Innovation and Productivity with a Remote Workforce

Judy Slutsky is Goldbeck Recruiting’s Certified Professional Human Resources consultant. In a recent interview, she shared a wealth of information with us pertaining to the business environment during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Specifically she discussed:

  •     Adjusting to the New Business Climate and Restructuring the Workforce
  •     Productivity and Innovation During This Time of Change
  •     Adjusting to Working Remotely

Adjusting to the New Business Climate and Restructuring the Workforce

Goldbeck: If you consider the general principles of performance management, how do you think they’re changing, especially for people that have never worked in a remote environment before?

Judy Slutsky: As you know, we’re redefining productivity in the workplace. All businesses are experiencing some impact due to COVID and many with a potential slowdown in sales and operations, so strategic goals around business growth are changing. Strategic goals are focused on maintaining or reducing costs as well as on the opportunities for generating new business. Businesses are reframing their brands now by asking: how can we stay somewhat buoyant over this period of time? 

GB: So it’s a matter of sitting down and setting some new specific goals?

JS: Yes. Set new fiscal goals, new financial goals, immediately. It’s strategizing with your key thought-leaders (stakeholders) and key internal managers to plan and say, ‘what are our new strategic goals; who do we need to plan and execute them? Who will remain employed? Who can work remotely? Who do we have to lay off? Who do we have to put into the EI system, with a potential work share program to keep them? Who do we have to terminate?’ These new strategic goals will help define what kind of a workforce you keep. 

And the caution here is not to have a quick, knee-jerk reaction about those decisions. It’s really taking a few thoughtful breaths with some of your key decision makers internally and asking the hard questions like, ‘What value can we have as a business, what can we do over this period of time?’ Businesses are looking out to at least six months. What do we have to do in six months to stay in business, stay buoyant and keep our thought leaders employed? Those are big decisions to make before you decide who’s working remotely and what they do. Strategic planning is needed now more than ever.

GB: We’re two weeks into physical distancing, many people have been working remotely for at least a week; are these the meetings that should be happening right away?

JS: Correct. I think there was an initial knee jerk reaction from businesses impacted by COVID as soon as they saw a slowdown in their product sales or services.

The government recognizes that businesses who already made decisions about employee layoffs can bring them back to a full time status by using one of the financial relief programs for business called the Federal Government Work Share program. 

Now that a new workplace is kind of settling in –  we see that the slowdown looks to be a minimum to June 2020, and possibly to the end of the year.  Business must consider what kind of employee involvement they need to maintain some presence in the marketplace. So, if business originally had a knee jerk reaction to COVID – 19, I think they’re now considering it more clearly. 

GB: As an external HR consultant, in what areas are people turning to you for help?

JS: I am most helpful to business now by helping business leaders analyze and organize their workforce. It’s “big picture” thinking on what to do with employees. Which employees do we need now to help with either current business or innovation? Which employees do we want to put on some kind of interrupted work so that we can get them back? Which employees must we terminate? I’m helping leaders and managers sort through their employee list and decide on the action they want to take, help with the correct language and terms on notice letters and the process to enact their decisions.

Employment legislation is not thrown out of the window now – employers still have an obligation to follow the legislation and provide notice on any change in employment terms and conditions. 

As an HR consultant, my main focus now is on employee relations, which includes identifying what kind of temporary or permanent work leave can be applied, where work share agreements can be used and where employee reduced hours can be put in effect.

When we put employees into the EI system, we want to ensure they can benefit from the programs in place.

Productivity and Innovation During This Time of Change

HR consultant Judy Slutsky shares insight on managing a remote workforce, restructuring business plans and improving productivity and innovation. 

GB: How can businesses utilize this period productively?

