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Promoting Productivity with Workers at Home


With much of the nation now working from home, managers face a challenge – how to promote productivity when people aren’t in the office.  Some are turning to sophisticated software to track workers’ every move online, but a business professor at the University of Virginia says that’s the wrong way to go. 

Plenty of companies have allowed their employees to do some work from home, and there have been studies on what that does to productivity, but when she talks about this subject, UVA business professor Roshni Raveendhran likes to quote the Prime Minister of Canada.

“He said something about, ‘We’re not working from home.  That’s not what is going on," she says. "What we are doing is in the backdrop of a pandemic, when we’re all stressed about our lives, we’re constantly reading news about people dying because of the pandemic, we’re constantly hearing news about people losing their jobs.  In the backdrop of all of that and amidst trying to manage the individual stressors that we are all facing at home, we’re trying to do some work.’”

With that in mind, she says, it’s important for bosses to know a bit about each worker’s situation. Do they have close friends or relatives who are sick?  Do they have school-aged kids at home? Managers should ask or survey staff for two reasons.

“One to show care, and two to show that, as a manager, I want to know what works for you in this current situation.  Do you have school aged children?  Does that mean until 2 p.m. you have some things you need to take care of, but then you have flexibility when your partner is able to take care of your kid afterwards, and you’re able to work from 2 to 8 or whatever that may be.”

Next, bosses need to know how employees feel about mixing work and life. Are they integrators – people comfortable with those two worlds overlapping – or are they separators?

“Like ‘I will work from 9 to 5, and after 5 I don’t want to be thinking about work,’” Raveendhran explains.

For those people, managers should not depend on real-time communication outside of certain hours – no phone calls or texts except in an emergency.  Instead, they should use e-mail, and let the employee know when a response is needed.

Unfortunately, she says, many firms are turning to technology to keep watch over workers.

“People have gone in with the assumption that, ‘Look, your employees when they’re working from home, they’re not going to be as productive, so I now need to monitor every aspect of what they’re doing.  What websites are they on?  How many hours are they on their computers?  That’s not different than measuring how many hours someone is in the office.”

It’s better, she says, to focus on outcomes – the products of our work, rather than counting hours or tracking an employee’s online travels.  And it’s important to respect the hours when people work best.

“I might be okay to work until one in the morning or whatever, but I’m not a morning person, so I tell people, ‘Don’t schedule an 8 a.m. meeting with me, because I’m not going to be at my best at that time, so let’s schedule it for after 11 o’clock.”

Finally, she advises managers that they are role models in a new way of working. From them, employees will learn what is normal.  Toward that end, she tries to be open about her personal situations.

“My father-in-law tested positive. After two weeks he ended up passing away, and it was a really stressful situation in our family at that time. With all of my research collaborators and with my students I was pretty upfront about what’s going on in our lives, because it was important for everybody to know that if you don’t hear from Roshni in a couple of days, that’s because this is what’s going on.”

Raveendhran and her colleague Matthew Perrigino spelled out these new guidelines for management in the journal Behavioral Science and Policy.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief