Thoughts on Team Productivity in Quarantine

Since the pandemic has started, I’ve been talking to many clients, readers, and friends. I probably spoke with almost a hundred different executives and managers in tech the last few weeks. I asked most of them a simple question: how has the team been doing with the quarantine WFH? Here’s what I have gathered from their answers.

Note: I’m putting aside the obvious effect to productivity when one is in charge of taking care of young children all day long. As someone home with three kids (6, 4, and 2 years old)—I know. Let us consider the time people are able to work and their productivity during that time, and not how much of that time they have every workday.

Same Productivity

It is not trivial that people report that they mostly have things going on pretty much the same during these times.

It is possible, however. I’ve seen this happen mainly with relatively smaller teams, or teams skewed more towards senior staff. The less communication necessary, and the more autonomous the people are, the more likely you are to be able to work productively even if you had to switch to WFH abruptly.

One point I’ve had to stress with my clients is that this might be temporary. Your team might be running on fumes: Eventually, whatever they have already in the bank will run out. Right now, there are plans, features, and decisions made that allow them to work in isolation. However, genuinely remote work requires them to be able to communicate, discuss effectively, and cross-pollinate. Otherwise, you will eventually lose out on all the serendipity, innovation, and ideas that you get from people interacting in the office. Work to ensure the creation of time and habits to cultivate these.

Lowered Productivity

This is, unsurprisingly, the state most companies seem to be experiencing. How big of a dip in performance changes from team to team, but the majority understand they will not accomplish what they had planned on doing and should now change their plans quickly to adapt.

If you self-diagnose your team to be here, it is worthwhile to think about the causes specific to you. The common factors are:

  • Centralized, non-autonomous planning: Often regarded as a symptom of micro-management, mentioned next, this means that several key people in the organization work as hubs. Once communications patterns change due to working remote, those hubs become bottlenecks, and work suffers.
  • Micro-management: Junior managers might be lacking in abilities to align their team and measure performance without the constant “just checking in”s, checking when people are in their seats or how long they’re in the office, and similar. These crutches of management fall apart in remote environments.
  • Junior staff: When a relatively significant portion of your team requires managers to coach or handhold them, you will have to reinvent how that is accomplished in remote, or their output will suffer tremendously.
  • Lacking communication skills: By default, most techies communicate even less in these environments. We won’t pick up the phone, we’re aware of the (professional) messages sent on public Slack channels, and so on. Video conferences (or even worse, phone calls) lack the extra dimensions of information exchange available when meeting face-to-face, which harms productivity.

Once you’ve identified the factors relevant to your team, take the time to think about how you can improve them once now that you’ve become aware of them.

Improved Productivity

This one here is my favorite. “We’re actually more productive now!!” It’s the least common, of course, but whenever I hear it, the executive has said it with joy—this is a good thing!

Is it? I mean, it’s nice to get increased productivity, don’t get me wrong. And yet, this is precisely the type of things I love debugging when working to optimize engineering teams: what do you mean you’re more productive now? You’ve had to change things rapidly, there’s a pandemic occupying people’s minds, communication patterns have changed drastically, we’re all losing it in quarantine, and that’s actually helping your team?

I can’t help but wonder how bad your day-to-day work environment is that this is what it took to get improvements in your output. These are usually offices where etiquette is vague about interruptions, meetings are easily called with way too many people invited, and butts-in-seats are more important than outputs. In such environments, you get a misalignment between the results you’re trying to achieve and the conditions you provide to meet them.

It’s great that you’re getting some improved productivity, but the more important question here is: How can you sustain this once we go back to the “real world”?