Remote productivity? It's all about perception

24 June, 2021

Are staff more productive when they are working remotely? Data holds the answers, say Baker Tilly’s experts, in the fourth article of our digital transformation series.

A loss of productivity when allowing staff to work from home was a key fear for business leaders prior to the pandemic – yet when the shift to remote work was forced upon them last year, few took any action to mitigate this risk. 

Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a digital transformation survey of Baker Tilly network firms found the threat of lower productivity was seen by business owners as a barrier to allowing staff to work remotely, second only to managers preferring to work face-to-face with staff, nominated by 83.3% of respondents.  

The finding forms part of a profile of businesses and their take-up of digital transformation tools across the past 18 months — some willingly, some by necessity.  

For many business owners, remote working was the single biggest change.  

Prior to the pandemic, the proportion of workers who frequently worked from home was tiny.  

In the European Union, just 5.4% of workers usually worked from home in 2019, and those who ‘sometimes’ did was under 10%.  

Similar figures were the case in the US, with data suggesting just 7% of workers pre-pandemic could work regularly from home.  

Clearly, this changed with the pandemic yet the concerns that had led to such low uptake of remote working options remain unaddressed, according to the survey of Baker Tilly digital transformation experts.  

The survey found only 36% of clients were using technology to track productivity or monitor staff while they work remotely, a measure that could address fears about declining output or time-wasting.  

The primary reasons given include tracking not being a management or investment priority, the idea of monitoring staff not fitting with their culture or simply business owners and leaders not sure about where to begin. 

The absence of analytical tools or reliable data makes it difficult to assess if productivity really is a problem – and it cannot always be measured by revenue, says Kim Wylam, Managing Partner of Baker Tilly Vantagen, a specialist HR practice based in the United States.  

“We’ve heard a lot of, ‘when the pandemic is over, we’re going to go back to working the old way, because we were not as productive working remotely’,” she says. 

“Conversely, we’ve heard just as much, ‘I’ve been so much more productive working from home than in the office’. 

“This is where companies should really invest in analytics so they can determine whether they really are about to manage someone’s productivity. 

“Most likely, if you can’t manage employee productivity in a remote workplace, you probably weren’t managing their activity while working in the office.” 

Ms Wylam says a problem is created when parties are relying on perception rather than data.  

“You have the employee who believes that they were as productive and as successful in delivering their work in a remote environment, and now they’re being asked to return to the office and are challenged that they were not as productive,” she says. 

“You have no metric to support that conversation.”  

The risk is that employees will see productivity as an excuse simply because leadership wants employees back in the office, she warns. 

“A lack of analytical data, transparency and change management support will certainly have employees thinking about their future with the company.”   

Read more: The digital transformation

The devil is in the data

An analysis of data within his own firm reveals the gap between perception and reality, says Rob McEwan, Director of Specialist Services at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway in New Zealand. 

“Being a professional services firm, we’re pretty good at accurate timekeeping,” he says. 

“Many people in the firm said they were more productive working from home but what we found was a difference in the effort perceived by the employees, and actual billable work. 

“We actually saw a significant decrease in productivity overall. Productivity was lost by people not being in the office and working together.” 

“There was a lot of that adoption of new technologies and new ways of working during lockdown periods,” Mr McEwan says. 

“For those people who were supervising staff, they had to be very deliberate about their time on the phone, their time in meetings, and checking in with people.  

“And when they did these things, they found they were spending more time doing it than if they had their structured 10- or 12-minute meeting standing around the pod in the morning.” 

For those businesses that have made strides in monitoring productivity, the survey found 59.6% used collaboration software such as Slack, Teams, Yammer, and Basecamp. 

Project management software including Asana, Monday and Trello were used by 21.3%, while 15% used timekeeping software such as Toggl, Harvest or Timely. 

The most common reason for deploying such tools was to ensure staff were being productive and their teams are working efficiently, nominated by 75% of respondents, while managing data security risks (40.6%) and improved timeliness and project delivery (34.4%) were also significant. 

Ms Wylam says productivity data allows business leaders to analyse workloads and accurately plot where time is being spent and look at where it could be better spent. 

“We need to be more results and outcomes based. Look at those projects that we know were more successful, and then investigate the components.”

Kim Wylam
Managing Partner
Baker Tilly Vantagen

“They are starting to question what productivity really look likes,” she says. 

“How many hours in a day or in a week are required for certain projects or just for the workload? How can I better manage both the expectation of the employee and the results of the organisation? 

“We need to be more results and outcomes-based. Look at those projects that we know were more successful, and then investigate the components, such as how many hours were actually needed for that project, how many people were on that team.  

“But instead of ending with the outcome, we need to start with the outcome.  

“It’s getting everyone in the same boat rowing in the same direction towards what that outcome needs to be.” 

Artificial intelligence and productivity

With IT systems increasingly moving into the cloud, Mr McEwan says there are technologies emerging that will change the way data is leveraged into productivity management. 

For those firms using Microsoft Teams as a collaboration tool, they may already have insights from an application called Viva. This is Microsoft’s artificial intelligence system and it’s looking at how people use the Office 365 environment. 

“Many businesses that weren’t in the Microsoft ecosystem moved there rapidly as part of managing COVID, getting off the enterprise networks and into the cloud,” he says. 

“What that has done is given Microsoft an opportunity to analyse everything about people, everything about their connections, what they spend their time doing. 

“Because Microsoft can see my calendar, they know about my meetings, they know who I am meeting with, from inside and outside the organization. They know what documents I’ve been working on and what type of content I’ve been typing into those documents.  

“They can see patterns in my behaviour. 

“Viva will create actionable insights for business leaders based on real-word research and applying findings to their organisation.”   

Mr McEwan says this tool provides a better understanding into what teams of people are doing.

“It’s a new capability to manage teams and productivity, but not using the traditional time and attendance measurement methods that we might think of.”

Rob McEwan
Director of Specialist Services
Baker Tilly Staples Rodway

“It’s a new capability to manage teams and productivity, but not using the traditional time and attendance measurement methods that we might think of,” he says.  

At present, Viva gives individual users the opportunity to look at their own behaviours and work activities, but it is also an enterprise product that can be used by managers and executives to enhance the employee experience and improve team effectiveness. 

“So, when it comes back to how do we measure productivity better, there is going to be a whole new suite of tools that create valuable workplace insights. This is going to tell you a lot about what employees are doing.”

Meet the experts
Kim Wylam
Managing Partner
Baker Tilly, Canada
Rob McEwan
Director of Specialist Services
Baker Tilly Staples Rodway, New Zealand

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