Assessing employee experience and the remote workforce during the COVID-19 crisis.
Is Working from Home Productive?
Now that many of us have been working from home for some weeks, most have gotten through the hump of adjustments. We’ve figured out that it is possible to get our jobs done. The forced experiment is working. We’ve overcome our technology challenges; gotten the peripherals we need to do our jobs effectively, and made some adjustments to our home ergonomics to be comfortable.
Now what? Some are getting anxious to go back to the workplace. As a growing number of states relax their stay-at-home orders, we all hold our proverbial breath and wait to see what happens. Many are considering the how, when and why of the workforce’s return to the office? What is the purpose of the office now that we have all proven that we can work from home? Gauging whether employees are truly effective working remotely: how do you evaluate that?
As workplace strategists and designers, we’re responsible to help our clients make some of these decisions, leading conversations about the evolution of the office. Ultimately, we are analyzing what portion of the knowledge-worker population can and should continue to work remotely, indefinitely. There are many factors to consider including the cost of real estate, human capital, employee health and wellness, job function and face-to-face collaboration. This article explores how to decide which employees are actually happier and more effective working remotely and how organizations make that determination. How has this work from home experience permanently changed the workforce for the better?
Data Collection to Prove Experience Matters
A happier workforce generally equates to a more productive workforce. Let’s be honest, the bottom line is the starting line on this conversation. There is no one size fits all response to the remote workforce productivity question. A Workplace Assessment can help. Time is of the essence. This period when many are working from home can provide a valuable data set to make some critical decisions. There are several research methodologies that can be used. The challenge is in matching the research tool to the question and in interpreting the information gathered.
- Determine the best tool for your organization and available resources.
- Create a plan and understand how the data will be positioned once collected.
- Incorporate both qualitative and quantitative methods to effectively generate actionable ideas.
Data Gathering Techniques
Surveys offer the ability to ask why. Data provides numbers, people provide insight. If tracking employees’ time logged into a VPN network, make the effort to understand what they need VPN for. Some only log in for about 20 minutes in the morning. The rest of their job doesn’t require access to the network, as they spend much more time collaborating with the team. Ask about job function and why specific tools are important.
Virtual Focus Groups are important to bring out multiple dimensions of questions or problems that arise and explore the same topic from different perspectives. This method requires a skilled moderator and a notetaker.
Virtual One-on-one Interviews are the best for specific detailed qualitative data but are also time consuming. Finding engaged employees who have the time to think critically about these topics is key. The focus groups can help identify these individuals.
Financial Analysis will assess the workplace’s impact on company KPI’s and sales targets, while engaging the Executive team. Watch out for irregularities due to the current economic situation. If sales are down, employee productivity may be flat because employees simply do not have enough to do.
Systems Analysis such as VPN, keystrokes, video conference reservation data all provide varying levels of reporting and are available via some creative mining. Microsoft’s “data analytics” function tracks in a weekly digest, activity functions. IT will be your critical partner.
Engage Human Resources to understanding normal job functions and expectations, including if it is feasible to ask your employees to do their jobs from home going forward? Remote work may not be the solution for all in the future. Assess absenteeism and review a pre-COVID data set as a comparison. Adjust for those whose absence is a direct result of the coronavirus.
Conduct an assessment while your employees are still working from home
Tips to consider when planning and implementing your COVID-19 WFH Workplace Assessment:
- Align with leadership first
- Make your pitch to leadership to conduct data collection and align on goals of the study.
- Only measure things with the potential for change
- Do not ask about upgrades in software packages if there are no resources or leadership support for that change. Do the homework to understand the loss in productivity compared to the cost of upgrades to identify the opportunities to make improvements.
- Seek assistance in study design
- Build the study design with outside expertise.
- Recruit a champion from every sector of the business: Leadership, HR, IT, Facilities, Finance, Operations and Marketing.
- Consider third-party resources:
- Gartner (robust surveys for member organizations)
- Survey Monkey (pre-made questions on a variety of topics)
- Leesman Index (online survey tool to measure employee experience)
- Center for the Built Environment (researcher and industry collaboration)
- Work & People Analytics (measuring workplace experience)
- Workplace Assessment (online survey tool to assess workforce)
- Have more than one data source
- Work to gather big data (quantitative) and thick data (qualitative).
- Mine data from systems on what people are doing and when, then ask why.
- Pre- and post-WFH data sets will show how the change in environment has changed the data.
- Continue to measure employee experience with a modified set of questions after the phased return to the office.
- Ask “why” multiple times of multiple people
- Explore the “why” behind the numbers. Are we asking the right questions of the right people?
- For example: is an employee logged into the VPN at midnight because it’s too slow at noon or because they are distracted by family members during the day?
- Engage the study participants
- Level-set expectations regarding the study goals and potential outcomes.
- Provide a summary of study findings to participants. Edit the report to include information appropriate to the particular audience.
- Tell a story of what was studied, what was learned and what actions are planned with the information.
- Turn findings into recommendations
- Analyze and summarize findings from assessments to inform future remote workforce strategies.
- Report to the leadership with a focus on innovation and incremental improvements that can continue to be measured.
- Treat un-anticipated information learned as an opportunity and gift of the process.
- Bank these research findings
- Informing a remote workforce strategy is only one of many potential uses for this WFM study data
- Other factors for consideration include:
- Process improvement
- Virtual co-location of teams
- Engagement and attraction attributes
- Nationally distributed workforce
- Flipped workplace – focus tasks remote / collaboration in office
Maximizing Extraordinary Circumstances
Under normal circumstances, conducting workplace assessments would require more controls and validations. But this massive work from home social experiment is an extraordinary opportunity to examine how the global workforce is managing their work, from home. Analysis of research findings should be tempered with the less than perfect conditions with which people are working: emotional stress of health concerns, economic uncertainty, children at home, imperfect home working conditions, and little planning to leave the office. These factors will influence employees’ ability to perform, their perceptions of their productivity and their satisfaction with their specific arrangements. Establishing a pre-Covid metric (if possible) will ground current findings and provide perspective for future re-assessments.
Justifying the Office: Post-Pandemic
Once the productivity of employees working remotely has been assessed, consider actionable strategies that integrate business objectives, organizational resiliency and the future of the remote workforce. Considering the relevance of the office, determine the stakeholders in next steps. In addition to the Executive Team, HR and IT are now even more critical to managing through potential changes whether operational, behavioral, organizational, or physical. Integrate all stakeholders in both the data gathering and decision-making process. Involve a workplace strategist or researcher for planning, collection, analysis and recommendations. A robust change implementation plan will improve adoption.
Will there be a post-pandemic workplace evolution? In addition to mining for answers about employees’ productivity, understanding the consequences of this forced WFH experiment will be essential. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research has consistently shown that employees are more satisfied when given the choice in how, when and where to work. And we know that satisfied employees are more engaged and perform better. So, in the future, how important will face-to-face human interaction be? We won’t know until we gather the data and study the opportunities for the future state of the workplace through the lens of each organization’s individual culture.
It is unlikely that there will be a return to business as usual. We should leverage this opportunity to gain invaluable insight into employee mobility, the remote workforce, and in-person interaction. In the spirit of “Waste Not, Want Not”, it is wise to use one’s resources to optimize future success. This unprecedented disruption to the workplace has provided a unique chance to study the impacts of a more distributed workforce. Don’t miss the opportunity to capitalize on this gift of remote working knowledge.
Want to learn more about the post-COVID-19 workplace? Check out this strategic and tactical planning guide for our ultimate return to the office.