Contrary to the fears of some business leaders, the shift to a remote working policy hasn’t led to widespread employee apathy.
Quite the opposite; research from Catalyst shows that access to remote work actually boosts productivity and prevents burnout, while also increasing innovation, engagement, inclusion, and organizational commitment.
Clearly, it’s a big plus for employees, with HR statistics showing that 35% of jobseekers would turn down an offer if the employer didn’t allow people to work remotely.
But that doesn’t mean remote working is a guaranteed win for employers.
If you’re going to maintain or increase work from home productivity, you need to measure performance against the right KPIs.
What makes a “good” KPI for productivity?
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are measures of your company’s efforts to hit defined goals.
As such, productivity-related KPIs are those that speak to the efficiency of your team and the effectiveness of the processes, systems, and tools it uses to deliver results.
Tracking those KPIs should help you to identify areas for improvement or a need for additional resources without the need to constantly micromanage each individual employee.
However, not all productivity KPIs are “good” KPIs. To be effective, they need to be specific.
For example, an HR professional’s performance might be assessed on the popularity of the company’s employee engagement initiatives.
But for that KPI to be meaningful, it requires some detail around how “popularity” will be measured. Is it assessed on attendance at virtual team building games? Responses to post-event questionnaires? Results from half-yearly or annual employee engagement surveys?
KPIs should also be SMART. That is:
So our imaginary HR pro might be given a KPI like:
Develop two new HR videos each in Q1 and Q2, and increase average viewing time of HR videos by 20% by the end of Q2
As a final point, when it comes to setting KPIs for productivity, less is more.
Better to focus on a small number of indicators that will have the biggest possible impact on your organization than to build a longer list of less meaningful KPIs.
5 top KPIs for productivity
Task completion time
As anyone responsible for hiring and managing remote teams will know, the switch to remote has had a massive impact on the way we do our jobs.
According to research from Buffer, collaboration and communication are the factors that have changed the most since moving to remote working.
This makes sense. For many of us, all conversations moved online overnight, meaning we could no longer rely on tried-and-trusted communications channels like formal in-person meetings or informal discussions at a colleague’s desk.
Given that Buffer’s survey also found 82% of employees felt the transition to remote work was “smooth”, it’s likely that a lot of companies already had various collaboration tools — like Slack for communication or Trello for project management — in place before the switch took place.
However, many tasks are reliant on effective communication and collaboration, so it’s essential to ensure those tasks are being performed as efficiently as when everyone was in the office.
After all, we’re no longer in an age where people managers can simply look over at their team members to see what they’re working on at any given time.
It’s also worth noting that employees have had to adapt to life away from the focused environment of a dedicated workplace, forcing them to contend with the myriad distractions of a home office.
Clearly, people managers don’t want team members leaving tasks to the last possible minute or delivering low-quality work. Likewise, they can’t afford for employees to spend too long on each task.
An easy and effective way to measure task completion time is to calculate the number of tasks an employee completes in a given period of time.
The list of tasks will naturally vary from one role to another, but could include things like sending emails, resolving client issues, or creating marketing assets.
Remote working isn’t an excuse for being uncommunicative. Colleagues, clients, and managers still need employees to respond to queries and collaborate effectively.
Unfortunately, respondents cited “difficulty with collaboration and communication” as one of the biggest struggles of remote working in Buffer’s survey. The issue was especially prominent among workers who only switched to remote working during the pandemic.
Measuring response times can help you establish how well individual employees are communicating, which in turn speaks to their ability to cope with the time management demands of remote working. Specifically, look at how long it takes them to respond to Slack messages, emails, or client calls.
Another approach is to regularly ask clients how long it took them to receive a response to their latest query, or how happy they are with the speed of communications.
Alternatively, ask colleagues to provide anonymous feedback on the timeliness and quality of communications from their co-workers to help you identify people in need of further training or support.
As a final point here, remote working and flexible hours often go hand in hand. That means not every employee will be available at the same time.
It’s important to set realistic expectations here — employees shouldn’t feel they have to respond to out-of-hours requests from clients or managers. But if it regularly takes employees too much time to respond to colleagues or customers, that’s a big issue that will end up harming your productivity.
It’s not just important to track the performance of your employees, but also that of the remote working tools they rely on to do the job.
For example, they might need to use data-intensive graphic design or development tools, which can be challenging when using a laptop and a home broadband connection.
This KPI could involve measuring a specific data point like application uptime, or it could simply be about surveying your remote workers to understand if there are specific tasks they’re struggling to perform from home.
If they’re regularly spending chunks of time waiting for a spreadsheet to load or an application to update, that’s hurting your productivity.
You might need to find more remote-friendly alternatives to existing processes, or schedule them to spend more time in the office. You may even need to upgrade their hardware or find less demanding tools.
In some cases, the same pandemic forces that started the work-from-home revolution may also be changing your business or your industry. For example, developing AI technology or big data resources may be necessary to allow your workforce to handle overwhelming volume or tap into vast amounts of information. In these cases, KPIs won’t apply to just your sales or service staff, but also to your technology department and outside development vendors.
Simply performing the basics of a job isn't good enough.
If your productivity is going to improve over time, your employees need to develop new skills and learn new systems of working. That starts with an employee development plan.
At this point, remote work hasn’t been part of our lives for long enough to fully understand its impact on learning and development.
However, early evidence suggests that acquiring new skills may be more challenging in remote environments.
For instance, one research project spoke to students undertaking paid nine to 12-month internships, most of whom had spent the majority of their time working remotely. Several of those interviewed feared that being away from the office meant they were missing out on chances to “learn through osmosis”.
What’s more, while it’s perfectly possible to remotely train employees on how to carry out new tasks, they may struggle to retain this information — thereby impacting productivity.
One way to measure employee development and knowledge retention in remote workers is to identify tasks that rely on using recently acquired skills. Are employees using those skills confidently and effectively? If not, it might be time for some additional training.
Also, get into the habit of asking your employees. Most will be eager to discuss development opportunities, and will be well aware of areas in which they need more training or support.
Encourage this by having honest conversations about knowledge gaps, discussing the matter with empathy rather than using critical language.
To be productive, employees must be able to complete tasks efficiently.
However, we’ve all had days when we spend twice as long as usual completing a specific task. The longer our working hours and the less downtime we have, the more likely we are to suffer from these slumps in productivity.
These issues are an even bigger problem when working remotely. Buffer’s research found that 45% of employees say they’re working more since shifting to remote, while just 13% are working less.
So it’s no surprise that “staying motivated” and “not being able to unplug” were cited as two of the biggest struggles of remote work.
Working long hours and feeling disengaged will naturally hinder productivity and will ultimately prompt employees to start looking for new jobs.
To make matters worse, replacing leavers will further hurt productivity, as it takes time for replacements to get up to speed.
As such, it makes sense to track your employee turnover rate as a measure of productivity by measuring how many employees leave in a set period of time (typically a year) and dividing that amount by your total headcount.
Add context by weighing this figure against benchmarks from your industry and analyzing your KPIs on task completion and response times.
This will help you identify your most productive employees, meaning you can take action before they start feeling burned out and begin looking for a new job.
Wrapping it all up
You might think the switch to remote working has been simple.
Productivity might have stayed the same or even increased over the past couple years.
But as we finally emerge from the pandemic, we’re only beginning to learn the true consequences of being away from the office long-term.
As Zoom fatigue and other new phenomena become increasingly prevalent, managers will need to take steps to keep driving productivity.
Making smart productivity-related decisions relies on having access to the necessary data — and you’ll only get that if you track the right KPIs.