How to Maintain Productivity and Communicate Effectively During Remote Working in NI

Posted in : Supplementary Articles NI on 7 May 2020
Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

As homeworking becomes the new norm during (and, for many, beyond) the Coronavirus outbreak, Emer Hinphey (ThinkPeople) and Scott Alexander (Legal Island) discuss tips to ensure that employers and employees get the most out of homeworking and they also discuss the challenges that could arise.

In this webinar recording Emer discusses how to maintain productivity & how to communicate effectively during remote working.


  1. Increase in Flexible Working During Lockdown
  2. Top Tips for Remote Working
  3. Health and Safety Issues with Remote Working
  4. Issues Arising with Remote Working
  5. Productivity During Remote Working
  6. Communicating with Remote Workers
  7. Issues with Concentration During Remote Working
  8. Maintaining Productivity with Remote Workers
  9. Top Tips For Effective Communication with Remote Workers

The Recording


Scott: Good morning, everybody. This is Scott Alexander. I'm from Legal Island. You can see me hopefully on your screen. I'm broadcasting from deepest darkest County Armagh, and we have with us Emer Hinphey, who is the founder and managing partner of Think People consulting. We're going to be looking at how to maintain productivity and communicate effectively during remote working in Northern Ireland.

Hopefully, you can all hear me perfectly well. If there is an issue with the sound, if it goes, don't worry. We're recording this. You will listen back. You'll also see if you look at the screen that there is a question box. If you have any questions as you go through, then drop us a question, and we'll try and answer them as we go through.

We're here until 'round about 11:45, depending on how many questions people send in and how many people are here to join us. My camera might disappear. My Wi-Fi isn't quite as good as Emer's, who's in Belfast. She's got all that super-duper fast stuff. I don't. So if I have to disappear, will leave Emer to run.

We're looking today about communications. Hello, Emer. Just make sure you're working at the minute.

Emer: Hello? Am I working? Can you hear me?

Scott: Oh, you're working splendidly. Emer, that's superb. We're going to be looking at communication. We're going to be looking at motivation, how you can make sure that employees are actually working and doing the stuff that they're doing at home.

I want to start off, Emer, just with a little quote that I got. Just before that, I think we've got the agenda. You'll get tips on homeworking, challenges that could arise, maintaining productivity, and how to communicate effectively. Is there another slide there, Glenn? We're joined by Glenn on technology at the back. Next slide, Glenn. There we go.

We've got some e-learning courses. It's a good time to do e-learning if you like. Most of those are about £10 to £30 a head, but if you're interested in any of the e-learning from Legal Island, just text "yes" into the question box, and we'll get Debbie, who's in charge of all that stuff, to get in touch and do you a deal.

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Increase in Flexible Working During Lockdown

Now let's get back to the agenda here. The CIPD published a survey yesterday, Emer, and it says here almost half or 45% of workers expect to work more flexibly after lockdown restrictions on UK businesses are lifted according to research and the survey, etc. Protected employees will be reluctant to give up working remotely after lockdown with many believing their employer will permanently change their approach to flexible working as a result of the crisis.

A third or 33% of respondents expect to work from home at least three days a week after lockdown, and 81% expect to work remotely at least one day a week. That's actually been quoted in our usual Weekly Review of Employment Developments email that we send to customers usually on a Friday, but it went today because of the bank holiday tomorrow.

What about that? At the moment, most of our customers are working 100% from home. Some of them not, but most of them are. But something's changed. It's a paradigm shift.

Emer: Massive, massive change. I read a great quote from the CEO of UBS in the States. He said, "Corporate back-office America has gone to people's kitchens and bedrooms practically overnight." I know lots of people are using this term, this overnight experiment, but there is certainly that challenge now, I think, for employers who always used the excuse that, "We don't have the systems, and it can't be done, and this particular job can't be done from home," to show that, actually, that's not the case because now that we've had to do it, like many things, when you're forced to, it's amazing what can be done and done very quickly.

Another interesting bit of data here. A PwC survey quoted in the "Irish Times" last week said that 60% of Irish companies surveyed at the time were looking at ways to permanently make remote working an option for employees, and another OpenSky, a technology company, had talked about out of 1,000 adults surveyed that 92% of 35-to-44-year-olds want to work from home in some way moving forward. So I think that the genie is out of the bottle in terms of remote working.

