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Science-Backed Strategies for Boosting 
Productivity in a Remote Workforce

A Guide to the Future of Productivity Online

By Daniel Lehewych 

According to a publication in the journal Technology in Society, the worldwide public reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to remote work becoming as commonplace as traditional in-person work for employees. The availability of various work modalities has emerged as a significant aspect in this shift. In particular, according to Gallup, upwards of 70+ million Americans can now do their job remotely, and only 20% of “remote-capable employees” are working full-time in-person. From a scientific perspective, the effects of such trends are promising, with the condition that remote work environments are appropriately managed by employees and managers alike. As stated by professor of organizational behavior at William & Mary, Jeanne Wilson, Ph.D., to the American Psychological Association, “Often, managers use busyness, working late, or other [traditional] proxies to infer that an employee is effective; in a remote work situation, managers must rely more heavily on results. That’s a hard transition for a lot of people to make.”As the Harvard Business Review reported, managers are more likely to view remote work as harmful to productivity. In contrast, employees are more likely to view it as a vital source of improving productivity. Remote work is here to stay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of employees doing remote work is only slated to increase over the next ten years. Managers and employees must learn to cooperate in a way that cultivates a symbiotic relationship, enabling them to adapt to different work arrangements and derive optimal advantages. Without such collaboration, the full potential of remote work will not be fully realized and its benefits may be limited. Here are some science-backed strategies for boosting productivity in a remote workforce:

Remote workers must discipline themselves to figure out a routine or schedule that permits them to meet work deadlines. This will vary from worker to worker. Additionally, the nature of such deadlines should be negotiated in advance so that workers can adjust their routines accordingly. As stated in the journal, Organizational Dynamics, employees find remote work palatable because it gives them a strong sense of flexibility and control over their lives. Therefore, attempts from employers to determine how employees spend their time remotely are “ill-advised.” For example, remote work provides parents with the opportunity to balance work and childcare responsibilities more effectively. However, this flexibility can only be fully realized if management does not require employees to be constantly available or “on-call.” Imposing such a high level of control on employees who are constantly on call not only adversely affects their well-being but also diminishes their productivity. Trust That Workers Will Work. The pathway to this requires establishing trust between employees and managers – which, in practice, means allowing workers the space and time to complete work projects without interruption. One obstacle to achieving this goal is the common misconception among managers regarding the urgency of tasks. They often perceive most tasks, including emails and unnecessarily lengthy meetings, as highly time-sensitive and crucial. As Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport, Ph.D., states in his landmark book on human productivity, Deep Work, managers tend to give too much credence to “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. As a result, these efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Instead, Newport recommends that 
managers give more weight to “deep work” or “professional activities performed in a distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Deep work occurs within the realm of what psychologists refer to as “flow states,” characterized by focused concentration and high productivity. The value of these flow states lies in the production of high-quality work that directly contributes to the success of projects and overall organizational performance. However, the benefits of such flow states are undermined when they are disrupted by irrelevant distractions, like emails. Unfortunately, employers often artificially inflate the urgency of emails through mismanagement practices, impeding the potential for deep work and its positive impact on the bottom. In other words, much of employers’ mistrust of remote work results from misperceptions because of flawed priorities regarding work tasks. 

As further suggested by Organizational Dynamics, employers have a duty to their employees to ensure that they feel accommodated – that they have the flexibility to create the most amount of value while conducting deep work on projects that concern company bottom lines:“This could include providing funds to set up a proper home office, computing equipment, and separate communications devices for work and personal lives. Boundaries between work and home are critical. Our results suggest that while increased productivity is associated with greater intensity of work, productivity, meaning, stress, and health are all enhanced by a separation between work and activities that constitute life outside of work.” Establishing open communication channels to accommodate individual workers’ needs through diverse work flexibility options is a crucial step in the right direction. Employers should wholeheartedly embrace and support boundaries that allow workers to attend to personal responsibilities, such as picking up their children or completing college coursework, as long as the core projects they deliver maintain a high standard of quality. Recognizing the positive impact of these boundaries on worker well-being and productivity, employers should actively assist workers in establishing and maintaining such boundaries. In doing so, employers can foster a work environment that prioritizes work-life balance and empowers employees to achieve their best while fulfilling their personal obligations

Often, managers use busyness, working late, or other [traditional] proxies to infer 
that an employee is effective; in a remote work situation, managers must rely more 
heavily on results. That’s a hard transition for a lot of people to make.

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