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Boosting Job Performance When Working from Home: Four Key Strategies

Anita C. Keller, Caroline Knight, Sharon K. Parker

The outbreak of COVID-19 forced many companies to adopt remote work practices, including many who traditionally did not support flexible work arrangements. Several of these companies have now embraced remote working, claiming people’s productivity during this time means they will allow more flexibility in the future.

But are managers prepared for such a shift? Do organizations have in place what is needed for workers to be productive at home over the much longer haul? In our study of approximately 1,300 employees working from home, a clear majority of employees, report being about as productive now (33.7%), or even more productive (37.5%), than before COVID-19, with 28.8% indicating they are less productive. 

We investigated what sets high performing employees apart from employees who do not perceive they are performing well. In our analysis, we found four factors that stand out and help employees to perform more effectively when working at home1

1.    Support from the organization
2.    Support from coworkers
3.    Engaging in daily planning
4.    Taking leisure time to relax 

These four factors help us understand how to sustain effective working from home in the longer term.

Ensure workers are supported to work remotely 

Around two-thirds of participants in our study indicated that they received support from their organization to help them work from home. For example, some organizations provided additional equipment such as laptops, cameras, external screens; actively created opportunities for coworkers to meet informally; and allowed their employees the flexibility and autonomy to decide when and how they complete their work (see Figure 1). Somewhat fewer organizations (around 60%) provided training and guidance such as how to effectively use new software and technology.

chart of employees' perceived organizational support for remote work
 
Figure 1. Percentage of employees agreeing or disagreeing on statements about receiving additional organizational support to work from home.

Importantly, those employees who received additional training and guidance, equipment, easily accessible opportunities for interactions among coworkers, and autonomy were also the ones who reported performing more effectively, with poorer performers having less support for remote work arrangements. These organizational measures are worth the investment. First, they provide the practical support employees need to carry out their tasks. Second, they convey their commitment to, and care for, their workers, which further motivates employee effort

As the length of time people work from home extends, more support for workers may be needed, for example, to have an ergonomic workspace or to ease financial worries and help cover additional costs (e.g., internet connection). Managers should signal an open ear for such requests and employees should let their managers know what would help them be productive at this time.

Reach out to coworkers for daily support

In our analysis, coworker support was especially relevant for feeling productive. Coworker support means that people feel their colleagues are looking out for them, and are willing to provide assistance, advice, and even simply the opportunity to share experiences and stories. It can be easier to discuss the challenges of working from home with coworkers than with their supervisor, as employees often worry about their performance evaluation being compromised if they admit too many struggles to their supervisor.

This result underscores our finding above that employees perform better when their organizations create opportunities for them to easily and informally meet with each other. Managers are encouraged to create opportunities for their employees to exchange their challenges, solutions, and best practices with each other. Strategies could include organizing regular virtual coffee meetings or setting up a buddy system by teaming up every employee with another employee. 

Employees, too, can take actions to garner support from their colleagues, especially as the necessity to work from home extends. Reaching out to connect with coworkers that you have not seen for a while, inviting others to join a team project, or having a short informal conversation at the beginning of any team meeting are three simple ways that employees can build and maintain strong social support. 

Create daily to-do lists and schedules 

Working from home, often with no direct social contact with coworkers and often with high autonomy, makes it easy to dedicate too much time on less important tasks or to get distracted by hobbies, home chores, TV, or surfing the internet for some amusement. 

In our analysis, employees who reported planning most of their days reported higher job performance. Daily planning helps employees to keep their focus on the tasks at hand and not get sidetracked by distractions. For example, writing a to-do list for the day ahead, thinking about the most important goals and tasks, and scheduling work activities helps people to structure the day, and feel in control of time. Also important is to not make plans for every minute of the day but to add buffer times. During these buffer times, unplanned tasks can be handled which might be essential now, given the uncontrollable and unforeseeable situation many employees are currently confronted with.

Managers should encourage people to plan their days and ask team members to share with each other their tips for staying focused. Employees, meantime, can make use of time management strategies like the Pomodoro technique to maintain their performance.

Take time to relax and re-energize

It might sound paradoxical, but our analysis shows that taking time in the day to relax, to connect with loved ones, and to engage in hobbies helps employees to stay productive while working from home. It has long been recognized that it is important for employees to make sure they recover from work by mentally distancing themselves from job tasks and engaging in leisure activities. Such ‘recovery’ activities not only support employees in their dealing with stress, but also boost their performance when they return to work. During the pandemic, recovery is more important than ever. For many people, most life domains now take place at home, so the boundaries between private and professional life have blurred. It is too easy to continue working and not take time for oneself. 

Importantly, our study shows that simply ‘mentally’ distancing oneself from work—such as by trying not to think about job tasks after hours—is not enough for a performance boost. Only employees who actively took the time to relax and who engaged in enjoyable leisure activities also reported higher work performance.

Managers should encourage employees to take regular breaks, and not expect people to work constantly without time for recovery. Role modeling this behavior is also important. For employees, adhering to a work schedule and a to-do-list (as recommended above) will help to carve out time for leisure activities. We recommend building in regular and short rest breaks into the day, and then engaging in non-work activities in the evening.

The bottom line from our study is that we should not assume that working from home is automatically more—or less—productive; it can be either. The support people get from their organizations and co-workers, as well as their time management skills and strategies for breaks and relaxation – are what make the difference. 

More results on our “thrive at work from home” study can be found here. Please click here for evidence-based resources and tips on how to work effectively from home, including how to maintain employees’ work ‘mojo’ via the Pomodoro technique and how to build in rest breaks.

 

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To rule out alternative explanations, our analyses factored out age, the degree to which one’s tasks can be performed at home, underload, and caring responsibilities.

About the authors

Sharon Parker
Chief Investigator, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design
Sharon is a recipient of the ARC's Kathleen Fitzpatrick Award, and the 2016 Academy of Management OB Division Mentoring Award. Sharon is also a chief investigator in the ARC's Centre of Excellence in Population Aging Research (CEPAR) and leads the Organisations and the Mature Workforce research stream. Sharon's research focuses particularly on job and work design, and she is also interested in proactive behavior, change, well-being, development, and job performance. She has published more than 80 internationally refereed articles, including in top tier journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, and the Annual Review of Psychology.

Caroline Knight
Chief Investigator, Research Fellow, Centre for Transformative Work Design, Future of Work Institute, Curtin University
Caroline completed her PhD at the Institute of Work Psychology, The University of Sheffield, UK, in 2016. Her research interests surround work design, well-being, job crafting, and research methods. One of Caroline’s projects involves co-leading a large longitudinal study, Work Across Life and Careers (WALC), to investigate the changing nature of work and its impact on outcomes such as health, well-being, cognition, memory, and identity. She has published in a number of top-tier management journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Human Relations, the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, and the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Anita Keller
Co-Investigator, Assistant Professor, Organizational Psychology, University of Groningen
Anita received her PhD from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and did her postdoc at Michigan State University, United States. Her research focuses on work design and occupational health psychology and aims to shed light on how individuals’ work experiences interact with their behavior and well-being over time. Current projects investigate temporal patterns of self-regulation behavior at work and adaptation processes. Her work has been published in a number of top-tier outlets including the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and Journal of Organizational Behavior. 

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s Remote Work page.
 
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