Scott: It used to be a thing that would come up quite a lot in employment law with disabled workers who would need a reasonable adjustment here. They may have issues about going into work during the rush hour and nervous issues, or it may be that just the fatigue would get to them with getting up, and they were tired during the day, and it's easier to have a rest in the house. That genie's out of the bottle as well. It's going to be impossible going forward for an employer to turn around and say, "You can't have homeworking as a reasonable adjustment." It's just not going to stack up.

Emer: For more conservative-minded people who maybe hadn't come through an industry or an organisation that had just never done it. Two large public sector organisations that we work with that I won't name are already looking at, in conversations I've had just casually, just saying, "Do we really need 7 floors in a large city centre office building or 10 floors?"

Even beyond remote working, do we all need to do face-to-face meetings all the time? Do I really need to drive from Fermanagh to Enniskillen to wherever it is now when we can actually just sit at home and speak to everybody this way? I'm not saying it's the only way and that face-to-face doesn't have a place, but the costs of property are becoming very central in people's minds and whether it makes sense.

Scott: We'll come on to Zoom fatigue later, I'm sure, which is something I'm suffering from. MST fatigue has done my head in.

We'll come to that later, but it's a permanent change, and you're right. There will be offices where because of social distancing you won't be able to fill them anyway, so you probably do need your seven floors just so you can get a quarter of your workforce working safely or something in the next few months. But after that, there are issues about working from home and how you do operate. There will certainly be a number of smaller businesses that will be thinking, "Could we just operate from a hub with the odd central meeting?"

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Top Tips for Remote Working

It's permanent, so let's get some tips about getting the most out of homeworking. What are your tips other than have a lovely, big home and a garden and suchlike?

Emer: A dedicated office and all of the tools that you need to do the job and all of those things. In reality, one day, everybody went into work. Two or three days later, they were sitting at home with a laptop if they were lucky. I guess if I take my organisation, we had changed our systems and had it all implemented about a month before this happened, so we were really lucky that everybody had the kit and could very easily get set up at home. But I think there are lots of people sitting in the bunk beds in the back room or going to hide and turn the cupboard in the kitchen into a space where they can close the door and get away from children.

Everybody doesn't have the same dedicated space to get away from the rest of the things that are happening at home, so I guess it's not all as straightforward as going into your nice home office and getting on with it. I think that's a challenge for employers. When you have to do something quickly, people will accommodate. They'll do what they need to do, particularly in the midst of a crisis. When you have a burning platform, it's much easier to get people to make quick transitions. Any sort of change theory will tell you that. But for sustainable work patterns, there probably needs to be a real look at the tools people need to do this properly.

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Health and Safety Issues with Remote Working

Scott: At the moment, you get away with it. Certainly, we had discussions in our last Employment Law @ 11 webinar with Seamus O'Reilly about the future claims that are coming down the line. There's bound to be safety issues because the workplace is now the home. There will be vicarious liability issues.

There's also the situation where I'm sure, as you just mentioned, most employers didn't actually do a risk assessment. They certainly didn't turn up and have a look at the facilities that people have. My facilities were grand until my wife had to work from home as well. Now she's got the best facilities, and I'm stuck slumming it in the wee room.

It's not sustainable over time because you will end up with a situation where people start getting sore arms or sore necks or sore backs because they don't have the equipment that stop those kinds of things when they're in the office. So at some stage it might well be, if homeworking is continuing, a few have done already, which is make access to the building so that you can get your equipment out and make sure you've got the right stuff. That's what will have to happen, I would imagine.

Emer: HSE in the South has a great link to making your desk as ergonomically sound as is possible until there's space to move around and for people to do risk assessments and to do all those things that you just can't do when we're in the context that we're in at the minute. It's the simple things like remembering that your screen should be arm-level distance from your face. It shouldn't be something you look down on. Grab a couple of bricks or yoga block or something and lift your screen up. Simple things that might just stop us all dropping into that slump. I personally just find that I could do with a great shoulder massage at the minute, but we can't get one.

So there are some alternatives. If you're working in the kitchen chair, wrap a towel behind you to give your lumbar a bit of support or put something underneath you to raise you up a bit if you're not close enough and just give some thought to it because it will eventually take its toll.

Scott: What about the other challenges? If you get away from the physical issues and a lot of accommodation for employers at the moment, understanding the situation. Once things ease, we can start filtering back to the office in certain numbers and certainly can get in there and get the proper equipment if you've the space for it in the house. You may even be looking at things like who goes back first. It might be the ones that don't have as much physical space or room, but then that might be dependent on whether childcare facilities are open or whether people can get on public transport and whether it's even safe to go on public transport.

