The increase of flexible working brought about by Covid-19 has changed our professional routines, probably for good.

As uncertainty remains a perpetual feature of our current world of work, maintaining productivity levels among remote employees continues to be an enduring challenge.

A recent PwC Ireland survey of finance leaders found nearly half (44pc) were concerned about the effects of Covid-19 on workforce productivity at the start of lockdown.

By June, this figure had dropped to just 28pc.

It also revealed 78pc of respondents confirmed that greater remote working and work flexibility will be in their future plans.

Anecdotally, we can see organizations that have invested in digital transformation - both in terms of technology and the skills of their workforce - are navigating this much more effectively.

However, PwC research shows also there is a gap between the digital skills people have and those needed to work in the digital world.

And more recent research, conducted by PwC US, suggests productivity has been propped up by a cohort of super-achievers, which has disguised a fall in productivity among the rest.

These super-achievers have worked harder and longer than before in the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic - perhaps because they have benefited from fewer distractions or have fed off the adrenaline of the crisis.

The rest of the workforce have found things more difficult; remote working doesn't suit everyone, for practical or emotional reasons (childminding/sick relatives) or a combination of the two.

This breeds stress and fatigue, which present risks to engagement, performance, and mental health.

Many have felt "video-conferenced out" from time to time. The challenge for leaders is to find ways to address and support performance across the board because they cannot rely on super-achievers to keep making up the shortfall for much longer.

Here are five key points for businesses and leaders to bear in mind when developing ways to make remote working success and sustain performance and engagement.

 

Define the right set of KPIs

Effective performance management of remote workers calls for holistic indicators; key performance indicators (KPIs) aren't simply a matter of sales calls made or process steps completed. Business KPIs that track productivity (in terms of output) and effectiveness are important to drive focus and accountability within the team.

Well-being and collaboration KPIs should be added too, aiming to assess mood levels, "happiness factor" and so on. The right suite of KPIs can help predict productivity and importantly, provide early warnings when people are feeling strained.

 

Create a connected team

Regular meetings help maintain a connected team and a sense of community, even when people are working remotely. In fact, our data suggests remote workers seek out opportunities to connect - we observed a rise in collaborative activity of more than 20pc in the weeks following lockdown.

Frequent touch points create opportunities to discuss performance, well-being, priorities, and any issues at hand, as well as to celebrate successes.

 

Develop the role of leaders

Leading a remote team requires a strong emphasis on specific leadership skills -such as empathy, the ability to foster a sense of community, and the employment of digital skills that maximize the use of technology. Team leaders may need specific coaching to successfully manage under-performers; for example, it's far more challenging to hold a difficult conversation remotely.

Some leadership skills in a remote environment are more esoteric but no less important. Remote workers need to feel a sense of empowerment in order to give their best, for instance. Leaders will need to create an environment in which teams take ownership of their work and of their preferred working style when they are away from the office.

Organizations will also need to adapt their leadership development strategy in order to create leaders who can bring out the best among their remote teams.

 

Build-in positive recognition

Regular recognition not only helps maintain a positive working culture but is also an important driver of productivity. Recognition becomes even more important in a remote environment; managers don't have access to physical and verbal clues they might pick up on in the office, and fewer "watercooler" opportunities to give on-the-spot acknowledgment.

Leaders should identify fresh occasions to express recognition, tailored to individuals in meaningful and genuine ways.

 

Use structure to deflect distractions

Even before lockdown, our data suggested that as much as 30pc of a team's time was spent on non-value adding activities.

There is a risk this could increase in a new hybrid work environment as a result of home distractions, childcare, and the tendency of some to feel burned out after a long day of virtual conference calls.

Building clear structure into team schedules - such as short daily catch-ups, focused time for specific activities, and breaks - helps support the focus of a dispersed team.

The hybrid working model is likely to be a new reality, and people will have to adjust as new working habits emerge.

The winners in this new virtual world will be those organizations that successfully navigate the specific challenges of managing remote teams.

The variation in productivity levels during lockdown suggests current performance levels are unsustainable because they rely on super-achievers pulling up the average.

However, the five points outlined will help organizations and their leaders maintain and improve productivity and engagement levels for everyone as we move into this new world of work.

Ciara Fallon is Director, PwC People, and Organisation