“It’s good to be back…”
I have heard this quite a few times lately. Now, who would have thought that being in the office would be missed? And that we would want to be back to a physical, formal working space for 7-8 hours a day?
Presumably, this is not necessarily missing the office itself as much as it is missing normalcy and the routine that being in the office brings into daily schedules. Being in the office also means fewer virtual meetings a day, particularly internal ones, and therefore a lower risk of developing virtual meetings-fatigue at the end of a long virtual working day.
On a more serious note, there is the ability to bounce ideas off one another as individuals walk from one workstation to another, or as they grab coffee, which virtual hangouts and social distancing do limit.
All in, and after more than a month since being back to the office, it surely does feel good to be back - even with the new normal in place. As part of that, we have expanded and improved our internal work-from-home policy, or WFH, to be two days per week instead of one day per month.
The new WFH policy was introduced for two main reasons.
It did improve
One, performance, for whatever reason, improved significantly during lockdown and times spent at home. Tasks were getting completed ahead of scheduled deadlines, and the quality of work exceeded targets.
Not only that, there were actually a few surprises during lockdown, with individuals being transformed from office underperformers to “WFH over-performers”.
What we have clearly learnt from this is that attendance does not matter, not that it ever did, even when attendance is staggered, i.e. different start and finish times. The same applies to having to virtually clock-in and clock-out, which seems to be the latest innovation associated with COVID-19 and WFH.
Make it clear cut
Instead, the improved WFH policy is intended for the flexibility in working hours, which existed during lockdown to continue post -lockdown. While it is true that such flexibility has more or less eliminated the distinction between working and personal space, being back in the office, even if for three days a week, should re-establish that distinction.
Two, flexible working hours can only work if the right checks and balances are in place. Whether through an internal system, an Excel sheet, or through any of the numerous apps available to track down tasks’ completion rates, the focus must be on assigning tasks to individuals and holding them, along with heads of units, accountable.
Here, we introduced a quantitative system to score work for its quality so that the timely completion of an assigned task does not sacrifice the quality of the work being submitted. The system allotted higher points based on a quality metric that we developed and starting using internally.
The system, communicated during lockdown with a clear reward and penalty system, continues to date.
A better handle
The above allowed us to better assess performance, regardless of work location, which previously was not possible… except qualitatively and subjectively. As performance is not productivity, the focus now is to go beyond timely submissions to shortening the time it takes to complete various tasks.
Our aim is to improve time management skills with WFH, enabling individuals to work smarter, not harder.
To summarise, the new normal imposed by COVID-19 demands a more flexible approach to working hours. Clocking in and out, including virtually, should not matter as long as the work is getting done with the targeted quality.
WFH must be all about bouts of focused, timely work rather than extended working hours at home. Measuring quality against time taken would enable a close enough evaluation of productivity, which goes beyond the simplistic measure of performance.
The last thought that I want to leave you with: When will attendance become a thing of the past?
- Abdulnasser Alshaali is an economist.