The businesses that have accelerated during the COVID crisis—and will continue to succeed—aren’t thinking and talking about productivity. They’re focused on high performance at scale.

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time in sessions with business and technology leaders debating the challenges and opportunities that COVID has presented to companies.

During these months, more than ever, the spotlight has been on technology departments and product teams—how much work they’ve gotten done and the extra miles they’ve gone to support customers, all while also enabling their own business to keep the lights on during the crisis.

In fact, you’ve probably seen it yourself on chat channels, internet articles, and feeds—people mentioning how much more productive employees are working at home—47% are more productive says one study, along with an average 8.32 AM start and 5.38 PM finish times!

And while that’s all great and fascinating, it’s actually not the most important conversation to be having. It’s a signal that too many organizations are focused on the wrong measures of success with outdated management mindsets, and that they’re ill-equipped to handle unexpected events both now and in the future.

What’s More Important Than Remote Work Productivity

Once COVID hit, I could see the trend of concerns emerging among leaders: “How do we keep our teams productive while working remotely?”, “How do we make sure they’re focused on the right tasks?”, or the most concerning of all, “How do I know they’re not sitting around doing nothing?!”

The questions you ask as a company leader are indicators of the culture you’ve created. Concerns about productivity, utilization, or clarity of direction underline a lack of confidence in people’s competence.

Thus managers feel the need to lead by command and control, tell teams what tasks to do and focus on their activities. This is an ineffective legacy mindset—conditioning from the industrial-era which must be unlearned.

Productivity is about output: responding to requirements, executing solutions, completing tasks, and closing tickets. It’s about fulfilling orders you’ve been handed down on time, on budget, and in scope.

Productivity matters, but it’s not the most important indicator of business success.

What good is productivity if what your teams are producing isn’t making an impact? The question that is often missing—and the strongest signal you’ll be successful in the long term—is ”How performant are we?”

Performance is about outcomes first and output second. It’s about understanding the intent and living the values of your business—the direction it wants to go, and how aligned your people, processes, and products are to get there.

Unlearning Command-and-Control

From the conversations I’ve been having with top executives about adapting to remote-first work while responding to changing circumstances, COVID has only served to illuminate and amplify the real challenges they must face. Limitations of their existing management styles and systems have been exposed, meaning low-trust environments lag even further, while high-performance cultures accelerate ahead.

How you need to be a better leader is a stark and uncomfortable question many managers don’t want to consider—especially if they believe the behaviors that brought them success in the past guarantees their success in the future.

For example, the way many managers used to sense success was by seeing what people were doing—monitoring their activities to determine their level of productivity. When work was conducted in person, they felt safe seeing employees sitting at their desk.

When did they arrive?

Did they stay late?

What was the real likelihood the employee would produce the expected deliverables by the deadline?

Managers felt like they had a handle on all of this.

But now that we’ve moved into a distributed world, all of those visual cues to manage people’s output as a proxy for their effort are gone. These very “human” management methods have been removed, which unfortunately only encourages inhumane management behavior. Without the ability to monitor activity, see ticked off tasks, and output production, they feel lost— lacking the management skills to assess and guide people to success.

But requests for minute-by-minute updates, where people are, what they’re doing, and when the work will be done only serves to create an endless stream of extra demand on their employees. Instead of boosting productivity, this drowns everyone in needless activity about activity—and more questions about what’s stopping their tasks from getting done.

The role of managers is no longer to monitor individuals and their work. In order to adapt, they need to unlearn the habit of managing how work is completed. They need to become skilled at describing what success is and why it matters, crisply defining the outcome to be achieved, then supporting and empowering their teams to pursue it.

Relearning Management For a Distributed World

Leading organizations recognize the best way to steer the ship through uncertainty involves:

  • Defining a strategic direction,
  • Clarifying outcomes to be achieved, and
  • Measuring how performant they are in relation to those outcomes

They equip themselves to sense and respond to changes in the market, customer needs, and business challenges. Their technology systems close the loop between business objectives, strategies, and results by capturing the necessary data to inform action—what future bets to make, systems to scale, or obsolete initiatives to stop.

Their human and technology systems transparently move information and insight around their organizations to tie effort to outcomes, while feeding new insights around future business direction, strategy, and intent.

Leaders who take this approach don’t get hung up on the methods their people use, what time they show up, or even what they create. Their teams aren’t required to have their status showing “online” precisely at 9am.

Instead, they create strong connections between employee effort and customer satisfaction. They set context to give control and let teams take command.

The focus rests on how the team’s effort is performing relative to the desired outcome:

  • Are they making progress?
  • Are they regularly reporting updates?
  • Are they adapting based on the feedback they’re getting from the marketplace?
  • What additional resources or support will help them overcome hurdles or progress faster?

