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The forced shift to teleworking amid COVID-19 has been a success for many businesses, such as Shopify and Twitter, which have recently implemented permanent work-from-home structures.

But maintaining business as usual is taking more time than we realize.

Aternity, a software company that produces analytics for employee usage of business applications such as Microsoft Word and Skype, has been tracking the productivity of remote workers since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s found that the time spent working has increased, but work output has not.

“Hours worked had gone up but volume of output had stayed the same,” says Mark Robinson, Aternity’s senior director of global strategic accounts. “Activity or productivity has dropped.”

Mr. Robinson and his team were able to track the output of tasks such as sending an e-mail or creating a spreadsheet against the total number of hours worked. Their findings have been released in their monthly Global Remote Work Productivity Tracker reports since March. While the overall time Canadians have spent working has increased by 10 per cent since the pandemic, the volume of business output has remained flat. The level of productivity, or output per hour, has dropped by 21 per cent.

“We probably all feel it,” says Mr. Robinson. “We're working harder, we're spending much more time in front of the computer.”

Michael Halinski, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, believes that the drop in productivity is related to a lack of resources, which lowers work engagement. Those resources could be as broad as having easy access to a teammate to ergonomic office equipment and even social activities such as team lunches.

“Traditionally, working in the office, employees had all the resources to engage in their work there,” Prof. Halinski explains. “They might have had a desktop that they would go to. They might have had their supervisor directly beside them.”

Businesses have structured their resources around employees working in-office. So the shift to remote work means making those resources available at home or virtually. Some companies have shipped ergonomic office equipment to employees at home or offered stipends for staff to purchase office furniture. Others are playing host to social events like “Quarantini Nights” to replace team activities like happy hours and keep staff socially engaged.

“Organizations that are able to easily transfer those resources home, I think their employees are gonna be doing well,” says Prof. Halinski. “I think those organizations, in general, are the ones that haven't been impacted too much by COVID.”

Another contributor to reduced productivity could be the increase in time spent accessing server applications remotely if they were initially designed for on-site use. Saving a large spreadsheet to a server could take minutes instead of seconds when done remotely, which can add up over the course of a workday.

Mike Marks, head of product marketing at Aternity, says industries such as finance and tech experience shorter wait times when using applications, compared to education and manufacturing. “Application performance varied by industry, based probably on the extent to which IT departments spend part of their budget on employee technology versus technology for consumers,” says Mr. Marks.

Aternity’s report also revealed that a significant number of employees shifted their working day by 30 minutes to an hour, starting later in the day and ending later in the day. Prof. Halinski believes that the shift could potentially be beneficial to productivity. “People would be happier sleeping in, so naturally they’d be more productive,” he says. However, businesses that rely more on real-time collaboration could see a decrease in productivity with less overlap in their team’s work hours.

While e-mails, instant messaging and phone calls do a decent job at replacing in-office interactions, the adaptation to communicating remotely can also affect productivity. “In the office, you’d be sitting in your cubicle, you’d look to your left and you can ask your colleague a question,” says Prof. Halinski. “Now you have to set up an appointment with somebody to speak with them.”

Prof. Halinski recommends supervisors schedule regular, brief check-ins with their team. “Even if there’s nothing to update, just have a quick five-minute touch point just to say how things are going, what you’re doing, what you might need help on moving forward,” he says.

Asking for employee feedback should be the first step for supervisors, according to Prof. Halinski. It’s something of which he thinks companies aren’t doing enough.

“I recommend managers actually survey their employees to figure out how engaged they are,” he says. “Ask them, ‘What do you need in order to work from home?’ Managers are afraid of asking because they’re afraid of receiving an answer and then needing to act on it. But by not asking, you’re accepting the state of the work that they’re performing.”

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