupted a minimum of 5 times per day while working.
The Solution is Attention Management
So whether working from home or the office, disruptions happen. To be productive while working from home requires maintaining respectful boundaries with others, whether colleagues or family members, as well as focusing the optimal type of attention on the most significant tasks.
2. A lack of trust can undermine engagement at work
Though managers may fear their team members may not be on task when they can’t be seen, the reverse is true as well; team members worry that their managers won’t think they are working, even when they are.
This creates a vicious cycle as managers want to check in more frequently and employees want to respond right away to prove they are on the job, even if it is during personal time.
How to Be Productive Working at Home: Work on Building Trust
This sort of vicious cycle can undermine trust and lead to disengagement from work. However, when teams are telecommuting, trust is already threatened. The reason is that trust is established by building rapport, and rapport is built through human exchange.
Zoom Calls Aren’t Sufficient
When we shake someone’s hand and get a warm response, endorphins flow through our bodies. This close human interaction is currently unavailable for safety. The next best thing we have are Zoom calls, which are only weak approximations of in-person communications.
In fact, when asked about the biggest challenge while working from home, more respondents in the SHRM poll cited “lack of in-person collaboration with employees” than any other challenge.
Desk-Time Never Measured Productivity
The solution is for managers to first recognize that while they may have been used to judging employees by the time they spent at their desks, it was never a true measure of productivity. Knowledge work is often invisible and based on deep thought and creativity, which can happen anywhere.
Clear Expectations Can Energize Employees
So managers—in collaboration with direct reports—need to come up with alternate tools for assessing employees based on outputs, outcomes and job satisfaction. These metrics should be reviewed weekly, and in doing so, managers should be able to relax and let go of any tendencies to micromanage.
In addition, this enables team members to be clear on weekly goals and expectations. It frees them from feeling like they need to be always accessible to “prove” they’re working. With this freedom and trust from management, employees are more likely to dig in and engage while working from home.
3. An “always-on” culture could lead to burnout
Another common threat to working productively from home is that employees will feel compelled to respond to urgent requests and non-urgent inquiries from their managers at any time, on any day. An “always-on” work culture promotes burnout, but this concern is not limited to telecommuting.
The Danger of After-Hours Email
Before the pandemic, when most knowledge workers were in the office, many would still check for work emails after returning home, as well as over the weekends and on vacations. (I refer to this extra time put into work as “remote work.” This is different from “telecommuting,” which is when in-office work time is explicitly replaced with at-home work time.)
The Problem with Unclear Expectations
In my experience with clients, leaders tell me that they don’t often expect a response to an after-hours email, but the employee is unaware of the expectation and feels what is called “telepressure” or the compulsion to respond.
Studies out of Virginia Tech show that the anticipation of getting work delivered via email over the weekend or during other personal time is enough to cause anxiety, not only in the employee but also in the employee’s significant other. Negative mental health effects depend only on the possibility of a work email coming through, rather than on whether one actually does.
The Solution is Clear Communications Policies
The remedy is for leadership to set clear communications policies regarding when employees are expected to respond to emails and when they are not. The policies should cover how an employee will be contacted if there is a work emergency while the employee is taking time off. It should also cover in what cases and at what times it is appropriate for an employee to call, text or email a manager.
With clarity around communications, both managers and team members can disengage from work after hours. They can enjoy the personal time that is critical to relax, recharge and unplug. This clarity can also help reduce the risk of burnout.
How to Be Productive Working From Home: Attention Management Training
As discussed, the biggest threats to employee productivity are not tied to the physical space in which the employees work. These threats are more a function of how much control employees have over their own attention.
My workflow management training for productivity is based on a foundation of attention management, which teaches leaders and team members how to make the mental shifts required to engage the most efficient brain state for the moment at hand.
Attention management training helps employees learn to:
- Minimize task switching.
- Decrease disruptions and avoid distractions.
- Navigate each day proactively, rather than reactively, in order to increase productivity.
Set Your Employees Up for Success
Your employees will succeed no matter where they are working—as long as they can control their attention. At a time when telecommuting is new for millions of knowledge workers, there’s an openness to new ways of working.
The beauty of attention management training is that it serves employees who are telecommuting, working from home, or using a combination arrangement.
No matter how the workplace setting might change in the coming year, practicing attention management skills can help workers increase engagement and overall job satisfaction.
Now that so many employees are searching for the keys to how to be productive working from home, I’m happy to provide a free consultation to discuss attention management training for your company. Please contact me here.