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Issues Arising with Remote Working

But leaving those issues aside, working from home, one of the problems that people have is how to communicate with others, how often to communicate. I mentioned Zoom fatigue. For me, who used to work from home – and I know you used to work from home as well before you got the office off Bedford Street – working five days a week where I can't get out and I can't meet people and I can't get the train down to Dublin or I can't get to the office in Antrim and work out of Belfast once in a while is driving me crazy.

I'm fed up sitting in the house, and I work so many hours. I still start at 7:00 in the morning, and I'm still there working after hours. You're thinking, "I should really stop," but you don't take the breaks. What about those issues about the psychological impact of just being stuck in one place?

Emer: The psychological element I think is just huge, and I heard a quote, and the guys at Insill, to give them their credit, did a session about learning delivery and technical learning delivery, and they talked about this quote they picked up which was, "People aren't working from home. People are at home during a crisis trying to work."

I've repeated it so many times since because, for me, it shifts the whole discussion about what it is we're actually trying to do, and if we can think about it in that context, it's not the same conversation as normal working from home. The people are at home. The kids are running around. They're going stir crazy. They're coming into the room. They're crashing in like the politician or diplomat that made the news the last year, but that's common now. We're all seeing it. The dog's barking. Somebody sneaks in to get something out of the kitchen or whatever.

So there are the pressures of trying to work effectively doing that. You might have a couple of people working from home having to swap spaces. "Who can use the office now? Who can use the quiet space? What time is your call?" People are trying to organise home-based structures. I actually got a contact through Airbnb last night from somebody saying, "My boyfriend and I live in a shared house. We're both working. It's just not working." People are living in shared accommodations. They can't get space. It's really difficult.

Plus, people are worried. A large number of people in Northern Ireland are furloughed at the minute. There's huge uncertainty around the future. There's huge uncertainty around what the market's going to look like. So from a psychological perspective, before you even talk about communication, there's an element here, I think, that as leaders and managers we need to be really cognisant of the huge variety of stressors that people are dealing with, even just the massive amount of change. These are all things that we know individually create a huge amount of stress for people.

People's cognitive load is enormous because also lot of them are looking after elderly parents and doing their shopping or sick relatives who they don't want carers coming into. They have people in hospital. Everybody has their own personal issues on top of it all. So I think the very starting point has to be a little bit of empathy that this isn't a normal working day. There are so many strange things going on and pressures that people have. We start with trying to understand, "Where is my individual team member in relation to this? What are their internal commitments? What are their worries? What is it that they need their own flexibility to be able to manage this as best as humanly possible?"

Scott: I was listening to one of the CBI webinars that they do. I certainly know that one of the bigger firms, they're looking at work, and some of them have installed temperature cages. You go in, and if your temperature is too high, you get sent home and stuff about returning to work. They have personal return-to-work plans. But also, I think, for managers, you need to assess each of the employees under your control and what their particular situation is without trying to pry. You get some people who say, "I'm not telling you nothing."

It is quite stressful. I don't have any kids here. I can't even see the grandkids. But if they kept coming in when I'm trying to focus on something, I can imagine that I wouldn't be too happy, but people are living with that, as you say.

Emer: Oh, totally.

Scott: And accommodation from managers, but you're not going to know that unless you have those discussions.

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Productivity During Remote Working

Emer: Unless you have them and unless you're open to them. You can ask the question and then say, "Here's what we expect." I think the first starting point has to be, for a lot of people, we have to expect that productivity is not going to be as high. People can work the same number of hours but not be able to produce at the same level, even simple things like every conversation is a meeting. Every conversation now seems to have to be a web call.

One of the big technology companies we work with was saying recently, "We're really used to working with people on web-based communication. We have a lot remote working in place, but this isn't the same because everything has to be a big chat. 'How is your day? How are you feeling?'" Something that would've taken 30 seconds to get an answer to now takes a 15-minute web call.

There's a cultural shift around what remote working looks like in some ways that they're trying to pull back by saying, "We can go back to just a quick phone call or a quick IM and say, 'Can you just shoot me the answer?'" the rule of engagement there being, "We agree that it's acceptable to not have to ring each other every time we need to answer a question." But I think there's a big thing here around agreement on what a working day looks like that works for the team. Team communication is important, particularly in terms of productivity. The work's individual.

