Remote Work and Productivity

In December a Financial Post Workplace Law column on Absenteeism indicated that Working From Home, Smoke Breaks and Stress Leave were, in the opinion of the writer, the three leading causes of lost productivity in 2015.

Having Working From Home on that list surprised me so I did a bit of checking to see what others had to say about it.  Harvard Business Review (January-February 2014)  ran an article about a research study on working from home – it is entitled “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work From Home”.

A study on the effectiveness of telecommuting reported on in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol 16, #2,  2015) found that it reduces stress, increases worker satisfaction and organizational commitment and improves overall performance.

Yahoo made headlines last year when their CEO decided to eliminate remote working in order to improve productivity and collaboration.

My quick check on remote work was a good reminder – in order to achieve good productivity in remote work situations a number of factors must be in place:

  • The job needs to be suitable for remote work
  • The person must be comfortable with and capable of the remote work relationship
  • Managers have to have the managerial skills and confidence necessary to manage people they ‘can’t see’
  • Good working conditions (space, equipment, etc.) and a positive work environment(healthy organizational culture with clear expectations and good communication channels) and appropriate and effective work processes all need to exist
  • Remote workers should be involved in workplace activities and be physically present in the workplace on a regular basis.

I am inclined to believe that, whether the person is a remote worker or an on-site worker, productivity is affected most by whether or not the individual believes their work is meaningful and their effort and results are appreciated and matter.  I am also inclined to believe that if that is true, absenteeism isn’t a problem.

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Leading in A Changing World

The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

– Wind of Change, The Scorpions (1990)

Over the last three weeks I’ve been involved in a variety of events and conversations about leading and managing in today’s world.   A couple of weeks ago, at the Canadian Management Consultant’s one day conference, Todd Hirsh talked about the current economic situation, the global economy and Canada’s role in it.  In her presentation, one of Deb Yedlin’s messages was Canada’s need to improve our learning so that we have the ability to compete in the global economy. They both carried the message of global interdependence and the multiplying effects of multiple interconnected major forces of change – globalization, urbanization, demographic and of course, technology.

Last week, I attended a members Lunch ‘n Learn discussion about diversity in boardrooms held by the Institute of Corporate Directors.  The conversation in my group quickly moved from talking about gender and ethnic diversity to diversity of thought as the valuable addition to organizational leadership.  A very strong voice in the group declared that diversity is important but cannot usurp the importance of considerable C-suite problem solving experience in boardrooms. The expressed belief was that solving the complex problems organizations face today requires that experience and the knowledge gained from it.   The message I took from this conversation was that all of us working in leading roles must step back and assess whether or not we have the ability and skills required in a world of disruptive change.   In his book, Deep Change, Robert Quinn talks about the difference between incremental change where leaders feel in control and have the potential to return to the way we did things and transformative change, where  there is no return and requires surrendering control.

Yesterday, I was involved in a conversation about a new leadership team moving in a direction that was being undermined by a long term management team determined to protect their interests.    Managers’ roles are to ensure the efficacy of transactional activity and when they don’t, things can go badly wrong.


They are the guardians of the culture that has brought the organization to its current level of achievement. Cultural change requires a disruption of the basic assumptions that underlie stated values, norms and acceptable behaviour and artifacts. Left undisturbed those basic assumptions will continually support restoration of transactional level activity to its normal state.

In a world where certainty, predictability, clarity and simplicity are absent, leaders must let go of personal success and focus on organizational success. They must create a culture of creativity and innovation.  To do that, they must also let go of the notion that they know the answers, listen to and involve others, inspire a shared vision and purpose, and enable and empower people. Quinn likens transformational leadership to “walking naked into the land of uncertainty”.

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Not really thinking about voluntary turnover these days?

Increasing unemployment rates drives voluntary turnover down, so it is easy to think voluntary turnover is not really a top of the list concern these days (the silver lining in the current environment?!).

This morning I saw some information that suggests it still should be. The article suggested that by 2018 – 2020  average turnover rates could range from 13% – 23% a year.   Those levels probably look like a pipe dream to service industry organizations where turnover is much higher and are terrifying to  environments where turnover is significantly lower.

It is well-known and understood that employee turnover is expensive – it costs between 50% and 150% of salary depending on the job.   The aging population is driving the rate of voluntary turnover up.  Each year, as the boomers age, there will be more people choosing to leave their jobs and the workforce.

For a 100 employee company with an average salary of $41,600 ($20.00/hr for a 40 hour work week) an annual turnover rate of 5%, turnover will cost the company at least $104,000 per year.  If we use the Canadian national average annual salary of $49,000, the 5% turnover rate, at the 50% of annual salary cost,  that number becomes $122,500.

