Hybrid working and productivity – measuring outputs not inputs

by | Oct 7, 2022

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Hybrid working and productivity – measuring outputs not inputs

This blog follows our One Big Thing research where we conducted interview with over 30 CPOs from different sectors and company sizes, to find out what the ‘one big thing’ was that was their big pressing concerns in the coming 12 – 18 months.

One of the main challenges highlighted by a large number of respondents related to hybrid working. Here we look at one of the key themes, following on from some questions we’ve been asked from media source, so today’s blog looks specifically at how to measure productivity. Cathy Acratopulo gives us her thoughts. 

One big thing - theme logo

HR's 'One Big Thing'

We asked 30 CPOs, representing more than 500,000 employees, what the ‘one big thing’ was that was keeping them up at night. 

Productivity – it’s a word that has been heavily used during the pandemic, becoming something of a lightning rod when discussing the challenges businesses faced with assessing how their workforce was able to deliver its outputs despite so many people working from home. Some leaders asked questions about how productive people are being when they are less visible and not in their normal place of work. Employees on the other hand are typically of the view that they are more productive when remotely.  

A recent YouGov report highlighted this disparity with 60% of employees stating that they were more productive when working from home, with a collective saying that location made little difference. In comparison, in the same survey only 25% of business leaders said they think home working is more productive for the company as a whole and about the same proportion again felt it makes no difference to productivity whether employees are in the workplace or at home.   

Similarly, a Microsoft study of 20,000 employees across 11 countries has just reported that 87% of employees said they were productive compared with 12% of leaders saying they had full confidence their team is productive. 85% of managers said the shift to hybrid working has made it challenging to have confidence in their teams’ productivity. Microsoft called this manager view ‘productivity paranoia’. Interestingly, Microsoft employees can work from home up to 50% of their time as standard. Any more time at home requires management approval. 

A recent report by Advanced Workplace Associates found that the average office attendance in the UK was just 29%, less than one-and-a-half days a week, whereas in North America this figure is even lower at just over one day a week. Some businesses are reacting by insisting that their people return to the office for a set number of days as a minimum. For example, we recently saw Apple tell staff that they were required to work in the office at least three days a week from September. Additionally, remote work decisions are set to be made “on a case-by-case basis”. American Express is adopting a new hybrid work system dubbed “Amex Flex” where employees working remotely adopt schedules initially set by their leaders.    

Given the different perspectives of employers and employees, it’s important for businesses to understand what their employees’ views are, what they value about working more flexibly as well as being clear on their productivity expectations, how it will be measured and what impact it will have on an individual’s success in the company.  

Is the difference of opinion a problem?  

This risk of a difference in option between employers and employees is the perceived lack of trust and the impact this will have on engagement levels and organisational culture.  By raising a concern about productivity, employers are implying that their people may be working less hours at home, getting distracted by other things, spending time on household or family activities when they would typically be working if they were at the workplace. They may also be concerned that employees work less effectively at home as they aren’t able to collaborate as easily or learn from each other like they can face-to-face.  

To avoid perception becoming reality, any view on the impact of productivity must be backed up by data.  If as an organisation you are concerned about the effects of flexible working on your team’s productivity, then ask yourself how did you measure it before? And how can you measure it now?  It is easier to track productivity in some workforces such as sales or call centres, compared to others with less hard measures of success e.g. workforces who are creating new solutions or ideas. If productivity wasn’t really measured or communicated before the pandemic increased the prevalence of home working, it is hard to argue there is a baseline against which you can track current productivity levels. And therefore claim the workforce is more or less productive now.   Agreeing a consistent set of measures and tracking real data is key to inform decisions on where people should work going forwards. 

Line managers need more tools and information to manage their remote or hybrid teams effectively. It’s likely that they will need to spend more time catching up with those who are not in the workplace to ensure they understand how people are spending their time, how they are feeling and how they are performing.  While this may be more time consuming, there will be upsides, not least by being close to the employee pulse and being able to respond quicker if issues arise.  Employees also need the right tools and infrastructure to ensure they are not ‘digitally frustrated’ when working from home.  

Cultural relevance  

As the debate rages on about working from home and productivity, it’s important to recognise that, for many businesses, there has been no choice in their place of work.  For example, front line workers in the manufacturing, retail, hospitality and transport sectors have to be at the workplace to get their jobs done.  

In these businesses, you can understand why CEOs may insist that their head office and senior management employees should come back to the office. If the majority of your workforce has no choice about their place of work, they may feel aggrieved about the minority who have the luxury of continuing to work from home for either all or part of their week.  This cultural relevance is an important factor in deciding how best to set the tone and show empathy from the top for the workforce as a whole.   

There will be some employees who made life choices during the pandemic which now limit their ability to return to the office on either a part- or full-time basis.  They may have moved to a part of the country with an impractical commute on the assumption that they would be able to continue to work from home. Or they may have welcomed new pets into their homes who now need them to be present for large portions of their day. In these cases, individuals need to feel the reasons why their employer is asking them to return to the office, even on a hybrid basis, make sense and ring true. They can then make an informed decision on whether they will make the personal changes needed to facilitate their return or to move on to other companies that offer the flexibility they now need. 

Back to the numbers

There is some simple maths that sits behind the argument to allow your employees to operate more flexibly: 

  • People save commuting time by working from home, time which can be spent working or doing the things that mean they can focus better during working hours (with the current rail strikes this is even more impactful) 
  • Working from home can lead to improved wellbeing; this in turn can lead to lower sickness absence with the associated impacts on productivity and costs 
  • We know there is a direct link between engagement and productivity – if your employees are happier with more choice over where they work, then they are likely to be more productive. 

Businesses need to challenge themselves on whether any potential productivity impacts caused by working from home can be overcome by providing better tools and technologies for managers and employees.  Whilst this will have an initial impact on costs, the potential upside from improved employee engagement (and resulting productivity) could be significant if it enables people to work more flexibly. 

Ultimately, each business needs to: 

  • Listen to their workforce to understand their preferences about working more flexibly 
  • Define the expectations on productivity and how it will be measured 
  • Put in place tools and technologies that will help: 
  • Managers to communicate with their employees 
  • People to work more effectively and collaboratively when remote from the workplace 
  • More effective measurement of productivity  
  • Set the tone with clear leadership, demonstrating the behaviours that are expected of the rest of the workforce. 

How does your business drive productivity? Are you looking at how you can get better at measuring it? Reach out to us for an initial chat using the form below.