How to Improve Employee Productivity in a WFH World

Fun fact of the day: employees who perceive themselves to be productive at work experience higher levels of confidence, motivation, and overall job satisfaction. Actually, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You could equally say that happier employees are way more productive at work. As much as 13% more productive than unhappy employees, according to one study!

Productivity is the life-blood of a business – and yet we rarely take the time to properly define or measure it, let alone deal with the obstacles that stand in its way.

As forward-thinking companies adapt to remote or hybrid work environments, managers are faced with a new challenge: how do you boost productivity of remote employees?

Helping employees perform better from across the screen definitely requires a more flexible, trusting and empathetic approach to management. The good news is that by nailing remote productivity, you could end up with a workforce far more effective in their homes than they ever were in the office.

If your remote team has a productivity problem, get inspired by these simple tips on strengthening efficiency and creativity among WFH employees.

16 Ways to Increase Employee Productivity (Without the Need for Hypnosis)

  1. Set achievable goals (and measure progress)
  2. Favor output over hours
  3. Reduce distractions
  4. Celebrate successes
  5. Invest in company culture
  6. Invest in good tech, tools, and equipment
  7. Set clear communication guidelines
  8. Cut down on meetings
  9. Approach low-productivity employees with kindness
  10. Encourage continuous learning
  11. Encourage time off
  12. Promote a healthy lifestyle
  13. Have regular development talks (and reward good work)
  14. Evaluate productivity regularly
  15. Perfect the onboarding process
  16. Do NOT introduce a points system (seriously)

Set achievable goals (& measure performance!)

The work place is not too different from a football match: we want to see goals. We love the suspense and hard work leading up to a good goal, and the thrilling satisfaction once it’s completed. When a goal is scored, we love ripping our shirts off and piling on top of each other until we’re just a mountain of happy colleagues. Right?

These guys know what I’m talking about. Credit: 101GreatGoals.com

The point is that goals are your starting point for productivity. Goals offer employees a tangible target. They’re essential for keeping everyone aligned on the tasks that should be prioritized. They also provide a great benchmark against which to measure progress.

Any employee should be able to ask themselves ‘are we closer to reaching this goal than we were yesterday/last week? If not – why?’ Viewing work through this goal-oriented helps identify blockers and pain points.

But goals are tricky. They need to strike the balance between challenging and achievable. Setting goals that are too ambitious will leave employees feeling discouraged and fed up, while setting only easy goals could lead to a culture of complacency and boredom.

How to set business goals

  • Goals should not be overly complicated.
  • Goals should be clear to understand.
  • Goals should be aligned with company’s vision and overall ambition.
  • Goals should require teamwork to fulfil.
  • Goals should include both short-term and long-term ambitions.
  • Goals should be realistic yet achievable.
  • Goals should be paired with action plans and timelines.
  • Goals should be measurable.

Questions to ask yourself when setting a business goal

  • Is the goal realistic?
  • Is the goal specific?
  • Is the goal easy to understand?
  • Do we have a clear action path and timeline for this goal?
  • Is the goal measurable?
  • How will we communicate this goal?
  • How often do we circle back and measure progress?

“We really need to stop gluing our hands together every time we accomplish something, Mark.”

Favor output over hours

Here’s a truth bomb: as a remote employer or manager, you simply can’t guarantee your employees are putting in eight hours from nine to five. The question is: why should you care?

Pre-COVID, people were clocking into office at the same time each day irrespective of how they’d slept the night before. They forced concentration during set office hours, even if those hours didn’t coincide with when they felt most motivated to work.

Employees sat around diddling their thumbs the final hour of each day, watching YouTube clips while glancing at the clock on the wall, waiting for that magic hour to strike, when it’s suddenly acceptable to go home.

Does forcing your employees to work during specific hours sound like a good way to improve productivity?

Focus less on the number of hours an employee works, and more on what they can comfortably achieve in a work day.

If an employee is most productive when they start work at 11am, then let them set those hours. If another employee prefers to blitz through their work at 7am, but then needs a two hour lunch break to recover from such an intense morning – why deny them this flexibility?

Research points to the fact that the average person cannot maintain intense focus for more than five hours per day. Forcing employees to push beyond that will have a counterproductive effect.

An employee who is regularly forced to sit at their desk and stare at their screen (even when they’ve mentally checked out of work for the day) will over time completely lose their motivation to work, no matter what time of day it is.

