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Using Measurement to Optimise Remote Work

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Dave Longman, an account manager with UK software firm HeadForwards, recently published an article titled Working from Home and its Impact on Productivity. Longman challenged the traditional bias towards co-location by measuring the flow of stories by teams working remotely over lockdown. His findings indicate that the velocity before and during lockdown was not too dissimilar. Michael Schrage of MIT’s Sloan School of Management also recently wrote about how newly remote organisations are optimising pandemic performance by using a broader range of data-driven insights.

Schrage wrote of the importance of measurement for organisations seeking to remain performant during the pandemic. He wrote that "pulse surveys monitoring employee engagement and morale increased from fortnightly to every few days." Schrage explained that effective managers are "tracking what‚ and who delivers value well." He wrote:

Stressed, separated, and challenged to do better with less, people need greater insight into how they’re doing. Productivity now demands more aggressive and actionable measures.

Longman wrote that Headforwards, like other Agile organisations, had always co-located its teams "to make the most of team collaboration." He wrote that it can be "quite a change for an Agile company to experience working in a completely different way." Following mandatory lock-down, he saw that teams appeared to remain effective despite the "lack of face to face communication." Longman observed the need for a data-backed explanation:

Teams had adapted to the new working practices, communication was very good, and our feeling was that we were delivering at least as much as before lockdown...But could we prove it? Could we use the data we have to measure our productivity and use that as an ongoing indicator of our performance?

Citrix’s Remote Works Podcast recently interviewed Laura Giurge, a post-doctoral researcher at London Business School and Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre. Giurge explained that the pandemic has created a "big experiment of working from home." She explained that its findings were challenging the traditional assumption that productivity is measured in hours worked, rather than the impact of an employee’s output. Giurge explained that this required a change in mindset and was particularly challenging for traditional managers:

It is really hard for managers, if you are really used to seeing your employees in the office and all of a sudden you’re not. It’s very difficult. But if you start from a mindset of experimentation and understanding there are better ways for experimenting with new ways of working and seeing what works, then you are likely to get your employees to work better and also be happier.

Longman wrote that he "calculated the average number of stories" completed "during 2019 and used this as a comparison with 2020 data." By examining trends by month and by quarter he wrote that "both views suggested that the work completed during lockdown was within ... expected levels of volatility." Longman noted that "the difference is very small" and was able to describe volatility based on other known patterns. He wrote of how this rapid reporting had provided confidence in the impact of remote work:

...using Power BI and data already within our backlog management system, we quickly created a report that gave us confidence that the very different working arrangements during Q2 2020 have not had a significant impact on our delivery.

Longman's visualisation of stories completed  by quarter

Schrage wrote of an emergence of "post-pandemic dashboards" which make use of both "affective metrics" and "effective ones." He wrote that organisations are increasingly "monitoring and measuring morale" as well as other performance indicators using "hard numbers." Schrage wrote that "recalibrating key performance indicators" is "essential to ensuring that remote work actually works." He explained the importance of visually surfacing this data to everyone:

That means that leading companies must renovate their data-driven dashboards to better inspire people and project teams and promote positive outcomes. They must automatically capture and analyze, and explicitly communicate, their high-performance criteria. The most important takeaway: High-performance management depends on high-performance measurement.

Schrage wrote of how a "senior global research project manager at Adobe" shared a "personalized end-of-day dashboard" with his teams. This contained metrics and visualisations around "how he spent his time, whom he contacted, messages sent and received, documents exchanged, appointments scheduled, commitments made, and to-do list." Schrage reported that this "dashboard transparency" had "sparked cross-functional exchanges he’d never had before."

Giurge described how respect for the use of effective time management has matured through the pandemic. She commented on how there had been been a "tendency to do a lot of virtual chats, meetings and getting together online." Giurge explained that this "ended-up being more overwhelming for employees and undermining their well-being." InfoQ recently reported on a Microsoft Research study which revealed the presence of remote meeting fatigue during the early pandemic. Giruge explained that remote workers are starting to address this through being "intentional" with how to structure their days most effectively. She describes this as creating "pro-time" or "proactive time."

Longman wrote of Headforward's desire to enable permanent "remote working options" without losing "the collaborative benefits of office working." He suggests "a mix of working environments, building on the respective benefits of both." Similarly, Giruge discussed the need to recognise that the office’s primary value is in "connecting" people. She said:

If you are trying to think of remote work as office work without being at the office, you’re really missing out on the benefits of remote work. We can look at the value of the office as a space to connect with your colleagues and that’s it. Consider remote working as where you do your deep work or "pro-time" work.

Scharge wrote of the importance of continuing to take a measurable and data-driven approach to all aspects of delivery in the current climate:

Correlating and connecting instrumented workflows with KPIs lets organizations turn the "remoteness from COVID-19"-imposed bug into a high-performance-enabling feature.

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