company employees sitting, isolated,  in row inside electric lamp using working on computer in corporate office

Now that employees across America have been working from home for weeks or months now, many companies could have high expectations for their workers. Especially when a two-year study by Stanford University found there was a productivity boost equivalent to a full day’s work for telecommuters. 

But is such a high level of productivity realistic in today’s circumstances, and should it be the new norm? We’ve turned to industry leaders to hear their thoughts on the matter.

What Factors Affect Productivity?

Nate Masterson, CMO at Maple Holistics believes empathy is a huge factor for employee productivity. “It sounds counterintuitive,” he explained, “but hearing out the needs and concerns of your employees helps them to feel safe and loyal — both of which encourage productive work and results.” Pushing employees to work without considering their well-being, on the other hand, could harbor resentment and lead to much lower productivity in the long run.

“From our experience and point of view,” stated Chris Rowan, managing director of The Agency, “radical changes and over-supervising have proven to increase and decrease quality and productivity.” That’s why he believes adding even more changes will only weaken productivity for employees even further. “In other words,” he explained, “keep working as before the change, only being more observant.”

How Long Does it Take for Employees to Adjust?

“Before the coronavirus pandemic changed all of our lives in an unprecedented way,” said Sarah Hamilton, human resources director of Workhuman, “some forward-thinking companies were already offering remote work options and flexible work.” That means employees at those companies have had time to slowly transition to partial or fully remote arrangements. But not everyone has had experience working from home, and now they’re being forced to adapt quickly. “For those workers,” she said, “it could take several weeks or even months to adjust to this new lifestyle.”

Masterson is optimistic about adjusting to working from home, however, and suggests it should take around a week for employees to feel comfortable in a remote environment. “This largely depends on their home situation in terms of children, spouses and space to do their work,” he continued. That’s why it’s crucial for managers to be flexible about the availability of employees and the rapidly changing health situation around the world.

“Different people react differently to working at home,” agreed Jonaed Iqbal, founder & CEO of NoDegree.com, “Some love it while others hate it.” While some adjust quickly, others have trouble separating their work life from home life. And for some, the office can be an escape or even a motivating environment where others are watching what they do. “People who are not tech savvy and don’t adapt easily to change suffer greatly when working from home,” continued Iqbal. They may not have tools at home to work productively or may pick up bad habits like using social media too much or watching Netflix. That’s why remote work could be a slow adjustment for many, and in some cases, they may never be as productive as they were in the office.

Realistic Expectations for Employees

“No matter how adjusted they may be, it is important to remember that everyone has a lot to worry about right now,” Masterson said, “which means that although productivity may be high, it also might not be the same as in-person.” Companies will need to recognize that during the global pandemic, work may not be everyone’s main focus, and some employees could struggle with mental or physical health.

“The manager can make or break the work from home experience,” said Iqbal. Micromanagers, for example, could destroy employee morale and come across as unsympathetic given the current circumstances. “Good managers are more important now than ever,” continued Iqbal, “and a good manager will actually help an employee be more productive than ever.” While employees should be expected to adapt, they also need to be given the right support to do so by their managers.

“It is quite impractical to expect the same results when circumstances change,” said Rowan. That’s why he suggests managers worry not how productive their employees are, but how they can help them achieve more. “First thing to do is to stop and analyze the company's situation,” he explained, “considering the team as one of the main pieces in the system; both as a resource and as people.” Then companies can establish objectives and decide on a strategy for the future. “Recognize what measures prove more efficient and make sure the staff knows you are present and committed,” concluded Rowan, “They will do the rest.”