I'll give you an example of a friend's new routine. She gets up at 4:30 every morning. Then she gets the kids sorted. Then she goes back to work and does a bit of home-schooling in the room that she's in while her husband looks after the toddler and takes calls while that's happening. Then she takes lunch but takes a proper lunch so she can get the kids out of the house. The husband can get a bit of work done. And she then normally does a couple hours after the kids go to bed. She said her day now looks really different.

Again, a lot of good guidance is about saying agree with your manager when they can expect you to be available, and when that time is then agreed, they know that they can contact you, and they're not ringing you, making you feel guilty or stressed at times when you just can't be available. For others, when you're round with your elderly parent, checking in that they're okay, your manager knows that's the hour between 2:00 and 3:00 where they can't get you.

It requires a paradigm shift for a lot of leaders as well. Micromanagers of the world are freaking out because they can't get control over what's happening every day, and it's pushing a kind of trust-based leadership model to the forefront. We have to trust people, but they're going to do what they say they're going to do. Maybe we also need to think about how we record that.

Scott, you mentioned yesterday about people just summarising every day what outputs they produce and what were the things I achieved today and sharing that. That's good for us as individuals. For me, I find my day is a sequence of web calls, and sometimes if I've only got two things on the list done, but I have been absolutely flat-out all day, and I'm exhausted. So it's not just about reporting and being checked on. It's for individuals to see, "Where is my time going, and do I need to make some changes here?"

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Communicating with Remote Workers

Scott: There's another report that was just put out in the news today about Zoom fatigue just as you're talking about those things. It could be Zoom. It could be Teams. It could be WebEx or whatever. Your camera, like we're doing now at the minute, we've got the camera on screen. You don't get all the visual signals, but you get things coming from yourself. I can see myself on screen, which I'm not used to when I'm talking with somebody. I don't normally see my face. I don't look in the mirror all the time, clearly.

It's too horrible to contemplate. But it causes these issues, and the adrenaline's up. Even doing things like this where you're doing a webinar, you're constantly trying to think a couple steps ahead, and when you have those team meetings on Zoom or Skype or whatever, it adds a certain pressure. Then you have the frustration of some things. The Wi-Fi's not so great because the kids are streaming videos or playing games or whatever. It causes issues because a lot of people, especially old folk like me, we get quite stressed out by certain bits of technology. We blame it on somebody else.

We do have a question here coming in. The questions are all anonymous, by the way, folks, if you're sending them in.

"How do you set boundaries regarding time for Zoom calls? Some of ours take hours."

Emer: That's something a number of our clients have expressed, including said technology company, which is that the Zoom calls seem to be going longer – and this may not be the experience of the person who's put the question in – because there's a feeling we should allow a lot more time for social chat. Therefore, something meeting about work. Now I feel bad interrupting, and 15 minutes of chitchat goes on because we're not seeing each other in the office, and we need to let people whatever.

A couple of the strategies that organisations that I'm working with and we ourselves are using now is Zoom fatigue is definitely a thing. People are saying, "I am so tired." I was speaking with somebody who works for the Equality Commission yesterday who said, "I had my one-to-one, and it was actually really intense because, despite the fact that you're in a different room, I feel that there's no space," which I thought was very interesting. And it's true. You're really up in with people. There's not a feeling of emotional space or physical space. It's curious.

I think with meetings and boundaries, it's about going back to bog-standard meeting management stuff. Clear agenda. Clear time frames and rules of engagement at the beginning and saying, "We will arrange meetings that are coffee catch-ups for virtual socialising or whatever, but let's make work meetings work meetings," so that people know that they can manage their day, and they know how long something's going to take.

The other thing that people are doing is saying, "We need to keep some boundaries because we have mutual agreements around people's own schedules and the other stuff they need to do personally. The more we go over that and overcompensate for not seeing each other at the coffee machine, actually, all we're doing is putting each other under a lot more pressure."

I think it's about just explaining it and saying, "This is a half-hour meeting. Here's what we have to get through, guys, so we probably need to get cracking. But let's have a virtual coffee on Friday morning for half an hour." Somebody calls it casual café so the kids can come in. You can meet the family. The dog could be on your lap, whatever. Just separate the activities out.

Another one on Zoom calls that I think is really helpful, it started with everybody going, "I have a call from 11:00 to 12:00 and then 12:00 to 12:30," and I think a lot of this fatigue is coming from the natural breaks that you get from leaving the house and commuting to work, from going from one office to another, or just the small breaks that used to happen very naturally.

