People are working remotely. How to secure their productivity?

With part or even the complete workforce working remotely, productivity is at stake. Leaders face new challenges in effectively supporting their people and safeguarding output. Our clients experiences tells that people prepare themselves better for online meetings. Keeping an overview over work however is more difficult. Project management practices can make a big difference. Some of it applies to other work as well.

A day in remote working life 

Here is an overview of problems and issues clients reported to me regarding staff working remotely, and my take of what causes them:

People working remotely exchange less information, which induces them to work on assumptions, leading to mistakes and rework.
When it is not visible how busy people are, it is easier to give way to the pressure to start tasks and projects as soon as possible. This forces people to multi-task and results in switching losses by recurrent setup times. Stress increases, and with it, the number of mistakes and rework.
The number of issues that demand leadership attention grows. Leaders come under pressure to abstain from strategic priorities and succumb to fire fighting instead. As a result, they experience that it is very hard to get tasks from their desks.

Note that the problems mentioned above are not specific to remote teams. They also occur when people work together at the same location. However, with teams working remotely the problems grow worse. 

How to foster flow

A significant part of the problem is missing information. When people start working on a job with incomplete information, they slow down. The solution is not just to improve the frequency of information exchange, but to make sure that information is complete when people start working on a task. We all know, “good preparation is half the work”, and still we do not act on it. How come? 

My view is that the prevailing paradigm that underlies the ways of doing in multi project management stands in the way of applying the principle of good preparation. This paradigm consists of three preconceptions:

  1. People must always be busy doing something. If they don´t, productivity will suffer. It is better to start unprepared than telling that you are … waiting for valid information. 
  2. “More work in leads to more work out.” In production settings it is widely acknowledged that this is a misconception, and principles like “first time right” and “pull versus push” highly increase productivity. In many project environments these principles are not recognized yet.  
  3. Multitasking is good! It is a competence, a virtue even! And it makes us soooooo efficient. However, studies, as well as simulations, prove that the human brain is not capable of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking always comes with big – switching – losses. Distributing one’s attention over more tasks rapidly eats away productivity. 

When we turn these preconceptions on their heads a practice will emerge that reduces stress and accelerates work. It works for remote teams as well as for teams working at the same location and any mixed form. 

  1. It all starts with proper project planning, not too detailed, but just enough detail to identify all dependencies between work packages. This enables an execution modus that informs which tasks can be started and which tasks are in progress and should now be completed. A good project plan, using deliverable-based dependencies, enables an execution modus running like a GPS. It tells you where you are now and what you can do next to arrive at your destination as soon as possible.
  2. Setup a routine for good preparation and define it as a work package in the project plan. An hour spent on preparation will save you many hours in rework.
  3. Start working on projects as late as possible – the counterpart of the pull versus push principle of production. This enables staff to focus on the projects at hand and finish all projects faster. 
  4. Create a quality moment every day. A few moments of focused team time to exchange information, advise each other, find out what works and what would work better, eliminate blockages and accelerate flow. When these stand-ups or scrums are organized at all management levels in a synchronized scheme, problems that cannot be solved on a lower level can be relegated to higher management and often be solved by leadership or expertise within one day. 
  5. Foster a culture of flow, meaning, stimulate people to focus and finish, and first then start new tasks. It increases output, reduces stress, and makes working life easier.

Innovate or die

For many crises come as unexpectedly as unwelcomed. However, as the Corona crisis evolves it is best to accept and adapt. As such, the Corona crisis is also an opportunity. Companies that face a decline in demand now have time to innovate and increase flow.

The Corona shut down will not last forever, and the Corona economic crisis, as every crisis, will be followed by an economic recovery. Companies that focus on the crisis may die, as inertia does not pay off. Companies that prepare for the future by innovation and, in particular, by establishing multi project management flow will prosper. Amazon and Skype are two enterprises that took benefited from it – their testimonials are available in the public domain. Companies like these come out stronger from the crisis and benefit the most from the next recovery.

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