Increase the turnover rate to 10% – well below those 2018 – 2020  projections – and use Alberta’s annual average salary of $60,476 (at December 31, 2014)  the very conservative turnover cost  of 50% of salary will  result in turnover costs $300,000/year for a 100 employee company.  At a cost 100% of salary that number is more than $600,000/year and at 150% it is upwards of $900,000/year.

It is easy to think this is something that can wait – today’s issues are more pressing.    The solutions to today’s issues can establish the foundation for minimizing future challenges or they can ensure the future challenges will be more significant. Balancing the urgency of today’s issues with the importance of tomorrow’s is possible when there is a well thought out plan in place for doing so.

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“No good work goes unpunished” ….

…. said a friend of mine in a moment of pure frustration a while back.  The thought returns to me now and then – this time in regard to Canada Post’s suspension of the super box program.  Their great change management process couldn’t prevent the backlash around home delivery.  Pity!

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Canada Post – Change Master!

Up until last week we have had home mail delivery.   Now we are picking up our mail from a super-box about a block away.

Canada Post has done a magnificent job of preparing us and our neighbours for this change. We received our original notice about it early this year. Over the last 8 months we’ve been provided a process map and ongoing status reports.   About a week before we started using the super-box we were provided an information package about it along with our keys.   Our postal delivery person was well informed about the process and timing; provided information and answered questions.

A couple of days before we started using the super-box we happened upon the Canada Post team who were checking the postal box assignment to addresses and their master list. They spent a few minutes chatting with us about the service change indicating the positive attributes of it and letting us know that no one at Canada Post was losing a job as a result of the service change and that individuals who were not able to get to the super-boxes would continue to receive home mail delivery.

All in all the management of this change was handled perfectly. We were informed early about the change, were provided with great information over the months between notification and implementation and the service providers we regularly interact with were well informed and shared information well.

Over the years Canada Post has been one of those organizations we’ve loved to grumble about.   This is not our old Canada Post and we couldn’t be happier.

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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Organizational Satisfaction surveys are intended to provide information about whether the company is successfully creating a work environment in which employee expectations are adequately fulfilled.   The underlying assumption is that satisfied employees will be more productive overall and less likely to leave the organization.

In essence, satisfaction surveys are being used as a proxy for trying to understand how to engage employees in the work they do and in the mission and goals of the companies they work for.   Engagement – the state of employee involvement desired by companies – is not the same as satisfaction and identifying it requires different metrics.

The craving for engagement expressed in this verse of Satisfaction:

He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to drive my imagination.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards

Engagement produces creativity, productivity and both emotional and mental commitment.  Engagement is “being in the zone”,  or “a state of flow1” which becomes possible when there is a balance of a high level challenge and skill, clear purpose, immediate and unequivocal  feedback and concentration on the work.   Intrinsic satisfaction is exceptionally high when an individual is engaged.

Building an Engaged Workforce is an HR Trend that has been around for a while and is likely to stay for some time because studies have indicated that when people are genuinely engaged (not just satisfied), productivity and profitability increase, shareholder value increases and attraction and retention of key talent improves.

(1 A State of Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work on work, motivation and happiness describes the condition as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.)

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Why a Workforce Strategic Plan?

Earlier this month Statistics Canada told us something we had already figured out – the unemployment rate was up – not a lot – to 7% from 6.8% last month. In Alberta the unemployment rate has risen to 6% up from 5.2% at the same time last year. 7% unemployment means that 1.35 million people who want to work do not have jobs.

Along with the national 7% unemployment rate we also have a national Job Vacancy Rate (the share of jobs that are unfilled) of 2.6% or roughly 400,000 jobs.     We have a Dependency Rate (proportion of the population that is older than 64 and younger than 15) of about 47% – which means that we have 1.12 people of working age for every 1 person who is not.

Population projections indicate that at the end of 2015 or into early 2016 there will be more people in Canada over the age of 65 than there are under the age of 15. Our average age is 41.7 years old and we are getting older.  Canada’s baby boom began in 1947 – our oldest boomers are about 16 months shy of turning 70. The youngest boomers, born in 1966 are turning 50 in 2016. The peak of the boom, born in 1959, will be turning 65 in 2024. Every year from now until then an increasingly large number of people will be leaving the workforce and there will not be as many new workforce entrants.

Today, 67% of all job openings in Canada require post secondary education and even though Canada is among the global leaders in higher education only 51% of working population between 25 and 64 have post secondary education. A major business concern expressed by Canadian CEOs is the challenge in finding and keeping the talent required for business success.

These factors

  • An unhealthy unemployment rate coupled with a significant number of vacant jobs;
  • The loss of knowledge and skills as the boomers leave the workforce and a smaller number of people who are and will be joining the workforce;
  • the gap between the proportion of jobs requiring post secondary education and people who are acquiring it;

indicate a need for every organization to develop and implement a strategic approach to workforce management.

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