Physical breaks in the course of the day aren't happening. People are saying I've been on Zoom calls for four solid hours. It's trying to schedule your calls now for 45 minutes. Don't have an hour-long meeting. Have 45-minute meetings. It's one of those effectiveness ideas anyway for normal meetings. At every Zoom call, your organisation agrees they're 45 minutes, and the last 15 minutes of every hour allows people just to get up and leave or to do some of these other things you used to do because the intensity is just exhausting people.

The other thing is one of the tech companies we work with is saying, "We are now approving a busy time rule of engagement again." When someone gets busy time, then you respect that. You don't say, "I know they're just working, so they can come on a call." When it's busy time, it's because they have stuff they need to think about or work they need to get their heads down into.

Scott: That kind of quiet time I used to get when I worked from home a couple days a week. Nobody contacted me. I might get the odd call from Rolanda in the L&D team, but other than that, everybody just avoided me. It was great because I got so much more work done, but now almost every call has to be a video call, and, like I say, it does my head in.

There's a guy called Andy Bounds that you might've heard of. He wrote a book called "The Snowball Effect." He's a marketing guru chap, and he does a lot of things around time and meetings, and he would say the same thing as you. He'd say, "This is what we're here to talk about. This is what I think the outcome might be. We've got this amount of time to chat about it."

That's good for some things, but it can also drive crazy the people that need a bit of time or discussion or whatever, so it doesn't always work. It certainly wouldn't work for a proper brainstorming, thought-sharing meeting or whatever where you're trying to develop something new. You can't put so many times on it, but you might say, "We're going to take this amount of time, and then we're going to take a break," I think is what you're saying.

The one I like is your woman Clyne, who…

Emer: …oh, Nancy.

Scott: . . . who takes time to think… If you've got five people in a meeting, you go around the five in turn. So everybody knows they're going to get a chance to speak, and you don't have people hogging everything. You don't have people interrupting and having the usual arguments you might have at meetings.

I suppose the other thing that counters to that is I've been at quite a few meetings where a lot of people say nothing, but you're almost expected to speak when you're on a video call. You don't sit there saying nothing. I think you maybe give them the time. I prefer the time to think where you say, "Okay. We'll go around if anyone has anything extra to say the end," and the meetings tend to go a lot quicker, I find, because if you have it open-ended with no agenda and no structure to it and no barrier, you're going to end up, as that one there said, we've got problems.

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Issues with Concentration During Remote Working

Just before you come in there, any ideas on how to improve concentration?
"Some of our teams have been struggling with concentration. Previously, they would not have had this." Does that go back to your busy time? "Let's take time out. This is when I'm concentrating."

Emer: I think that point is probably resonant for all of us. I think certainly in the first couple of weeks I could see my own productivity dying, and I wasn't particularly stressed. I thought I just needed to get on with it. Actually, a lot of neuroscientific research around how our brains behave when they have high cognitive load or high levels of stress is that our focus depreciates. Our ability to problem-solve goes way down because all that adrenaline-type stuff has taken over.

Any neuroscientist on the call will be going, "That's just not an accurate enough description," but it gets enough of a visual to say if our brain is flooded with all these other hormones and neurotransmitters that aren't allowing us to focus and we're doing back-to-back everything, neuroscience tells us our brains need to take a break from anything we're doing maximum every 90 minutes. How can we really be thinking straight when all of the things that our brains see as a threat – uncertainty, absence of social connection, autonomy, to have control of the things that are happening to me – people are under significant psychological pressure even if they don't know it.

What our caller here is talking about is absolutely totally normal and human, and everybody should be expected to have days that are worse than others. I think that's getting a wee bit into maybe not quite so much, but it is productivity, a lot of the resilience-type stuff. You need to take regular breaks. You need to have a clear structure. All of the stuff you read now is if we have a clear structure for our day, it means that we feel we have a lot more control over that day. It helps us put boundaries between work and home.

And in that day, you put breaks between your meetings. You put a break where you get outside time. Even if you're in an apartment somewhere, that means you go and sit on the balcony or you open the big window and you listen to music and drink a cup of coffee. You do something that changes the cognitive channel so that you're not constantly focusing and thinking and depleting that ability to think well.

A lot of the work of people are doing from home is exceptionally complex. We do a lot of work with Queen's, and in talking to some of their colleagues that are coming into the learning sessions that we're delivering remotely, they're trying to solve really big problems. "How do we keep a university up? How do we deliver education depending on lots of different scenarios?" What do you call those things that you get at the end of your degree?

Scott: A degree? A doctorate?

Emer: "How do we do graduation online if we need to?" They're trying to do that when their brains are flooded. People need to take the time out. It's not that you're slacking. You won't do good thinking. As leaders, if we can encourage people to take healthy breaks, to get out to do that, we actually will get people who can perform much better because they'll be able to do things quicker. They'll have better focus and better problem-solving abilities.

Scott: It's very much like a physical thing. It must be difficult to do one marathon followed by another marathon followed by another marathon if you don't have a rest. Do you know what I mean?

Emer: Right.

Scott: It's the same with creative thinking. I always find it difficult if I were, say, I don't know, writing the annual review program one day to do much the next day other than answer a few emails and respond to things. I couldn't get into that creative zone again. It was very difficult. There are a few things coming up to the end here. You're doing mindfulness sessions and suchlike for clients and that kind of thing and lunchtime yoga. It doesn't just have to be Joe Wicks.

Emer: It doesn’t!

Scott: No, no, no. I was just going to say it's just taking a break and refreshing. It's like going and having a cup of tea once in while or a drink of water or whatever it is. This continual thing of going from one Zoom meeting to another is just destroying people. If you're looking at those ones about concentration, your ideas about taking the breaks, taking the time out, going for a walk, chatting to the kids or the dogs or whatever, just getting out of that mind zone that you're in and then refreshing the batteries, if you like, and then getting back in, that's what you're going to have to do. You have to break that cycle. You've lost control.

Emer: Your prefrontal cortex needs a break. It can't keep going. You have to stop. We don't have that capacity, and it's far more fragile than maybe we give credit for because we can keep our head down and keep going all day. The best example I use is for any of us here sitting at night. We've had a long day. We think, "I'm just going to close this thing up. I've been working on it for an hour." Then you start it the next morning fresh, and you've done it, and you've got much clearer thinking the next morning. That, for me, is the easiest way to understand the difference in our brain before we've given it the break that it needs and afterwards. It's about doing that regularly during the day.

Another thing I think on Zoom, Scott, you talked about just having ourselves in front of us. When I'm delivering training or facilitating offsites – we've done lots – I just turn my camera off. It's actually slightly distracting, and the reality is that you never see yourself in a normal conversation. Actually, the fact that when I come to focus where I'm sitting and what's behind me and what's going on, it's just something else to have to concentrate on. By taking that away, it's one less stimulus for your brain to have to work through, and it allows you to concentrate on the people in front of you. For me, that's just another simple thing, but it just reduces the intensity of the two-way conversation. Why do we need to see ourselves? We don't in normal life, so what's the difference?

Scott: I've literally done it just now so that the people at home can see us, but I don't normally do it at all. But then it's me and Seamus McGranaghan and stuff. Nobody really wants to look at us.

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Maintaining Productivity with Remote Workers

Moving on to productivity and maintaining productivity. I'm working from home. How does anyone at Legal Island know that I'm doing any work? Your people are working at home. How do you know anyone at Think People that's doing any work and maintaining the kind of stuff that they would have done in the past before the lockdown? You've accepted it's fallen a bit. It's an issue for people. But it might well be that they're doing the wrong stuff. Productivity is fine if you're producing the right stuff, but it's not so good if you're producing stuff just for the sake of it.

What about productivity? How do managers out there know their employees or their subordinates are actually doing anything?

Emer: The thing is businesses now and organisations, whatever we're doing, there's a real pressure on businesses, and people do need to be performing. It is critically important for a lot of people that there's efficiency and the commercial piece is still minded. Never mind the fact that public sector organisations are trying to deliver services and do all sorts of things while also supporting people here working from home.

I think it's about focus and creating focus. There's a number of things that people talk about that they're doing, but the big one is schedules and individualised schedules. We talked a bit about that, getting clear when people can be available or not. It gives them the space to do what they need to do when they're not at their desk and not have that stress of phone calls and stuff when they can't be there.

I think in some ways a lot of this is back to good practice, isn't it? What are the expectations? "Here are the mutual expectations but for now and not a month ago. We're now a whole world order. Let's have a chat. It's one-to-one, and there are teams. What is the expectation in terms of delivery?"

I think people have felt a bit of pain around getting used to remote working and getting used to Zoom. They will now see where time is disappearing, but a great idea that a client of ours has started to use is productivity sheets. We are a professional services business. We do measure time because that's what we sell, I guess.

