Last year many of us were thrust into a worldwide experiment on the effectiveness of remote working. And while our research shows that concerns of decreased productivity are unfounded (working from home is just as productive as working in the office – possibly more so), many companies remain skeptical.

This isn’t surprising. There have been many reports about heightened levels of stress created by remote work. And we know that stress can cause burn out. Some workers feel pressured to work longer hours and be visible to others in the business. They are spending more time online fueling ‘e-presenteeism’. Presenteeism means you physically show up to work but due to exhaustion, lack of motivation or poor mental health are unable to perform at your best. E-presenteeism happens when employees feel they should always be available online and working. In both cases, it leads to decreased productivity levels. 

Organisations need to build a culture of productivity that addresses both sides of the productivity equation – employees’ well-being and company effectiveness – to create healthy and successful remote workplaces for the long term.

Back to basics: productivity and remote working

In considering what we’re trying to achieve with remote working, it’s useful to take a step back and consider what influences productivity.

A key component of productivity is motivation. When people feel motivated, they perform better. But even the most highly motivated employee will lose faith if they don’t feel enabled to do their jobs. So productivity is about combining motivation with the catalytic ingredient of enablement.

The problem is that remote work practices can significantly change job demands, autonomy, and relational aspects of work, which in turn influence employee outcomes.

We need to remember that most jobs weren’t created for remote work, so employees that were enabled before remote work may not feel as enabled in a remote or hybrid work setting. This can sap motivation and therefore decrease productivity.

The good news is that many studies, including our own research, a two-year study by Great Place to Work® and a report by McKinsey, found that many people have the same or even higher levels of productivity when working remotely.

But are people more productive because they’re working longer hours? This was a real issue, particularly at the start of the pandemic, whether for reasons of e-presenteeism or because employees wanted to do everything they could to help their employers to keep people and jobs safe.

Well over a year on, these conditions have stabilised and individuals and organisations have learnt to flex the work / life load, whether through spoken or unspoken rules of engagement.

A more concerning version of ongoing e-presenteeism occurs when employees are not fully functioning in the workplace. This can be because of poor – often mental – health or lack of motivation.

Leaders need to address these issues sensitively, helping their people find the support they need no matter the cause.

Time to put productivity into focus

While challenging, we believe productivity and remote working can happily and healthily co-exist. Leaders need to help build a culture of productivity that’s compatible with remote working, starting with these four steps:

1. Understand the nature of the work

Companies cannot simply make a job virtual and expect it to simply function as before. Work has to be properly understood – why it exists, who can do it, what’s involved and how can it be done.

Only when these core elements are understood can an organisation enable its employees to do their jobs successfully.

2. Set boundaries and priorities

The boundary between personal and work has become very blurred. Leaders must walk a fine line in supporting their people to balance work and delivery timelines without slipping into micromanagement. Instead, their role is to guide and then trust their employees can and will manage their own time effectively.

3. Reward the right behaviours

Failure to introduce a clear outcome-focused system to reward work that is done remotely can lead to presenteeism. Leaders can play an important role in motivating their employees by celebrating successes big or small and giving recognition and thanks for good work done.

4. Give people a voice

The first three steps will fall flat unless you implement a final initiative: giving employees a real, palpable channel to express what they think, feel, and experience. Top leaders should reflect the feedback they receive and stay in true dialogue (not monologue) with their direct reports.

To learn more about remote work challenges and opportunities, download Evolution or revolution: Reimagining remote work.

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About the contributor

Halim Ariff is the Country Manager for Korn Ferry Digital for Malaysia and Indonesia. With 22 years of corporate and consulting experience, Halim is well versed in high level C-suite stakeholder management. He has served clients throughout ASEAN, East and South Asia as well as in the Middle East. An expert at strategic engagement and board level syndication Halim also oversees revenue, profit, and growth targets for the Products Group. As a member of the senior management team, Halim plays a critical role in ensuring collaboration between teams as well as the cross selling of products and services across all business units within Korn Ferry.

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