The decline happened gradually. At first, everything seemed normal — deadlines were met, work delivered, reports were put together in tip-top shape. But over weeks spent in remote-working quarantine, the quality you were accustomed to started to skew.
You noticed project deliverables buried, untouched, in long-overdue to-do lists. Work that used to be top-notch seems to be cobbled together at the last minute; reports are submitted in disarray, often lacking essential information. Now, you’ve even started to get emailed complaints from team members that they’ve been picking up the slack from an employee who used to be one of your best.
The worst you feared has finally come to pass. Faced with the monotonous and lonely reality of remote work, employees are experiencing a productivity slump.
These days, a lot of people are working from home. According to a recent survey conducted by Change Research and CNBC, a remarkable 42 percent of respondents nationwide are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This metric is a significant leap from a few months ago, when just 9 percent claimed to be working remotely. Researchers further report that while 14 percent say that they are working from home “more than before,” 19 percent are doing the same for the first time.
For companies able to do so, the last few months have necessitated a mass shift to remote work. Concerns over the pandemic have compelled businesses to shutter their office hubs and instruct their employees to put in their workdays from their isolated homes. Rather than commuting, people are rolling out of bed and into work mode. Some are attempting to get through their to-do lists in their home offices; others need to make a workspace out of a kitchen counter or open couch.
While a remote experience does suit some people, it poses a challenge for others — and for some, it simply doesn’t work. As blog manager Lindsey Marx told reporters for Business Insider, “When you work at home, it is much easier to get distracted by kids, pets, and things to do at home, like laundry. Along with distractions, working from home can make it really easy to be lazy and not as productive as you would be when you are required to focus in the office.”
Concerned about the impact that remote work might have on productivity, many companies have ramped up their efforts to monitor employee performance. In mid-May, NPR reported that some companies have begun mandating that employees download software that tracks their mouse movements, keystrokes, and location. One interviewee shared that her employer had compelled their workers to use software that would track employee activity and idle time.
“If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or whatever, a pop-up will come up, and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again, or we’re going to pause your time,'” the employee explained.
This kind of digital surveillance roots in an understandable fear that employee productivity will decline at home — but it simply doesn’t work. Research has established that companies who surveil their employees tend to prompt disengagement, which in turn (and ironically) negatively impacts productivity and morale.
So, what can leaders do to constructively address a productivity slump without alienating team members or tolerating underperformance? The answer lies in communication.
If you believe that an employee has a productivity concern, it’s time to do some due diligence. You can’t handle the situation productively if you confront your employee with hearsay and unsupported complaints. Determine the scope of the issue — when did the productivity slump start? Are the problems you see now part of a pattern or just a one-off fluke? Once you have context on the problem, you will be able to identify and constructively address specific issues with the employee in question.
Come to the Table With an Open Mind
Anger never solves anything. If you come to the table upset, your employee will shut down and refuse to engage. Have some empathy, and remember that these are challenging times for everyone. For all you know, a productivity-challenged team member might be taking care of sick family members or trying to balance their work responsibilities with their obligations as parents. They may not have a quiet work environment or the ability to churn out assignments uninterrupted. To borrow a quote from freelance reporter Corinne Purtill, “The only thing more distracting than working at home with kids is having an actual elephant in your living room.”
Figure out the factors at play. Once you know what an employee is dealing with, you can have an honest conversation about what you can do to facilitate better performance. Do they need flexible hours that allow them to spend more time with their kids during the school day? Do you, as their manager, need to check in more often and be more proactive in your communication? If you can find ways to support your employee better, their performance will most likely improve.
Establish a Performance Plan
This conversation doesn’t need to be hostile or awkward. Once you know what the problem is and what support your employee needs to be successful, you can establish a plan for addressing the productivity slump and set benchmarks for what you expect from the team member going forward. You may need to have more frequent check-ins to assess progress and fine-tune your approach as necessary.
When you put in the time and effort to have a constructive dialogue about productivity, everyone wins. When an employee can trust that their leaders will have their back through hardship, they will work harder and be more dedicated to their work. A thoughtful approach, while more time consuming than installing surveillance software, will empower your employees to achieve much more than they ever would when greeted with suspicion and hostility.