6 insights to improve productivity in a remote work environment: In Cognition Series 2

We’ve all heard of, or even experienced personally, how a remote work environment can lead to back-to-back video calls and a workday that only start…

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We’ve all heard of, or even experienced personally, how a remote work environment can lead to back-to-back video calls and a workday that only starts but never seems to end. Without the convenience of physical proximity with each other, how might we boost productivity while avoiding “Zoom fatigue”? How might we onboard new hires and give them a sense of belonging while working from home?

In this second episode of the In Cognition series, we posed these questions to business leaders from Europe and Asia and identified these six key insights that we can all draw inspiration from and apply.

Insight 1: Empower teams to create their own rituals and processes

Protocols, rules and guidelines are great ways to provide guardrails, but they could also be restrictive when teams have vastly different objectives, skill sets and preferences. Hannah Thompson, director of people & culture at  11:FS, said the London-based digital financial service consultancy doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all employee experience.

“It’s about giving managers the tools to think about what works best for their teams,” said Thompson. “Team members co-design what their schedule should look like by agreeing upfront what are the events they want to be together in person, and what are the ones they can do remotely.”

Human Made, a WordPress digital experience platform, has been a remote-first company since its inception before the pandemic. Its vice president of people & Culture, Siobhan McKeown, said asynchronous communication is built into the DNA of the company.

“We use Github for a lot of discussions, we have an internal blog system, and we try as much as possible to question whether we need a call for something, or whether we can put it somewhere else and let people respond in their own time,” said McKeown. “We also have a no-call day in our calendar. So every Friday we don’t schedule any company calls for people to focus on their work.”

Insight 2: Carve out focus time and boundaries between work and life

For most people who used to commute between home and office, the clear physical separation of the two locations had allowed them to switch fluidly between the “on and off modes.” But when home and office become a singular place with constant interruptions from one side or another, it could be challenging to concentrate and get things done.

McKeown, who is also the author of “A Life lived Remotely,” said the company is proactively helping its distributed workforce to create boundaries between work and life.

“It’s very easy when you work remotely, you work all the time and that’s really terrible for productivity,” said McKeown. “We have initiatives like paying for co-working space, supporting people to set up their home offices, etc. so they can create boundaries in their life. But also we make sure people take breaks during the day, go for a walk, or have a cup of tea — just don’t think that you’ve got to sit at your computer all day writing codes.”


Laïla von Alvensleben, head of culture & collaboration at MURAL, also said the digital collaborative workspace has a remote work playbook in which it dedicates an entire chapter on productivity in a remote setting. “One of the first things we say is really learn how to protect your time and this involves blocking your calendar, and making space for deep work and time to think. There’s nothing wrong with blocking your time. You’re just letting people know that this is a time for me to focus on what I need to do and maybe have your personal things done,” said Alvensleben. 


Insight 3: Focus on quality of outcome, not number of hours

Conventionally, work is measured by the number of hours one puts in, even the words “full-time” or “part-time” job reflect such a tendency. But with the pandemic, more and more business leaders are shifting towards measuring success through the quality of outcome and giving workers the flexibility to manage their own time.

P.B. Subbiah, director of HR and administration at Pacific Basin, said trust is the “bedrock” when it comes to boosting productivity, no matter if it is in-person or remote. By giving autonomy to its workers, the maritime transport company was able to weather through the pandemic with little disruption to its business operations.

“Anyone who says, ‘I can’t trust my team if I can’t see them’, will really struggle in the future world of work,” said Subbiah. “ This year and last year, we did a lot of business with substantially 55 to 60% of our colleagues never having set foot into the office. There is no denying.”


Thompson said “outcomes over hours” is one of the key principles at 11:FS, and the company has created multiple moments for team members to regroup, reflect and align on what needs to be done, without micromanaging their schedule.

“We have this tool called ‘15 five,’ which allows individuals on a Friday to reflect on their last week — how did it go on a scale of one to five? What are their priorities for the week ahead? How did they get on with the priorities for this week? It takes 15 minutes for an individual to complete, and the manager reviews it ahead of their one-to-one each week,” Thompson added. “It really allows us to make sure that we’re focusing on the right priorities and that we as a team are being productive and there’s no duplication.”


Insight 4: Utilise digital tools for the onboarding process

Joining a new company could sometimes be overwhelming, with new workflows, new tools, new colleagues… especially when everything is done remotely. To help new hires navigate, Mural created an onboarding journey, making use of its very own product — the collaborative digital whiteboard.

“We have the learning content on Mural, which is very visual,” Alvensleben said. “We have a 30, 60 and 90-day program for new hires, helping them understand what their expectations are, but also what we’re expecting from their time at Mural.”


At Human Made, McKeown said the company started the onboarding process before the new hires even join the company.

“An up-to-date documentation is very important working remotely. Even if they didn’t absorb all of it in the first reading, they appreciate the fact that it is there,” added McKeown. “But for more junior colleagues, you want to make sure they have a clear pathway to go through the documentation.”


Insight 5: Create opportunities for casual encounters

Camaraderie is one of the key elements for workers to feel a sense of belonging in the company. Without the convenience of physical proximity, teams that are distributed geographically need to be more intentional in creating opportunities for bonding.

“We have an app called Donut. When someone joins on their first day, they get enrolled in this lunch roulette. Once a week, it will randomly pick and pair you up with someone from the business to have a half-an-hour chat and get to know each other,” said Thompson from 11:FS. “It’s really nice to feel like you’re part of something bigger, rather than just tunnel vision getting on with your day job.”


These casual conversations not only help employees find their footing in the company but also serve as a safe space for new joiners to ask questions, McKeown said. At Altis DXP, that safe space comes in the form of a “buddy program.” 

“We assign a buddy for each person, so they know there is always someone that they can trust and go to with absolutely anything,” according to McKeown. Buddies also help new members socialize and connect with other people in the company, she added.


Insight 6: Double down on company strength

During the pandemic, many companies have transformed their businesses to become more remote or hybrid-ready, but for companies like Pacific Basin, working on the field is essential to its operations and irreplaceable.


“Our industry is so heavily reliant on informal collaboration. Everyone, especially in our commercial teams, benefits from listening in on what colleagues are discussing with their traders and brokers. It is an essential part of our collaboration. You cannot achieve that sitting alone at home,” Subbiah said.

So when travel restrictions and lockdowns forced most of its employees to work from home, the Hong Kong-based operator of dry bulk vessels took a contrarian approach in hiring entry-level employees. In a typical year, the company would hire 10 graduate trainees — one in every office — and train them locally.  But over the last 18 months, Pacific Basin recruited graduate trainees only in Hong Kong — the only office that remained open throughout most of the pandemic.

“We do the opposite. We hired five in Hong Kong last year and this year. When they’re well onboarded and familiarized with our culture and everything, we send them to other locations,” added Subbiah. “Because we know the effectiveness of in-person onboarding is far superior to anything we can do remotely.”


We would like to thank Hannah Thompson, Siobhan McKeown, Laïla von Alvensleben and Subbiah for their time and insights.

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