Scott: That’s how you charge.

Emer: Absolutely. So we are keeping up, but we use it not just for billing people. What you can do if you keep a productivity sheet or a timesheet, whatever you want to call it, a workflow sheet, it can be really amazingly enlightening to look at that at the end of a day or a week with your manager or whatever and see where time has gone.

Often, we get to the end of the day and we think, "Why did I not get all these things done?" When you have a record of what you have been doing, you can say, "Actually, I see now that I kept jumping into those Facebook chats. I need to eliminate some of those distractions. I can see that it's going on this sort of stuff, and I've spent too much time on that because it's not the priority." A clear focus about expectations measured with information around where my time is going can help me make some changes to my working day. I know there are things that I'd like to do, but they're not the most important things right now.

More than ever, businesses need to make sure that they're focusing on the stuff that is going to help them through a very challenging period for many, and that's why I kept saying that I find having to share with you, Scott, as my manager, "Here are my key achievements for the day." It allows us to go, "Are we doing the things we really need to be doing? Are we doing the stuff that's most important at the minute?"

I think meetings as well, having a clear schedule of meetings for people. I still have to check in on the weekly team commitments. I still have to check in and have my one-to-ones, but you may be changing your one-to-one objectives. There's no point in using something that you set in December for something that is completely different now.

So reset your objectives, people. Make it clear what the priority expectations are, and then do some formal stuff like have your weekly one-to-ones. Have your morning check- ins if that's what you do. Have your team stand-ups every day. Try and introduce as much normality around how you managed productivity before but with a little bit of empathy around the fact that there may be days where things just go a little bit askew for people and you have to cut them a bit of slack.

Scott: You certainly do need that conversation about how things are going for you and delve a little bit in there, but your productivity thing makes me think of the old adage, "Whatever gets measured gets done." You're saying priorities are okay. Certainly, yourself you used to do events, and Legal Island did in-person events. All of that training has stopped now. One of our priorities is how you do it online, and looking at doing an online annual review of employment law for hundreds of people is different to doing it with hundreds of people in a room. You've got issues about whether some people would even want to go to a mass meeting again or a mass event again. It's an existential threat to organisations like ours that have been based on meeting people and bringing people together.

So the agenda for us and the priority for Legal Island and many other organisations has changed. What we do have to do is decide what the priorities are and then check in how we're getting on with these priorities. Obviously, they're broken in. It's that kind of thing. It's about setting it down on your sheet. In my one-to-one with Kerry, we'd be looking at what I've been working at.

I did start that thing we were chatting about yesterday that I picked up on a full-day L&D conference on Tuesday. I've started writing down the things that I've done because I think it's going to help me determine whether I'm doing the right things, but it also gives me a sense of achievement because I find it really difficult. I don't know what the date is. It's just a date. I'm not even sure what the day is half the time. It's just a day. It's exactly the same every day in the house. It's not, "Oh, it's a Friday. I'll go down to Dublin," or anything like that. "Oh, it's 10:30. PopMaster's on Radio 2." I never get a chance to do that. I'm always doing webinars.

But I think setting down what I've done, I look at it and I go, "I'm doing a lot of rubbish," or, "I've been doing good stuff." But unless I start measuring it myself, I know I'm not going to be in control of it.

Emer: I think what's happening, and certainly we're finding this on the advisory side of business as well as the learning side, because everybody's trying to pivot what they do and how they do it, for some people what they do and for some people how they do it or some organisations, a huge amount of time is going into research for people and sometimes just capturing that is enough for people to say, "Actually, I realise that two hours went on looking at different platforms and trying them out or looking at how this might work or that might work." Then at least you know the time was used productively rather than thinking, "I have no idea where it went."

It can be reinforcing and not always just, "I'm wasting time." It can just reinforce that I'm actually doing valuable stuff that is necessary to achieve the outcome but wasn't quite clear how long it would take. That can make you feel less guilty. I'm hearing a lot of people say, "I'm not doing family life or work very well, and I just feel guilty about both." But you might actually recognise that you're not doing such a bad job when you can see in front of you where all that time went. So I think it can be a positive thing as well as just a check-in thing.

Scott: Yeah, that guilt about family stuff as well, it certainly comes through. People have got kids or dependents, maybe elderly ones that are next-door or somewhere else. You feel you're just not giving enough to either of them. You're not doing it for work. You're not doing it for the family. The kids are supposed to be doing schoolwork. You should be there making sure that they're doing it, but you can't be there because you're focused on some kind of team meeting or something like that.

