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How to make remote employees more productive

Unprecedented. A word we’ve heard a lot recently. It’s been used to describe the restrictions to daily life, the scientific response and the nature of global reaction to Covid-19. It’s also true of the economic fall-out of this crisis. An unprecedented impact that’s likely to last far longer than the epidemic itself and be even more devastating.

People need to get real and stop underestimating how bad remote work is going to be. There’s every possibility we’re going to end up in a global recession that’s deeper than the financial crisis. This is the time to act. The government may be supporting your business by paying wages and offering loans, but this won’t last forever. At some point, it needs to stand on its own two feet again. Anything you can do now to push out your ‘time to death’ will be time well spent.

I’ve been here before. When I took over as MD of IT Lab, our time to death was three months. The financial crisis had just hit and small businesses in London turned off all discretionary spend. Our project income went from £3m to zero.

That’s exactly what I saw last week with my MSP clients. Businesses suddenly reliant on monthly recurring revenue from customers that can still pay. In a falling market, IT Lab had to cut its costs and win new business. And that’s exactly what we did. Through a massive effort, we re-modelled our offering, increased prices by 50% and our Net Promoter Score® rocketed from -2 to +55. It’s amazing how a crisis can galvanise an organisation!

Let me quickly share with you some great examples of best practice I’ve seen recently. One of my clients, Etch UK, have written a business continuity plan, getting questions from their remote employees and ironing out any ambiguities. Another, Six Degrees have introduced daily huddles rolling up to the CEO and Zoom coffee morning sessions between 10 and 11 am where remote teams are encouraged to chat about anything that isn’t work-related. This deliberate sharing keeps remote employees together and makes them feel less isolated.

But there’s no doubt that the biggest challenge everyone’s facing at the moment is loss of momentum and productivity. At a time when huge effort is needed, employees are suddenly working in chaotic home environments surrounded by idle, bored children. And the sun’s come out!

In the face of all this, how on earth do you make remote employees more productive?

    Identify leading indicators for every function to boost productivity

    In their business continuity plan, Etch were looking 13 weeks ahead. They have enough work for the current quarter but identified a leading indicator that needs complete focus by everyone in the business – to book enough sales meetings to guarantee their pipeline continues.  

    This laser focus on the things that matter is massively important in a crisis. If I was managing a sales team right now, I would make productivity my first priority, working out the most important activity needed to generate sales. Maybe that’s calls made, hours spent on the phone or meetings booked. And I’d create volume and quality metrics to measure this – e.g. how many calls translate into a meeting, how many demos turn into a quote etc. The old metrics will be wrong, the old data will be wrong, the old conversion rates will be wrong.  Start and iterate. 

    Involve your remote employees in working this out. You’re starting to identify the activities that should take the majority of people’s time over the next three months. The things that will make the difference between survival or death. 

    This should happen for all functions in the business. Sales, Finance, Marketing, HR… all should come up with leading indicators and remote working KPIs to boost their productivity.  At this stage of the crisis, I’d suggest a weekly All Hands meeting where data on performance is shared and shout-outs given for jobs well done and KPIs achieved. You need to foster a sense of everyone being in this together.

    Job scorecards for every role

    I strongly suggest you use job scorecards to help identify individual KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). I’ve written about scorecards before and use them with my clients to get to the heart of effective activity in any given role. 

    They’re best created by the teams themselves. In essence, they write down all of their daily tasks, decide which are high, medium or low impact, filter these things down to high impact tasks that take up large chunks of time. Then they work out how to measure these things against a minimum standard for the KPIs. 

    Once you have this system of one to three individual metrics alongside leading and lagging indicators, your teams will suddenly have complete clarity. They’ll know where they need to focus to make their time at home far more productive. Instead of trying to drive the car through the rearview mirror, they can put on the main beams, get out ahead and start penetrating the darkness. 

    KPIs to measure productivity for every member of staff

    KPIs become even more important when teams are working remotely. They may not have been necessary when managers were sitting next to their team and chatting to them every day, but now they’ll find it very hard to keep tabs on what’s going on.  This is when productivity can drop off a cliff.

    They’re a key part of setting clear expectations, enabling staff to work independently within a highly effective structure. Now that you have job scorecards, you should be able to see the KPIs that will help you pull ahead. Track these as a regular part of your daily huddles and make sure there’s a good spread in the team. This is how you create a burning platform and a do or die mentality. And your staff will find their work far more meaningful if they know they’re part of a monumental effort. 

