Can You Work at Home? The Power of Signaling Productivity to Your Boss

March 9, 2022

Can You Work At Home? The Power of Signaling Productivity to Your Boss

You’ve enjoyed the perks for a couple of years now. You can wear sweatpants, switch a load of laundry while on a meeting, and make yourself a delicious lunch in your kitchen. You can say “Hi” to the kids when they get home from school. You are happier, but are you more productive at work? 

There have been many estimates that have been publicized showing people who started working remotely were more productive. 

But here is an important question YOU need to be certain of, “Does my manager believe that I am more productive working remotely?” 

The change from working in an office with many other people to working remotely shifts perceptions of productivity by managers. When working in our office full of other colleagues, occasionally, you would have a task that you wanted an associate to work on. You would walk out of your office, see the associate feverishly working on something, and think to yourself, “They look very busy. I guess I will just do this myself.” Working remotely, occasionally, we send a colleague an email, do not get an instant reply, and wonder, “What are they doing?” One of the problems with working remotely is that your manager cannot see how hard you are working or understand the problems you encounter. 

To better understand managers’ perceptions on the productivity of their direct reports, my colleague Jack Zenger and I looked at ratings of 11,103 individual contributors on a skills assessment completed before the beginning of the pandemic. We compared that data to ratings from 1,094 individual contributors in the pandemic where the majority of employees were working remotely. 

Each manager rated team members on 59 behaviors that most effectively differentiated the highest from the lowest-performing individual contributors. 

We have seen a number of reports that productivity has increased in the pandemic but found that, in this case, the productivity ratings of managers were significantly lower. The pre-pandemic average rating was 50.54, and the pandemic rating was 47.51 (t-value 3.98, Sig. 0.000). 

At first, these results surprised us because of the number of reports we had read indicating productivity had increased for employees working remotely. But this rating is not productivity. It is the PERCEPTION of productivity by managers. 

Not every individual contributor was rated lower in the pandemic on productivity. 

The productivity rating had a range from 1 to 5. Looking at only data collected in the pandemic, we compared those given low ratings on productivity (e.g., 1, 2, or 3) to those with high ratings (e.g., 5) on the 59 behaviors in the assessment. The results demonstrated the behaviors that most effectively differentiated a team member that was perceived by their manager as being productive from those who were rated as unproductive. 

Signals of Productivity

  1. Willingness to push yourself and demonstrate high levels of effort. This willingness to STRETCH is an excellent signal of productivity. Often, working remotely is difficult because most managers don’t always remember every direct report’s responsibilities. Imagine a manager asking a direct report to do a task, and in response, the direct report gives the manager a list of other tasks needing to be done. Consider a different scenario where a manager gives a direct report a task to accomplish, and the direct report responds by saying, “I would be excited to do that, but can you help me understand the priority of this task alongside these other tasks on my to-do list.”Many people in the pandemic felt overwhelmed by work, health concerns, and family issues. It is difficult to think about stretching yourself when you are burned out. Getting the rest you need, having good health, and providing sufficient me-time are critical so that a person has the energy to stretch.
  2. Deliver on commitments. The direct reports willing to do everything possible to achieve goals were rated as more productive. Some people believe that delivering on commitments 90% of the time is good enough, but would you get on an airplane if the pilot could only land safely 90% of the time? Direct reports need to track their commitments carefully and if it looks like a commitment will not be met, give your manager a heads up.
  3. Be a role model and set a good example. Sometimes children get in mischief when they know their parents are out of sight. Working remotely allows people the freedom to do things they would never do in a crowded office. Some of these things are beneficial, but others are unhelpful distractions, and inevitably colleagues find out and start to believe they can do the same things. Be a role model. Act the same as you would in a crowded office.
  4. Share your expertise. Individual contributors rated as having high levels of expertise and knowledge got higher productivity ratings. Look for ways to share your knowledge and help develop the skills of others.
  5. Anticipate problems. Research shows that when people take the time to ask themselves the question, “What might happen in the future to derail this process or decision?” They frequently come up with several potential problems that are likely to occur.Anticipating problems allows you and others time to come up with solutions in advance, and any time you correctly anticipate problems, it makes you look brilliant.
  6. Look for problems to solve and things that need to be changed. Are you ever amazed about how long people will put up with poor processes that need to be changed? When speaking to my son a few years ago. He worked for our firm for several years in between finishing his bachelor’s and starting his MBA. I was surprised to hear him say, “Dad, there were a lot of problems in the firm.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me about the problems when you worked for us.” He said, “Well, I was just a low-level employee with no influence.” When my son said this to me, I realized many direct reports have that same impression. They keep their insights to themselves and wait for their leaders to suggest changes. Those employees who take the initiative to solve problems and suggest changes were seen as much more productive.

We surveyed a group in the middle of the pandemic and asked how many people wanted to return to the office. Only 7% of the employees wanted to go back to the office full-time. If you are one of those people that tried remote work, loved it, and want to continue, then you need to demonstrate to your manager that you are productive. Engaging in a few of the above list of behaviors will have a positive impact, and hopefully, you may be able to continue to work remotely.

—Joe Folkman
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(This article first appeared on Forbes)