Managers Should Not Expect Full Productivity Right Now

Communicate, empathize and be flexible, expert says

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 30, 2020
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mother working at home with baby

​Cali Williams Yost is a workplace change strategist, author, speaker and CEO of New York City-based Cali Williams YostFlex+Strategy Group, which helps leaders reimagine how, when and where people work. Yost discussed with SHRM Online how managers must revise their expectations and work style in the new remote working reality brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

SHRM Online: Should employers expect full productivity from their employees right now?

Yost: No, because when you rapidly shift an entire economy to remote and flexible working practically overnight without any preparation or training, productivity can't help but be less when compared to pre-COVID levels. However, if there was ever a moment to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, it is now.

The goal is not to maintain pre-COVID levels of performance. It's about keeping everyone safe and healthy while maintaining as much productivity as we can as we adapt to this new, ever-changing normal. We have to shift our productivity mindset accordingly at least for the near term.

It's only been six weeks since employers and their workers woke up to an unprecedented challenge. Employees, and their kids, were sent home to work and learn remotely full time with almost no time to plan. During that six-week period, the access to and adoption of technology to support remote and flexible work has been inconsistent. Remote workspaces have been imperfect. They weren't necessarily separate, quiet and without distractions as parents had to work, care for and educate the estimated 45 million U.S. children who could no longer go to school, not to mention partners and roommates who were also working at home.

We've had to expect and embrace the imperfect technology and remote workspaces. The goal has been for employees to feel they can be as responsive and accessible as possible, even if their remote work environment was not perfect.

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SHRM Online: How should managers balance flexibility with productivity during this time?

Yost: Productivity and flexibility are interrelated during this crisis especially as people continue to adapt to the radical disruption of their work and life. The best thing a manager can do right now is to clarify priorities, while empathizing with the challenges of the current crisis, and then give their people the flexibility to determine when and how to achieve those goals based on their particular jobs and personal responsibilities.

SHRM Online: What do managers need to understand about working from home right now?

Yost: Managers need to understand, first and foremost, this is not a normal remote work implementation. There was no planning or training beforehand, so everyone is figuring this out as they go in real time, even them. But each week is an opportunity to learn, recalibrate and do it just a little bit better if you encourage everyone to do so. Start by sharing one thing you learned and are going to improve on in the coming week.

SHRM Online: How should managers be measuring productivity?

Yost: Measure productivity however you measured it before everyone started remotely, but if you see metrics like quality, meeting deadlines or volume slip, consider how the crisis may have had an impact. Did that person have access to or understand how to use the technology they needed to do their job remotely? What is their personal situation? How might that play a role?  It's important to look beyond the numbers, especially right now, and to the person. 

SHRM Online: What are the biggest mistakes managers are making regarding remote work?

Yost: There are several mistakes that are only magnified by this crisis where everyone was thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to "swim now!" Here are a few:

  • Not setting up a regular cadence of updates and setting expectations with direct reports. Leading a flexible work team requires an extra layer of communication and coordination, so it's worth the planning and effort.
  • Not clarifying a communications protocol—identifying when and how everyone should be communicating based on what they are trying to achieve. For example, some people are using Slack while others are using e-mail. There are no reasonable boundaries around communications on off-hours. There's no clarity around how to differentiate urgent messages from those that can wait.
  • Setting the bar for accessibility and responsiveness too high—thinking that workers should be immediately accessible and responsive at all times or that they aren't working and are abusing remote work. It's important as a manager to ask yourself, "Was everyone immediately accessible and responsive when they sat in the office every day?" The answer is, "No, they weren't." They'd be in meetings, out running errands, browsing the Internet or in the bathroom. It's the same with everyone working remotely. Establish reasonable norms around accessibility and responsiveness.
  • Spending too much time on the infrastructure that supports flexibility—the technology and workspaces—and not enough on building a culture of shared leadership. That means partnering with their team and each employee to leverage that infrastructure with strategic intention to get the job done and manage life. 


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