For organizations and leaders who manage for outcomes rather than controlling outputs, the shift to remote work has not been a major problem. Their natural focus is prioritizing the top problems to tackle, agreeing on the measures of success, and supporting outcomes that demonstrate the problems being solved well. Therefore they don’t need to see what activities people are doing—teams showcase what they’ve got when they need feedback.

In this model, the leader is the servant and the facilitator. They maintain authority by allowing teams to take accountability and agree on the outcomes to be achieved. They then remove the blockages that could inhibit the team’s delivery.

Example: Why Tesco Bank Has Accelerated In Crisis

What I have observed, especially since the pandemic began, is that the best teams and leaders are applying outcome-oriented, performance-based principles to navigate uncertainty. Either they’re doing it intuitively, or the crisis has unshackled experienced teams to apply these principles, where before they were bound by bureaucracy, siloed thinking, and risk aversion.

For example, at Tesco Bank, COVID created an urgent and clear call to action, with success crisply defined in terms of customer success and safety in conducting financial transactions.

Existing processes had conditioned teams to stay in their lane. They first sequenced work with requirements, built solutions second, and waited for endless reviews and sign-offs at each stage. The siloed organizational structure fed separation and emphasized contracts over collaboration, meaning solutions were often suboptimal or at least slower to deliver.

To meet the challenges of the pandemic, executives defined what mattered most and communicated it simply and succinctly so teams could make the right decisions at any moment.

They made a subtle yet powerful shift from traditional output-based deliverables (on time, budget, and scope) to outcome-based measures of success (reducing and resolving customer issues to enable fast financial transactions).

Leaders started making themselves available as support and being more vulnerable and authentic when they did not have a ready answer to a question or problem. They shifted toward providing quick decisions and removing blockages for their teams whenever possible. The operative question shifted from “How’s that project coming along?” to “How can I help?”

When people were given problems to solve, outcomes to achieve, and a compelling purpose for doing so, it engaged their creativity, commitment, and drive. They reported that it was easier to proactively reach out to colleagues to get work done, irrespective of functional silos or titles. They were focused on problem-solving, not project production.

This created truly self-organizing, cross-functional teams that were able to collaborate on-demand, shortcutting silos and slow decision-making forums. This had a pronounced impact on customer and employee satisfaction.

For instance, the engineering and fraud teams got together to set up remote call centers and increase contactless payment thresholds. Teaming up allowed each side to understand and debate their requirements, security concerns, delivery options, and constraints from the beginning. They co-created practical solutions on the spot.

Tesco was able to implement an increase to contactless card payment limits in days, whereas the previous increase took months. It also created a work-from-home solution for call center staff, which automated processes and relieved pressure on teams having to manually capture customer data over the phone. This was accomplished in just 3 ½ weeks—a record for service delivery and a credit to the teams and individuals who made this possible.

Rapid responses to change, shorter lead times, and frequent iterations are key signals of success for high-performance organizations.

Recognizing Humanity and Stopping Inhuman Treatment

The other important distinction (and advantage) of performance-based organizations over productivity-based ones relates to the human aspects. Due to the need to allow for vulnerable dependents, families, children, and other circumstances impacting the work day, we now have the opportunity to relate to people holistically, not just as employees.

Even just seeing colleagues on video calls in their home environments where they must work and manage distractions builds empathy and wider social compassion during this pandemic.

There are people making meals, chasing children, and constructing workstations while simultaneously keeping our systems running—it’s both humbling and humanizing.

Seeing the entire person has led to an organizational culture shift, re-engaging people through small acts of kindness (emailing a thank you or “well done”), helping people to go the extra mile and empathizing with their entire situation, not just tracking their work hours.

People’s personal circumstances are now acknowledged, providing more flexibility around family commitments and increasing productivity by placing colleagues and their families at the heart of organizational values.

Can we hold on to this evolution after the crisis, to create a workplace where people don’t have to change into a corporate robot when they start work in the morning and change back at night?

Can we continue to invite people to bring their whole selves—their compassion, skills, and enthusiasm—to work, for sustainable speed, delivery, and higher business performance?

Closing Thoughts

Productivity does not equal performance. What you’re going to see increasingly in the coming weeks, months, and years is that the most successful organizations and leaders will be those that manage to outcomes—and create high-performance organizations.

Meanwhile, those who continue to manage how people do their work by tracking tasks and activities completed will continue their descent into irrelevance.

So my question to you is, as you start to reflect on how you’re managing and what behaviors you’re seeing in remote work, is it time to unlearn what worked in the past?

If it is, pick up the books, listen to the podcast, and share this article with your leadership team.

Or if you recognize it’s time to unlearn the way your business is working, make brave choices, and create a high-performance organization to innovate at scale, maybe it’s time to get in touch.