Besides, if your employees are obsessing over the exact number of hours they’re putting in – how are they going to immerse themselves in deep work? Remote work is about trust. As a manager you should be giving employees the freedom to focus on productivity rather than docking in an arbitrary number of working hours.

Results speak for themselves – and are far more powerful than timesheets.

But how do we make sure everyone is present at important meetings, if employees are all working different hours?” I hear you ask, just as we’re about to move on to the next point.

If your company works remotely but has not yet mastered the art of async communication, do yourself a favor and introduce a tool like tl;dv. Remote meeting tools like tl;dv enable employees to simply and time-efficiently catch-up on any meeting they could not attend live.

Powerful documentation principles are key to effective remote work – and in an age when any meeting can be recorded at the click of a button, you should be using a tool to trim, timestamp, tag, download, share and organize all recorded calls at your company. Tl;dv is available both as a Zoom extension and a Google Meet extension.

Reduce distractions

The modern workplace (actually, the modern world) is full with distractions. Social media and news platforms provide a constant stream of information overflow. Even as an employee sits at their desk with their work in front of them, there are countless notifications fighting for their attention.

You can give employees tips on how to find focus in their work environment (for example by putting their phones on silence, finding privacy at home, or reducing the number of open tabs), but the best thing an employee can do to increase their productivity is to silence their work notifications.

We’re talking emails, Slack, Teams, Trello and Jira.

“But how will employees answer messages and emails promptly, if their notifications are silenced?”

They won’t. They will focus on their work instead – making progress, completing tasks, and entering a creative zone of ‘flow’.

via GIPHY

Most employees have their concentration constantly split between too many platforms, channels, tasks and questions coming at them at all time. It’s a painfully ineffective way of working which leaves employees exhausted and reaching for aspirin.

In any given day, the chances are that only a small portion of emails and messages an employee receives are urgent, or even remotely time-sensitive. By establishing an emergency channel for critical issues and needs, employees can rest assured they’ll be notified if something truly urgent comes up.

This will allow them to focus on their work the rest of the time. Trust us, it’s the ultimate stress reduction.

Differentiating between non-urgent and urgent communication is one of the best steps you can take to improve employee communication – and subsequently, employee productivity.

Celebrate successes

Christmas. SuperBowl. Your neighbors’ Elvis-themed potluck party. We all need something to look forward to – and not just in our personal lives. If employees feel like their job is nothing but work, work, work – where’s the fun and satisfaction in doing a great job?

A company that knows when (and how) to celebrate will instill motivation and solidarity among employees. Everybody loves to see their hard work pay off – so let employees know they’re appreciated, and give them the celebration they deserve after an accomplishment. An employee who feels appreciated, valued and respected is more likely to dedicate themselves to their work.

When there’s been a noteworthy achievement, your employees should be thanked – whether by email, video conference, post, in person, or by messenger pigeon.

Your boss is proud of you, Greg. (Credit: SWNS)

In a physical workplace, celebrating successes can be as simple as bringing in some delicious cake and prompting a round of applause (for the hard work, not the cake). When bigger goals are met and bigger celebrations are warranted, a team dinner might be in order. But how should a team celebrate remotely?

Remote teams can celebrate with virtual team activities. Encourage everyone to switch off from work and focus on a fun game or music quiz. Perkbox have a great list of ideas for remote activities that will help people unwind, laugh, and get to know each other better.

Consider individual gifts for specific employees who have worked especially hard. A day off, an online gift card, or even just a box of chocolate in their post box can go a long way in showing your appreciation.

Invest in company culture

Creating and preserving a strong company culture should always be a priority – and not just because of its positive impact on productivity.

The more employees feel that they are allowed to make mistakes, challenge ways of working, enjoy a healthy work-life balance, and have fun with their team – the more likely they are to perform well.

One study by BetterUp suggests “employees who feel a strong sense of belonging, versus a weak one, experience a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in sick days.”

A different study by BusinessWire reveals that remote employee productivity and well-being are booth boosted when companies foster a ‘connected’ culture among WFH teams.

Invest in good technology, tools, and equipment


You know the phrase ‘work smarter, not harder’? This can mean a lot of things in a workplace, but if you ask me, it mostly means investing in top quality tools and equipment.

Tech solutions that help cut out manual work and get the job done faster are going to boost productivity across your organization. When there are processes to scale – scale them. When tasks can be automated – automate them. Is an employee’s laptop too slow? Burn it. I mean, recycle it.

Upgrading equipment and investing in productivity tools will not only save time but reduce headaches. If you’re unsure which tools or equipment could have the biggest impact on employee work and wellbeing, simply ask your employees!

Set clear communication guidelines

Poor communication in remote or hybrid companies are costly. If you’re lucky, they merely lead to delays and inefficiency – if you’re unlucky, they result in colossal mistakes. Either way, they’re time-wasters, and establishing effective communication guidelines for remote workers should be one of your top priorities.

Consider establishing principles around:

  • What type of news or issue warrants an announcements
  • Where these announcements should be posted
  • How people are to comment on announcements

For example, you may identify that messaging tools like Slack are detrimental to productivity because employees become distracted by constant messages flashing on their screen. You may notice how meetings often get derailed because participants are asking too many questions throughout presentations.

Perhaps you’ll notice that announcements frequently fail to include essential details, or that some types of announcements are not appropriate for the platform on which they’re posted.

Maybe non-work chit chat mixes with work-related talk, when these two types of communication (though both important) should be separated into different channels. By troubleshooting your company’s communication pain points, you can create better guidelines on how to communicate effectively.

Cut down on meetings

Ineffective meetings are one of the biggest productivity killers. Most companies struggle in some shape or form with their meeting culture, which is why we wrote an article specifically on how to run more effective meetings.

Particularly in remote workplaces, meetings become too frequent, too long, too disorganized – or so poorly documented that repeat meetings are necessary. The result?

Employees become so exhausted by back-to-back meetings that they don’t have any remaining time or motivation to get the real work done.

A Zoom or Google Meet extension like tl;dv helps reduce the number of meetings needed overall, by recording, transcribing and storing all past meetings. Customized share settings, editing features, a timestamping tool, and the ability to tag specific people at different parts of the call are all perfect ways of reducing the need for lengthy follow-ups.

An
async meeting culture reduces the need for multiple employees to attend the same call at the same time. By spending less time in meetings, employees will waste less time, feel less fatigued, and become more productive as a result.

Approach employees with kindness

Has an employee’s productivity levels taken a plunge? You can follow every principle in this guide, and still find that some employees are having a tough time with productivity. The solution is not to reprimand or threaten employees.

It’s too easy to write off an under-performing employee as lazy or incompetent. There is almost always a more understandable reason for low productivity. It could relate to problems the employee is experiencing in their personal life, health issues (even an undiagnosed condition like ADHD), or a hectic and distracting home environment.

Sometimes an employee will struggle with productivity simply because they’re experiencing an overall dissatisfaction with their job – the kind of dissatisfaction which can’t be cured by celebrations or ergonomic equipment.

If an employee doesn’t feel passionate about their work, it’s possible they are not following the right career path. Talking openly and sympathetically with an employee about this sensitive subject and lead to eye-opening discussions around what it is they want out of their job.

One or both of you may arrive at useful conclusions. For example, the employee may be better suited in a different role at the company. Maybe they need to cut down on work hours so they have time to pursue another passion.

Low productivity could also be a sign that they need to take the next step in their career and find employment in a field or role that motivates them.

When you allow employees to be honest about their struggles with productivity, you can both identify and work towards solutions.

After all – how can we fix productivity problems, if employees are too afraid to even acknowledge them? Provide a safe space for transparency and honesty.

Encourage continuous learning

As the wise Alice Cooper once pertinently remarked, “school’s out forever”. While this is true for most of us, a productive employee will nonetheless appreciate the opportunity to continuously strengthen their knowledge bank.

Provide employees with access to courses and training that excites them. When you fail to offer employees the resources and time required to upskill, their productivity is going to suffer as a result.

Think of all those mistakes made due to a simple lack of knowledge. All the time wasted because an employee had to ask for help. Consider the hours that could be saved if every employee went about their work more confidently, with the expertise and insight to scale their tasks effectively.

It doesn’t matter how experienced your employees are – no one knows everything, so keep filling those knowledge gaps with incentives to learn.

Support employees who wish to take courses, and encourage them to dedicate some hours each week toward upskilling.

Encourage time off

The worst word you can hear in the context of employee productivity: burnout.

Not too long ago, the employee who never took a single sick day, and who was practically forced to take their holidays, was held up as a model employee.

