Even while conditions in some states have improved enough to allow some workers in exile to begin returning to their workplaces, life isn’t likely to return to normal for a long while, thanks to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

First, some employees worried about the chances they could become infected might balk at the idea of returning to their offices even after you’ve decided that the risk is small and manageable enough to re-open your doors.

And second, some businesses and employees may decide that work-at-home arrangements should be more widely available all the time. As more employees experience a workstyle that doesn’t involve a brutal commute but does offer greater flexibility in juggling work and personal responsibilities, you could face strong pressure to broaden that opportunity.

Remote Workers’ Challenges

Understanding how to maximize the productivity of remote employees begins with a rundown of the challenges that working at home poses — even for self-starters.

In the current environment, many remote employees are struggling to cope with unusual conditions that could decimate productivity. For example, the combination of working with school-age children who are home because school is closed and being forced to work in an improvised office space could make it a struggle to get anything done. In the words of Stanford University economist and professor, Nicholas Bloom, that’s a “productivity disaster.”

Bloom’s research makes it clear that employees need dedicated home office space to maintain a reasonable productivity level. And that space needs to be free from distractions.

What Do Employees Want?

Another determinant of productivity for people working from home, according to Bloom’s research, is their desire to do so. One of his studies involved a service industry company that had hundreds of people working from home over a trial period. After nine months, half of them wanted to return to the office. But among those who wanted to work from home, the productivity was high.

Even with employees who prefer to work at home, Bloom warns, it’s important over the long-term for them to have periodic in-person contact with coworkers. “I fear this collapse in office time [in today’s unique circumstances] will lead to a slump in innovation,” he said. In his service industry company study, Bloom required at-home workers to come to the office one day a week. Once the quarantine is over, if you decide to let some of your employees continue to work remotely, it might enhance productivity to schedule some time in the office. 

Productivity Tips

Based on Bloom’s research and the experiences of other employers, the following steps can help you maintain an acceptable level of productivity from employees working at home:

  • Maintain regular contact. Schedule a daily update session with employees, at least in the early stages, to help keep people on track. After a few days you may find that doing this daily is overkill, depending on the nature of the employees’ jobs and how well they are doing under the circumstances.
  • Set clear expectations. When everyone’s working under the same roof, it may be much easier for employees to check in with you about what they’re supposed to be doing, and vice versa. You might not even be aware of the amount of informal guidance you give under normal circumstances. Redouble your efforts to be specific about what you want your subordinates to be doing.
  • Look for results, not activity. Inevitably, working from home involves disruptions of employees’ schedules. If you try to reach an employee and he or she is running a personal errand (or even taking a nap), it can be a problem if the employee isn’t accomplishing what needs to be done at the time it’s needed — or over the course of a workday or work week.
  • Use audio and video tools. Being able to see each other while speaking deepens communication. Visual cues can tell you more than you can pick up from an employee’s voice alone. Plus, you can get a feel for his or her work environment. Zoom, Webex, Skype and Teams are just some of the applications available for this kind of communication during the current pandemic.
  • Consider collaboration tools. Not every employee needs them, but think about whether tools such as Slack, Trello, Asana and others could be appropriate for at least some of your employees working from home.
  • Leverage basic file-sharing tech. Services such as DropBox, Hightail, Box, GoogleDocs, Microsoft OneDrive, and Amazon Drive, to name a few, can be useful for working — whether employees are in close physical proximity or miles apart.
  • Provide additional resources. If employees are working at home not because they want to, but because they have to, consider whether it’s their responsibility, or yours, to pay for such items as a comfortable desk chair and other office essentials. Your willingness to cover them may be interpreted as a sign of respect, which can contribute to productivity.
  • Maintain camaraderie. While everybody on your team won’t choose to socialize with everyone else, the workplace is still an important source of personal friendship. Employees like to check up on each other and share their own news. On occasion, time can be allotted in team-wide conference calls for people to see how everyone is doing.

Final Thoughts

Having your employees work from their homes may not be ideal. But if it keeps the wheels of commerce turning and provides income for you and your workforce, it may be an opportunity you should embrace and make the most of. At this point, you may not be able to predict when you’ll be able to resume normal operations. But maintaining the productivity of remote employees can help keep your company moving forward today and increase your chances of a strong rebound when normalcy returns.