Remote working: 7 productivity challenges and hands-on solutions

Does productivity drop when people work from home? No. Multiple studies show that productivity has not significantly dropped since early 2020. However, it’s also true that for most people staying productive when working from home is a challenge.

Certainly, there are some factors impacting work from home productivity that are hard or even impossible to change. Among others, these factors include the nature of an activity (e.g. creative/ collaborative vs. focused work) or the home office set-up.

However, there are also challenges where both, employees and employers, can take actions to boost productivity. In our discussions with HR experts, we identified seven key productivity challenges and different approaches to overcome them.

1. Lack of visibility

When working from home, employees perceive a lack of visibility resulting in an urge to project the appearance of productivity. Unfortunately, this often leads to a “do, don’t think” mentality resulting in working on tasks that are more immediate instead of more important. While this might not impact productivity in the short term, it certainly does in the long term.

Potential solutions
Implement collaboration tools. Software such as Trello, Asana, or Airtable helps to establish visibility on what team members are doing without the need for constant back-and-forth communication.

Send “end-of-the-week” update emails. Providing your superior with a short update on what topics you are currently working on not only ensures visibility but also helps to self-organize and recognize progress for yourself.

2. Drowning in communication

Who has not been constantly receiving emails and messages over the past months? While it is natural that without in-person interactions the usage of other communication channels increases, the magnitude over the past months is astonishing and each message means a distraction to the receiver, which kills productivity.

Potential solutions
Establish clear communication protocolsA simple way to reduce distractions through messaging is to have clear guidelines on what communication runs through which channels – e.g. important messages via email vs. less important via instant messaging apps. This way, for example, people can switch off Slack notifications and get only distracted if something important required their attention.

3. Distractions

Pets, children, your partner, or social media – the list of potential distractions when working from home is long and keeps many from having longer periods of focused work.

Potential solutions
Establish home office rules. Working from home is a new situation not only for workers but also their surroundings – especially their families. Clear rules and signs on when others can/ cannot “disturb” and responsibilities regarding children and pets must be discussed and aligned.

Turn off notifications and track usage. With no “office pressure” to not check social media and a lack of interpersonal connections, people tend to spend more time on social media when working from home. This keeps people from staying focused on what they should be doing.

4. Responsibility vs. authority

Splitting responsibility and the authority to make decisions is common, especially in larger organizations. Unfortunately, when people are no longer sitting in the same office and approval requests easily get lost in email inboxes, such separation can negatively impact productivity and all too often result in idle time.

Potential solutions
Align responsibility with authority to make decisions. Managers must be willing to give authority to their teams. Surely, this does only work up to a certain point. Nonetheless, in many corporates, there is a large potential to reduce the number of decision layers while increasing the span of control.

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5. Missing equipment

Would Roger Federer be one of the best tennis players in history if he had to play with a frying pan? Maybe. Regardless, the point is: Without the right equipment, it is hard to perform at your best. So far, most companies focused their home office equipment support on essentials but only very few provided e.g. height-adjustable desk to foster ergonomic working and prevent back problems.

Potential solutions
Provide IT infrastructure and software. To allow teams to collaborate in remote settings, companies must ensure that employees have secure access to all data and tools they need for their work.

Provide hardwareWhile working from a kitchen table is okay for a few days, it is not for the long term. To avoid back pain and other negative impacts on health, companies must consider ways to equip employees with height-adjustable desks and other equipment.

6. Not enough breaks

With back-to-back meetings and no colleagues around to ask for a quick coffee break, taking breaks often falls short in home office settings. However, research clearly indicates that taking breaks is important to deal with stress and improve performance.

Potential solutions
Schedule (healthy) breaks
. Scheduling regular breaks and having them in your calendar serves not only as a good reminder but also keeps others from “stealing” your breaks by sending meeting invites for your break times. To maximize the positive impact of breaks, use them for a 10-minute walk or a short yoga session – whatever helps to switch off and get the circulation going.

7. Mental health challenges

Mental well-being is a prerequisite for productivity and maintaining good mental health in remote work settings is a great challenge. In our recent article “Remote working: 5 mental health challenges and hands-on solutions” we extensively discuss what employees and employers can do to promote mental well-being.

Summarizing our finding, staying productive when working from home is anything but impossible. Nonetheless, there are some challenges which employers and employees should be aware of and take related measures. What does your company do to promote productivity for people working from home? We are looking forward to your thoughts and inputs!