    Always make sure your teams can see progress against their KPIs in real-time from home.

    Productivity goals that are FAST not SMART

    Management by objectives started in the mid-1950s with Peter Drucker’s work. It began the trend for annual objectives linked to performance. 95% of organisations still run their performance management appraisal system in this way and I can tell you one thing. It’s not going to serve you well if you’re trying to boost productivity with remote employees.

    A quarterly rhythm will work much better as it builds much greater momentum. Lots of companies try to make their goals SMART (Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). I have a real problem with the ‘ART’ bit of this. There’s so little ambition in the words, ‘Achievable, Realistic and Timely’. These goals aren’t moon shots. Or stretch goals. It all sounds very 1980s.

    Far better to make goals and metrics ‘FAST’ (Frequently Discussed, Ambitious, Specific and Transparent). If I was a sales manager right now, I’d be saying, what are our historical activity levels. How do we shift these because we’re not making face-to-face sales any more? Could we run a competition around activity? How many phone calls can we make? I’d set up a daily leader board and share stats in real-time. 

    When I worked at Rackspace, we did exactly this in response to a downturn in sales. I looked at our data and saw that some members of the sales team were only spending 1.5 hours on the phone when the top salesperson racked up four. I asked the team to come up with a realistic minimum standard for the input metric. They came back with three hours and this became their benchmark. Their tracking data was available in real-time and they self-managed towards their target.

    FAST goals speak to daily huddles and weekly team meetings. Because they’re ‘Frequently Discussed’, goals are embedded in ongoing review, helping people to allocate resources and make key decisions, keeping staff focused on what matters and linking to concrete goals.  They’re ‘Ambitious’ meaning difficult but not impossible. A benchmark is to make them 70% achievable. If you’re setting activity goals for your team, don’t set them at the level of the best person but for your number 2 or 3. This will boost everyone’s performance.

    And if you just miss hitting the target? Then it’s not a failure. Make a mental shift so that you recognise the close runs as much as the achievements. It’s like setting yourself a new PB when you’re running. If your goal was 2 hours and you come in at 2 hours 15, celebrate how close you got and then do a retrospective to work out what you could have changed to hit your target.

    ‘Specific’ is all about clarity in what you’re expecting remote employees to do. Use KPIs and make clear the minimum standard going to measure. Do this daily. I remember when I worked as a Sales Rep at Glaxo. The expectation couldn’t have been clearer. My KPI was pitching to five GPs, a practice nurse and a pharmacist every day. How I did it was up to me. Whether I did it face to face or in groups didn’t matter. 

    ‘Transparency’ means goals for individual team members need to be shared. There are some great tools out there for this – technology that will give your teams the score in real-time.

    Create some screens that everyone can see whilst working from home. Maybe they’re web versions of your office scoreboards. If you’re measuring phone calls out or time on the phone, this information should be available from your phone system. Give someone the task of working out how this can be shared. It’s vital that your team see how they’re doing and, even more importantly, how this compares with others.  I don’t think of this as competition. You don’t want your teams to be trying to best one another and failing to collaborate.

    Minimise wasted time to maximise productivity

    In an average working week, there are probably around four hours that every employee is wasting.  Now that they’re working remotely, there could be more. This is the time to get really, really clear on exactly what you want your remote employees be doing. What it is that you need them to do NOW so that they, and you, know it’s been a productive day.

    Never has this been more important. If you don’t get your sh*t together, in 12 weeks’ time you may have some money from the government but, fundamentally, your business will be screwed.

    Because you’re on a war footing, every employee should be tasked to identify these four hours of unproductive time. You’re not asking for the earth.  Get them to think about all the things they do that don’t contribute to your leading indicators. Suggest they share that within their team and work out how to stop it.  Maybe it’s stuff that made sense when they were in the office but is useless now. Get some of these routines locked down as a matter of urgency. 

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    Meet this challenge head-on with clarity of expectation, FAST goals and KPIs for all staff. Remember the fundamental, first question of the Gallup Q12 measure of engagement, ‘I know what’s expected of me at work’. If you can get 75% of your staff to give you 5 out of 5 for this question, you’ll know you’re on top of productivity and keeping staff engaged at home. Prioritise this now. It could make all the difference.  

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about him here.

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