The Covid-19 pandemic has forced most employers to implement a work from home policy in a bid to curb the spread of the disease.
This means no more morning commute, no stopping by your colleague’s desk to say hello, no lunch at your favourite restaurant around the corner from your office, and for the bosses, a huge challenge when it comes to measuring, assessing and analysing the productivity of their juniors.
It is realistic to assume that shifting to the ‘home office’ will become the new normal for many of us for a while, given that the number of confirmed positive Covid-19 cases keeps rising by the day. So far, Kenya has 320 confirmed cases, and the government projects that these numbers will keep increasing.
The new change in the daily routine is feeling much different for many workers who are used to working from the office, which means figuring out how to stay on task in a new environment. Working with the distraction from children, unsuitable working space, lack of privacy and the choice to do what you want will most likely lead to less productivity.
The biggest problem for HR managers is that most employees are taking advantage of the work from home policy to go on vacation.
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“Our problem with this concept is that many Kenyans think working from home involves drinking and Netflix. Our productivity is low. I think it boils down to our general trustworthiness and our collective ability (or lack thereof) to work unsupervised,” one employee said.
Just recently, a manager said that one of her direct reports texted her saying she is doing okay in shags(rural home),just farming very hard. She added that she's stuck there due to the partial lock down that was effected by the Government, and was wondering what to do.
“I told her that working from home did not mean going to shags and she should fill in leave from the day she left Nairobi and consider herself on leave until she resumes work. She miraculously made it back to Nairobi,” she said.
According to Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, “the global work from home movement that is intended to maintain output and efficiency during the covid-19 pandemic could actually generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years.”
Kenya,for instance, is already experiencing a lag in the judicial system, barely a month after the judiciary ordered all its staff to work from home ‘in order to protect them and the entire Judiciary fraternity from the Coronavirus.’
Chief Justice David Maraga scoffed at ‘truant judges and magistrates who have been frustrating and sabotaging delivery of justice.’
The CJ sent a memo to all members of the bench, reminding them that they are on duty throughout. He then ordered them to conclude all pending cases by the end of May, and that monthly reports should be mailed directly to him.
The hospitality industry is one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak, forcing many hotels and guest houses to close while some have had to work with skeleton staff, and a few of them working from home.
Davis Tamba, a Human Resource practitioner at Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Nairobi, says it is hard to manage employees working from home because in the hospitality and service industry, the lesser the pool of potential customers the harder it becomes to determine the productivity of employees.
“The issue of performance management for a contractual arrangement that requires one to work from home has been made a challenge by the pandemic itself,” he says,
According to Tamba, having employees working from home would require them to submit certain necessary reports within given timelines.
“To measure a performance you might be required to allocate certain weights to a given outcome, and the outcomes are pegged on itemized measurables as customer service and satisfaction, volumes of sales among others,” Tamba adds.
Joyce Nyakundi, another HR practitioner at Bliss Healthcare Limited says they have most employees still working from the office since the company is an essential service provider, but employees working in Legal, Finance, Administration, Procurement, and Human Resource departments are working from home.
“To ensure that there is accountability and productivity, we let at least one member from each department work from the office. We then give joint tasks where they will have to communicate with each other. This will make them accountable to each other as they work on their tasks,” she says.
The employees also do a daily report through Skype at end of the day, where they give an account of what they have done.
Coronavirus or not, businesses have to stay afloat and people need to earn their income to feed their families, among other needs and necessities. How employees and their employers tackle WFH challenges will have profound consequences on their productivity and the in the long-run, the future of their companies. So how exactly can HR managers and their employees work towards achieving maximum productivity amid this pandemic?
According to Barbara Larson, a professor of management at North-eastern University in Boston who studies remote working, the key to working from home is clear communication with your boss – and knowing exactly what’s expected of you.
“Have really clear-set expectations for communications day to day,” Larson says, “ask your manager if they don’t mind having a 10-minute call to kick off the day and wrap up the day,” she adds.
Most people spend their days in close proximity to their bosses, meaning communication is easy and effortless. But that’s all out the window with working from home, and communication breakdown is even more likely to happen if your workplace isn’t used to remote working.
Your manager might not be used to managing people virtually, for example, or your company might not have a ready-to-go suite of tools for remote workers, like the chat app Slack or video conferencing app Zoom.
“If you want to achieve maximum productivity, allocate enough duties to your staff for the day and even for the week so that they know what is expected of them. You also need to set deadlines for the submission or completion of work,” Larson says.
There are also some timeless WFH tips to call upon. For example, just because you can lounge around in your pyjamas doesn’t mean you actually should. Take a shower and get dressed. Treat it like a real job.
If you don’t have a home office, do as much as you can to create a space exclusively for work.
Another good tip for WFH is constant and clear communication among employees. Calling a co-worker over the phone several times in a row might be frowned upon in an office context but is perfectly acceptable for teams switching to remote work. New communication norms can only emerge from experimentation, and experimentation means trial and error.
If you are not used to working from home, you will also need to redefine the relationship between your work and personal life. In order to limit conflicts and interruptions between the two, negotiate with your manager on a creative schedule that balances both responsibilities, for example, by alternating work and family responsibilities throughout the day.
If you don’t have a home office should refrain from working in areas that they typically use for relaxation, like a bed or the couch, as tempting as it may be.
According to some employees, a common mistake managers make is to compensate for lack of direct observation by closely monitoring and trying to micro manage how remote employees do their work.
“This strategy is doomed to fail because managers don’t know everything that’s going on in the lives of remote employees. For example, an employee might decide to work on a weekend to compensate for taking care of a sick child during the week. Employers should also learn to trust their employees,” says an employee who sought anonymity.
Be as it may, managers should also understand that we are all facing an unusual situation that was unforeseen. In as much as employee productivity is the main goal for every organization, bosses should also be understanding and considerate to their employees.