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Will long-term remote work reduce productivity, innovation?

Questions persist as COVID-19 restrictions near one year


Positive relationships with co-workers and supervisors set the stage for collaboration and innovation, says one workplace expert. (weedezign/Adobe Stock)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on in Canada and across the world, many workers are preparing to turn the calendar page to 2021 from their home offices.

The sudden work-from-home experiment that began in March has completely overhauled the way work is being conducted across the nation.

And since flexible ways of work may be here to stay, senior workplace leaders are now turning their focus to maintaining innovation, culture and productivity, according to a recent Microsoft survey of 9,000 managers and workers in Europe.

While 82 per cent said productivity levels have been maintained or increased, when it comes to innovation around core products and services, a 16 per cent decrease is being reported year over year.

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With workers scattered across a remote environment, teammates can feel more disconnected.

“This is new stuff, and many employers are still scrambling to figure out what to do,” said Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant in Kelowna, B.C., and author of Creating Healthy Organizations.

“Increasingly, employers are engaging in post-pandemic recovery thinking and planning, and that’s really the most constructive thing at this point that they can do.”

Is productivity an issue?

Forgoing commutes has been a benefit of working from home for many Canadians, with many adding those hours to their standard workday.

And some are working much more than that, according to a recent survey by Robert Half Canada.

More than one-third are regularly logging more than eight hours per day, according to the survey of 500 Canadian office workers.

“Despite the significant benefits of working remotely, such as saving time spent commuting and increased flexibility, it can also lead to putting in longer hours,” said David King, Canadian senior district president of Robert Half.

“Heavier workloads have become a reality for many professionals during the pandemic, making it more challenging to disconnect while at home.”

Despite discussion of a detrimental “productivity tax” on long-term remote workers, productivity itself is not the problem, said Chris Bovaird, associate professor in the department of management at the University of Toronto.

“There can be distractions at home, especially right now if you have care-giving duties,” he told the U of T News during the initial COVID-19 lockdown. “But there are also distractions at work, and not having to commute hours a week also allows you to be more productive by having a healthier and happier life in general.”

The well-being and productivity of employees depends largely on the quality of their direct supervisor and “how that individual is able to really create a virtual sense of teamwork, collaboration and support,” according to Lowe.

“Frankly, most front-line managers and supervisors simply do not have the skill set to do that.”

Innovation amid COVID-19

For many managers, the overhaul in workplace practices was difficult.

According to the Microsoft survey, 61 per cent of managers said they have not effectively delegated or empowered their virtual teams.

Questions persist on innovation in a physically distanced time.

Traditionally, positive relationships with co-workers and supervisors enable employees to thrive at work, setting the stage for collaboration and innovation, said Lowe.

“For many organizations — especially larger ones going back 15, 20 years — they have emphasized how their distinctive culture is a competitive advantage,” he said. “How do you reinforce that culture, and immerse new employees in that culture, if people are simply working from home?”

“That’s a huge question mark… I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I haven’t seen any good examples of how you can do it virtually.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic swooped in largely without warning, transitioning mindsets was difficult, said Lowe, noting managers were unprepared.

Generally, front-line managers are weak when it comes to the “people skills” required to foster collaboration and co-operation in a virtual environment, he said, let alone in traditional face-to-face situations.

“To assume that managers are set up to do that — it’s completely wrong. My question would be: what have major employers done to support their managers?”

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