How to encourage remote work productivity: insights from research by McKinsey, Gallup and Deloitte

Marina Pape
September 7, 2020
Head of Marketing

The world is gradually adjusting to a new way of working brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost every organization has faced internal changes from switching staff to remote working to business diversification to total workplace reorganization.

Things changed fast - with a sudden and acute need for flexibility and adaptability placed on companies. Many have had hard choices about job and salary cuts. Others have simply not withstood the crisis.

The latest of McKinsey’s longitudinal ‘pulse’ surveys dedicated to global economic sentiment shows mixed results, with some respondents growing in optimism and others only in concern.

As experts like McKinsey, Gallup and Deloitte collect data that helps companies crystallize best practices and adapt to a dispersed workforce, new studies show that remote workers can be as or more productive and engaged under certain conditions.

For one, the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment” is showing the importance of having employees that are engaged, well-equipped, and feel connected to their team. Names & Faces conducted some of its own research which revealed the importance of ‘employee visibility’.

Below is a compilation of new research, insights and expertise to help organizations grappling with the shift to remote work, return to the office, and everything between.

Returning to the office: pros and cons

In general, I think one of the big challenges with remote work that we're all going have to work through is the feeling of a kind of building social bonds, building culture and creativity together.”  – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO at Facebook.

There are numerous challenges in managing distributed teams and companies. Zuckerberg outlines above a widely felt concern regarding the building of social bonds and culture in the “new work order”. 

Even companies that had widely relied on the remote workforce prior to the pandemic are facing challenges due to increased levels of stress among colleagues who are working from home under lockdown and physically isolated. 

Many people are eager to go back to the office to return to a familiar working environment - especially those negotiating childcare. But when is the right time? And how can you protect yourself and others in the workplace?

A few common sense daily practices:

  • Stay home when needed
  • Monitor your health
  • Wear a mask
  • Social distance in shared spaces
  • Wash your hands often
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Avoid sharing objects and equipment
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects

Beyond common sense, experts from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided their official list of conditions for a safe returning to the office, including:

  1. Physical barriers
  2. Avoiding the sharing of equipment
  3. Maintaining a distance of six feet or more in shared spaces
  4. Regularly disinfecting shared surfaces - like handrails and handles

The conditions are demanding and for some offices, just not feasible. Meanwhile, many companies have embarked on cost-cutting - which could be achieved by downsizing an office space but which leads to a reduced simultaneous capacity and calls for careful scheduling. 

When it comes to trade-offs, studies have already demonstrated that part-time remote work is highly beneficial both for companies and employees but many executives believe it doesn’t suit their organizations. A striking example hereof was the decision of the US government to scale remote work programs back. 

If nothing is missed in this publication, the main problem in this particular case apparently lies in the fact that employees’ performance wasn’t appropriately measured either before the program start or during the program realization. It is also not possible to find out which IT-solutions were used to facilitate communication. Unfortunately, the only thing we can learn from this case is how carefully we need to collect data to support institutional and management decisions. 

In favor of flexibility: remote work productivity and ‘employee visibility’

In our own pursuit of insights into how to build a productive distributed working environment, we conducted a survey of 2,400 UK and US workers at medium and large companies (250+ employees). 

Our research reveals the particular importance of the "employee visibility" factor. 

What is employee visibility?

This term designates the degree to which employees feel seen, know people across the company, and are quickly able to find and identify anyone they don't know. The main findings of our survey clearly illustrate how social connections impact employee productivity and engagement:

  1. Three quarters (75%) of people who report being more productive since working from home know at least half of their company
  2. Almost two thirds (64%) who don’t feel visible within their organization have experienced a productivity drop while working from home
  3. Over a half (53%) of UK and US employees rely on asking colleagues to identify the right person within their organization to help them to do their job

These findings help us to see what actions could be taken to create optimal conditions for productive remote work: namely, enabling everyone to visualise the group to which they belong and see themselves - and where they fit - within the wider group.

Employee visibility is the extent to which employees feel seen, know people across the company, and are quickly able to find and identify anyone they don't know.

For example, finding a colleague in a particular role or with specific expertise while working remotely is difficult. A budget appropriate IT-system - like an intranet, directory, or HRIS extension - can assist here. The optimal condition is 100% visibility of each employee – with all the background information required for successful, frictionless cooperation.

Similarly, new employees now join teams without ever having met their colleagues and must often navigate the onboarding process without an easy way to visualize the organization they have joined. Directories and org charts have an important role to play in equipping new joiners with a tool to get context on everyone.

A data-driven approach to building an effective digital workplace

The distributed work environment is being actively explored due to the numerous economic and environmental benefits of remote work – below are some new insights and recommendations Gallup, Deloitte, and Google.

Gallup: the most prominent advocate for workplace flexibility

Experts from Gallup had been studying issues related to flexible work time and remote work long before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

According to the latest company findings, “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time working off-site - or 3-4 days in a 5-day workweek.” 

This could provide reliable guidance for companies seeking to reduce their expenditures for rental and operations.

Also, company experts predict that flexible policies will become an important advantage in the competition for top talents. To the date, the research shows that "54% of office workers say they'd leave their job for one that offers flexible work time."

Research from the University of California Irvine professor Judith Olson found that the most successful remote work situations are those in which workers have similar work styles, know and like each other, have technology that allows them to collaborate, and know how to use that technology. Along similar lines, Jennifer Robison has produced a useful resource: COVID-19 Has My Teams Working Remotely: A Guide for Leaders

Gallup authors offer a lot of valuable tips for building the most productive distributed and flexible workplace environment. Here are just a few of them with links to the full articles:

  1. To make remote work more fruitful, Gallup authors suggest relying on strength-based coaching as a basis for staff nurturing. According to the company findings, “teams coached to use their strengths are up to 15% more engaged, have up to 72% less turnover, and are up to 29% more profitable.”
  2. Managers want to make sure that they provide good guidance for remote employees. Gallup experts advise to “set expectations early and clearly.” It’s also vital to facilitate communication between all company employees and make sure that they don’t feel “cut off from the resources, information, or relationships they need to do their jobs well.”

Deloitte: nurturing the digital-ready worker

Companies aside, it is vital that people adapt to the changing working environment – and research indicates this depends on people’s previous background, position, and personal traits.

Figure published in “The digital-ready worker” article in Oct, 2019

The Deloitte team has been working on the topic of adaptation to a digital work environment for a long time – here are a few ideas that companies making this shift will do well to keep in mind:

  • Resistance to maladjustment. The increasing complexity of the working environment leads to the phenomenon that was named "learned digital helplessness" by Deloitte experts. Authors recommend companies to withstand this tendency by fostering digital agency in workers to help them develop a sense of "when and why digital technology could and should be used." Recommended measures include enhancing digital literacy and abilities of all workers, and encouragement of productive "digital predilections." These tasks could be fulfilled through mentoring and working with specialized educators.
  • People first, technologies second. Deloitte experts insist on the need to apply human-centered design principles to all tools and applications that comprise the working environment.
  • Reward productive behaviors. Getting feedback on accomplishments is crucial for employees to get the sense of “moving in the right direction.” Deloitte experts recommend leaders to “consider increasing incentives for lifelong learning and skills development.”

According to Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, the ‘returning’ workforce will be roughly divided into three categories:

  1. People who can't return to the office at the nearest time due to infrastructure or family issues
  2. People who won't be able to return to the office until the vaccine invention because they are part of risk groups 
  3. People who "just can't wait to get out of the house" and feel enthusiastic about returning to the office

Companies will need to make allowances for all three groups in the near future:

These little teams will organize in virtual pods and they'll work it out. So employers will have to give employees some kind of flexibility.” – Eric Schmidt, CEO at Google.

All of your people in one place: create a visual index

Buying and implementing a new workplace tool might be the bottom of your list right now. But if you’re looking to build an adaptive working environment - where employees feel visible and connected - it might be worth considering. 

What is the most natural way to recreate the serendipitous, in-person connection employees are used to? And that improved “digital open space” where everyone can find and connect to the right colleague?

At Names & Faces, we believe equipping everyone with a visual index of the people they work with - that is accessible, distraction-free, and always up to date - can help teams to adapt to the current working conditions regardless of their current level of digital maturity. 

Check our customer stories and schedule a demo to learn more about our solution.