JS:  I think businesses should focus on shorter term goals, whether It’s three to six month goals, to define value-added and meaningful work for their business. And that’s an important distinction, because some of the value-added work will be to maintain any semblance of the business you have currently have.  Shorter term work will focus on customer relationships, checking in to see how they are doing and what their workforce now looks like, and then planning for the near future (6-9 months). Showing empathy to others now is a high priority. Some of the meaningful work will be around the special projects that people have not ever been able to get to, researching and exploring innovative ideas and opportunities. Employees who possess skills in research, data analysis, technical skills, strategic planning and project management will be of high value for employers. 

I would ask your employees: ‘What are the projects that you have on your list that you have not had a chance to get to? What are the value-added projects that we reasonably could do in the next three to six months?’ Leadership and management tend to decide what is value-adding work, but I would start with the employees. They know the projects that have been sitting on the sidelines for a long time and they will bring them forward. 

Interestingly enough, because of physical distancing and because of the way the workplace has changed, there is more time for reflection now. When people learn something new, the next step in actually “getting it” is reflecting upon it. It’s that reflection time that people tend not to have in their workplace. They’re distracted by phone calls, emails, in-person walk-ins and meetings. Coming out of reflection is innovation.  Bill Gates has been really present on most of the media outlets, talking about innovation in this period of time. And I would say that managers should have those conversations with employees; start to harness those innovative ideas that will come up as a result of working remotely. Now is the perfect opportunity to get rid of waste, achieve greater efficiencies in the jobs many people hold.

GB: Once people have set their goals, and communicated with staff, how are we actually holding them to account on these new requirements?

JS: Traditionally how you hold people accountable is through key performance indicators, these little mini goals at the end of each task. I would say in this new world, accountability should be to develop these key performance indicators and describe what success looks like. Things that we don’t often see are things like ‘research and gain new knowledge’. Right now many companies are paying for and engaging their employees to take online training to increase their knowledge. So that could be a key performance indicator. Success could look like ‘researching and gaining new knowledge that someday could be applied to your job’.

Another one could be on innovative ideas. One of the outcomes of that is to identify new ways of doing business. Lean technology is about reducing waste and increasing value. So we could ask people to look at their processes in place to identify where there are wasted steps, processes and information, then cut out those steps and identify new steps that add value. 

We can all only imagine what the new world might look like after COVID, so it’s a bit of projecting what value might be. But that’s innovation. The people that you keep in your company, they’re the people that you trust the most, that you need the most to rebuild your business. You want those innovative ideas put on paper. 

GB: So appreciating that innovation is “speculation” to an extent, you’re not solving really obvious problems, you’re saying this is the way things might be going and this is the way we believe that we’ll be most efficient with some changes?

JS: Right, let me rephrase, because that’s a good point. There’s innovative ideas being generated now as it relates to existing business processes, because some people are still in business now.  At the same time proactive businesses who have the capacity to move in a different direction are looking at innovative ways of conducting business in this new world now: remote work, social distancing, essential services.

Some businesses like Amazon and Walmart are still hiring people, to fulfill the need to provide essential services.  On-line product sales and those brick and mortar businesses who can offer delivery of their products are also becoming more valuable to the consumer. We all see images of customers lined up around the block to purchase food and other essential services. Consumer demand has literally changed overnight.

GB: It’s interesting how much they’ve been actually managing those line ups. They’ve had custom print jobs being done. They’ve already rolled out a series of properly designed and printed and installed signage. Costco had a woman walking around telling people that were too close together to move. That was her whole job, obviously.

JS: That’s a great example of a new job position that we are likely to see more in workplaces. So that, to me, is innovation. I think in terms of going back to your original question of what productivity looks like. For this newly established position of a “social distancing associate”, if you were to write a KPI, it would be ‘the number of people that were approached to maintain the required physical distance while in our business’. I think that we’re redefining productivity in today’s work environment. 

That should be a conversation that managers have with employees in every position. How has the workplace changed, what are we trying to accomplish, how does your job fit into this new workplace and what does your productivity look like? Things are changing rapidly. We have rapidly changing plans impacting a change in productivity measures.  People who can embrace change are best suited to succeed in this emerging new workplace.

Many of us establish our professional worth by the goals we achieve. So managers need to continue having those conversations with their remote workforce. What does productivity look like? If you can’t quantify your productivity and worth then describe the outcome. What does success look like? Because people can relate to describing what success to them looks like.

You don’t see each other, but you need some communication document to work with each other. I think that that’s a very important tool to keep people on the same page and motivated to work with each other.

Adjusting to Working Remotely

HR consultant Judy Slutsky shares insight on managing a remote workforce, restructuring business plans and improving productivity and innovation. 

GB: Do you think people overall are doing a good job of moving to remote work?

JS: My words of wisdom here are about empowering people, managers and employers to move in a new direction. It is a new manager-employee relationship when people work remotely. It’s about checking in with each other and using various tools to maintain that connectivity. One tool to maintain connectivity and productivity is establish a remote work policies, to describe the expectations the business has on it’s employees working from remote locations. Regular communication with your manager and team is another helpful tip that can be easily done through many audio/video technology (Zoom, Microsoft teams, Facetime)

Another tip in adjusting to remote work includes scheduling break times, getting fresh air, maintaining your physical wellbeing through exercise and good eating habits.

GB: How do you go about broaching that subject with an employee?

JS: Some of the remote work guidelines include working with each employee to set up a remote workstation in their home. It’s important for people to find a quiet space in their own home where they can concentrate on work. That’s difficult for parents with young children and for those who live with other people. It’s important to have the conversation with others in your home about maintaining a quiet space for those working remotely. We have people setting up workstations in their bedrooms, in their kitchens, in their basements.

The second thing is, as an HR person, I’m encouraging people to get outside and get fresh air, to practice physical distancing. Don’t sit at your computer for eight hours. Regular breaks are critical to maintain any kind of productivity while you’re working in your bedroom or in your basement. 

The message to take good care of oneself physically and mentally (so as not to suffer from depression or alienation) during this time could be a message from the leadership. Companies and human resources are now focused on the messaging for employees to really look at their whole physical and mental health while they work at home. 

If your business has established regular video meetings, then I think this is a positive step in helping remote workers stay focused. Seeing people is different than talking to people. 

GB: How well do you think that the workforce is adjusting in general? If you were giving a scorecard, do you think everyone is doing a pretty good job at this?

JS: I would say that managers are struggling more than employees. With managers, it’s a higher learning curve. The traditional definition of managing people is not managing a remote workforce. Most brick and mortar businesses want to see their people, want to discuss things in person. I think employees are embracing the balance between work and personal life and I think they’re adjusting better.

I also think when COVID starts to change and people are called back, that workplaces will have to deal with employees that are going to want to continue to work remotely. That will be a new employee relations issue that I think we’ll have to deal with. 

GB: And it’s going to be hard to argue with that if they were performing well.

JS: Yes, exactly. So I think that managers are learning. They’re having to use different skills now to stay in touch and to prove to their superiors that they can manage productivity from a remote workplace, because their jobs – everyone’s jobs – are on the line right now. And I think employees are embracing the idea of balancing work and personal life.  Many employees over the years have said ‘Can we balance remote work with office work?’ I think it’s a learning curve for all of us, but I think that when we fully embrace this, we will see good productivity with remote work. For businesses, managers and employees, it’s an opportunity to embrace this new workplace. Use your innovation to come up with new ways to be productive and new ways of doing business. Put those strategic plans together now. 

GB: We’re all trying to continue as normal, but we have some variables we’re all dealing with. We’re trying to keep people positive and excited about trying to find ways to live well in the current environment.

JS: Yes. And living well. The lines between work and personal life are now even more grey. So I think it’s redefining how you live your life in terms of remote work, personal space and keeping yourself healthy, and all of that is now an issue for companies. In HR I would never talk to people about who’s at home and what distractions you have or whether everybody is safe and healthy, but for people who are quarantined, either because they’ve been asked to or they’re caring for somebody who’s sick, that’s part of what HR needs to help manage.