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Productivity tools that managers of telecommuters should check out

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With so many people working from home, employers are using a variety of tools, platforms, and metrics to track productivity. Get tips on how to decide which productivity tools to use.

With millions of people now working from home due to COVID-19, measuring productivity can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are a plethora of tools and platforms managers can use to make sure employees remain focused and productive.

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Because many of these tools have been used for years by organizations to track things like projects and time, extending them to a remote workforce is not much of a stretch, said Brian Shea, CIO and practice director of Technical Services at Revolution Group, a Columbus, OH-based provider of managed services, consulting, and systems integration for small-to-medium businesses.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

“The biggest thing that has changed is we are using the tools more frequently now,” he said.

Instead of weekly staff meetings, managers are holding them daily via Microsoft Teams, one of the go-to collaboration platforms companies use to stay connected and keep projects moving. Slack is another popular option for team collaboration.

Because Revolution is a Salesforce integrator, the company is leveraging that platform in unique ways to manage a host of activities not normally associated with a sales lead-tracking and management platform, including support desk ticketing, tracking, escalation, and resolution; project management and tracking; and tracking engineering hours and ticket resolution against service level agreements. To track projects on the manufacturing side of the business, they rely on Smartsheet because it has manufacturing-specific functionality.

But it’s not just frontline, customer-facing personnel the company is concerned about–Revolution also tracks the productivity of the company’s leadership through a tool called Traction Tools

“This really gets you, at a high-level, to make sure we are staying the course and to measure overall company productivity,” Shea said.

Because there are so many tools on the market, deciding which tools to use and which metrics to track will depend on the role of each employee, said Darren Murph, head of remote for GitLabs, a DevOps lifecycle platform provider whose 1,200 employees work remotely. To measure productivity, the company tracks merge requests made versus how many of those requests for new code or changes to code were completed. 

Ultimately, though there are only a few tried-and-true measures of productivity for information workers, which make up the majority of people working from home today. 

The first is time, which can easily be measured simply by tracking when employees log in and log off of the network, for example, or using time-tracking software like BambooHR, BuddyPunch, HiveDesk, or TSheets. But, based on a review of a blog posted by Remote.co, this is not the preferred measure of many organizations today. What they are more concerned with is output and client satisfaction. 

“The further you get from the office, time is not going to be the best measure of productivity,” Murph said. “How long (employees) sit in a seat does not equal moving the company towards its goals.”

Output is relatively straightforward and can be tracked using popular project management tools like Notion, Jira, or spreadsheets. 

SEE: 52 Excel tips every user should master (TechRepublic)

“The ones we see remote companies using most often include Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, and Trello,” said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a remote-working jobs site and consultancy. (Remote.co is owned by Flexjobs.) “We also see that many remote companies create their own in-house systems, even simple ones using spreadsheets, to keep everyone on the same page and making progress on projects.”

Satisfaction is a bit more esoteric and hard to measure in the short term but those measurement metrics, such as net promoter score (NPS), work the same whether the employee is on-site or working remotely.

Regardless of which tools you use, it is important not to treat employees like machines, said Reid Blackman, a professional ethicist and founder of Virtue Consultants, an ethics consultancy.

“It ignores the facts on the ground, for instance, about what employees are having to deal with in an environment where schools and daycares are closed, and parents need to care for children while also trying to be productive,” he said. “If companies want to put money into their employee experience now, it should come from a place of wanting to help them, not from a stick waved before their eyes if they don’t hit the right KPIs.”

Perhaps the most common tool (and one that could be easily overlooked for its productivity-measuring functionality) is video conferencing services such as Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, or Skype. Since communication is key to keeping projects moving and people on track, using these tools to stay in regular contact with home-based employees will go a long way toward making sure they stay focused on the work at hand.

SEE: Top 5 video conferencing services to use with remote employees (TechRepublic)

“We have two major ways to keep everyone on the same page when working remotely … both done through video calls,” said Dmytro Okunyev, the founder of Chanty, a provider of AI-powered team chat tools. “The first is the weekly department meetings… [t]he second meeting we have is our weekly company meeting where team leads report on their numbers and the biggest updates.”

Once employers understand what it is they want to measure, settling on a single tool will be challenging since many of these platforms integrate with each other, and their functionality overlaps. Also, depending on how you use the data, metrics can be used to measure the productivity of unrelated activities like correlating time-per-call to customer satisfaction in a call center.

If you are struggling to make sense of the hundreds of different tools on the market and what they offer, two resources you can use to start your search are Capterra and G2Crowd. Although they do promote sponsored solutions, these websites also list software by category and use, and provide reviews from actual users. 

“Most of these [tools] help you break down projects into smaller work tasks and track progress on each of those tasks, setting benchmarks to hit and asking for specific ways to measure your work,” Weiler Reynolds said. “That way, you and your team can decide how to measure any given task and your productivity around it. Each team or project group needs to determine what the measurements of productivity are for anything they’re doing. Ultimately, this practice is a great thing for remote and in-office teams alike.”

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