It is very difficult to juggle, and that kind of appreciation brings us to the final point there on the slide on the agenda, which is how to communicate effectively.


Top Tips For Effective Communication with Remote Workers

What are your tips, maybe, on how managers best figure out the best way to communicate in this new reality of everyone working from home?

Emer: I'm conscious of time, so I'm not going to go into a decently huge amount of data, but I think the term you used is a really good one at the beginning – the rules of engagement. I think agreeing with people what kind of communication will work for them is a good place to start. Some people like yourself there, Scott, love the old days of working at home where nobody came near you and left you alone. Some people don't need the same amount of contact. Others need more.

Part of it will be in how experienced the person is. If you're someone who's come in new and is just being inducted into the company . . . we do a lot of work with a tech company called Aflac, who have brought in nearly all of their team in the last month. Everything's being done remotely, but the challenge that they have overcome there is, "Actually, how do we implement team, and how do we do an induction? How do we get them to grow as a team?" We've worked it through, but a lot of that is about very regular communication and buddying people up and doing practical things that that make people meet who don't have pre-existing relationships. For somebody longer in the tooth or more experienced or with good relationships already, they may not need as much, or their style may be that they don't need as much.

So I think there's a bit of individualisation, but I think the loss of the social and emotional contact that people get at the coffee machine or a wee chat over lunchtime isn't to be underestimated either. I think this kind of virtual socialising .. . not that I have to say, if I get invited to another Zoom quiz, I think I might go into what sort . . . and might choose to be in isolation for the rest of my life rather than have to do another one. But there are other ways to do it. There are buddy systems. It doesn't all have to be getting everybody into Zoom. Just buddy people up or have these casual café things.

There's another thing Aflac are doing. I know we're using them a lot now, but we were just chatting with them yesterday about this. They have started to post people things every few weeks like, "Here are some seeds you can grow and germinate," or, "Here's an Aflac pen with a bow on top," which is stuff that makes you feel a connection to work but isn't always about getting on Zoom.

It's just that piece around asking people. I think leadership more than ever need an open door. I've said, "Please ring me. If you want to chat about something, if you're feeling a bit of pressure, if it's too much, or if you have capacity and you feel that you could do more," some people feel like they're not as busy as [they were and feel bad - "just give me a call."

We here have a commitment. We haven't talked yet about the fact of how you communicate with people who are on furlough, and that is an awful lot of people right now. People can feel very disconnected. That is about making sure that you may not want to breach furlough regulations and the requirements around that, but people can also still go and do some trainings. You can have shared learning sessions. It keeps people in touch without it feeling like, "God, we're being forced to speak to each other again just to stay in touch."

I think at least a weekly update just to say to people, "Here's what's changed. Here's what we're doing as a business. Here's what's happening in the legal environment," or, if nothing's really very different, just to check in. Then maybe you have a quick coffee and say, "How has your week been? How's everybody doing?" I think there's been a tendency to overcompensate. A lot of people are saying, "I feel we're popping on calls all the time just to stay in touch, and it's too much." It's about getting the balance right and asking people what they want.

Scott: Thank you very much. We're going to leave it there. The next slide, Glenn, please. There we go. Contact details if you want to get in touch with either of us. Legal Island have a couple of webinars coming up, which are going to come on your screen now. Next week, we have Barry Phillips and Sarah Travers. Indeed, Emer, I think you're back again next week on the 13th, looking at more motivation and a more formal setting with Sarah,. On 5 June, we have our usual Employment Law @ 11 seminar with Seamus taking all your employment law questions.

Next slide, please. There we go. We mentioned them earlier. There's a number of free webinars and events that Think People are doing. You can see Art Class at Home, Thriving from Home, Mindfulness Practice. There's even Yoga at Lunch and so on. We'll send around the little link, and you can pick as many as you like and go at those and get out of that mindset that you're constantly working. And the final slide. There we go. We've got Legal Island services as well here.

Thank you very much, Emer, for coming in.

Emer: You as well.

Scott: See you again next week. Thanks, everybody, for listening. You can listen back. Hopefully, this will be up this afternoon, and then we'll be getting it transcribed, so you will read back and check things and pass it on to your friends. Thanks very much. Stay safe, everyone. Bye-bye. Bye, Emer.

Emer: Bye. Bye, all.


This article is correct at 07/05/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Emer Hinphey. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email

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