That was a dumb time. Thank goodness we’re all much wiser now.

Promote healthy lifestyles

A healthy person is a productive person. Everyone deserves good health, and as a manager it’s your responsibility to discourage unhealthy habits forming around work – such as employees working too many hours, working through lunch, not taking enough breaks to stretch their legs, or not getting enough fresh air.

You can introduce incentives to try out new sports or go to the gym (for example with sports-related reimbursements and discounts).

Healthy eating can also be encouraged. Provide employees with discounts on grocery subscriptions services like Daily Harvest or Instacart.

Equally important for your employees’ health is their office furniture. Do they enjoy ergonomic chairs, tables, keyboards and mouse pads? Are they able to work somewhere with fresh air, sunlight, and privacy?

It’s worth investing in comfortable furnishing and work equipment for your remote employee – maybe even co-working office passes. The better their posture, the better they can work. No one’s fully productive with back pain!

Have regular development talks (and reward good work)

As a remote manager, it’s important to schedule regular 1-on-1s with employees. Without visual cues and daily conversations, employees may feel unsure about whether their work is satisfactory. Validation was a lot easier in an office. When an employee put in extra hours, the effort would be noticed by colleagues.

In a remote workplace, it’s a little harder – but all the more important – that you pay attention to the way employees are progressing and putting in that extra mile.

With scheduled calls, you’ll always have a booked time in your calendar to let employees know their work is appreciated. This is also the time to provide them with the feedback they need to grow.

Since an employee can no longer come knocking at your door for a salary talk, you’ll want to a provide virtual space in which this type of conversation can naturally arise. Be available and approachable for employees who are ready to level up.

Development talks also give employees the opportunity to raise feedback on your performance as a manager. These insights are invaluable, and will help you understand how you can better impact employee productive from afar.

Frequently evaluate productivity

When was the last time you did a ‘productivity audit’?

When you evaluate productivity levels, you can:

  • Identify blockers
  • Identify learning opportunities
  • Identify upskilling needs
  • Identify scaling needs
  • Identify motivation problems
  • Set better goals

If you find productivity is persistently suffering under your current ways of working, it may be time to introduce more structured processes.

Many companies that struggle with goal-setting, or have an unclear vision of their end product, benefit from the agile methodology.

Agile is a structured form of project management and product development that promotes smart prioritization, flexibility, adaptability, and customer collaboration.

In the words of Macadamian; Agile allows product owners to adjust requirements and priorities along the way to take advantage of opportunities and ultimately deliver a better product to all of the project stakeholders.

Not sure if agile is right for your company? If you want to test an agile way of working, or simply learn more about how the framework can be applied to your company, you can always bring in an agile coach.

Start with onboarding

As we near the end of this list, we’re raising something that should actually be considered from the very start of an employee’s journey at your company.

Out of everyone who has struggled to adapt in the shift to remote work, new employees have possibly struggled the most. No longer able to watch and learn by sitting next to their colleague, new recruits have frequently been left to fend for themselves. Without being able to learn their new colleagues’ names with a quick handshake round, integrating into a remote workplace can also be socially difficult.

This is why new employees need to rely on a smooth and comprehensive onboarding experience at remote companies. If this is not secured from the start, an employee is going to feel unmotivated, insecure, and – as time passes – too afraid to ask the things they feel they ‘should probably know by now’.

Similarly, you don’t want to place existing employees in the awkward situation of having to deal with countless questions sent over Slack from their new colleagues.

The responsibility of ensuring a strong remote onboarding falls on the manager. We recommend creating a library of visually engaging onboarding material. Important meetings, introductions, demos and discovery calls can be shared for instant context. Recorded calls also help the employee get to know the personalities at your company a little better.

Do NOT introduce a points-based system

Raises, promotions, recognition, days off and celebration; a discussed, these are all perfectly adequate rewards. There is no need to introduce a points system to motivate employees. In fact, doing so is extremely risky, as exemplified at Dunder Mifflin.

Employees who are given the best circumstances under which to thrive, and who are able to take a motivating sense of pride in their work, are far more likely to work both harder and smarter. Motivating your employees remotely doesn’t need to be difficult; listen to their needs, prioritize their wellbeing, and set a good example. Transforming company processes and culture takes time, but when the reward is a powerful increase in productivity, it’s well worth the effort.