Times of change and uncertainty create unique challenges for employees and for the managers tasked with keeping workers focused, productive, and happy at work. While companies are in various stages of “re-entry,” the future of work remains forever changed. Many entrepreneurs are adopting or continuing with flexible work policies, thus managing decentralized teams.

So, how can a leader ensure productivity in today’s business climate, and what are the best practices for managing remote or hybrid teams? Let’s consider tips from small business owners and experts for fostering productivity-- without sacrificing well-being-- in today’s unprecedented climate.

1. Use technology to your advantage.

File-sharing tools, video conferencing solutions, messaging apps, and project management platforms can help you maximize productivity, especially if some employees are remote.

Alexis Haselberger, a productivity, time management, and leadership coach, says “collaborative task management tools are essential for managing workload across locations and for reducing meetings and communications around status updates.”

But choosing the right solution for your company can be challenging. Ewelina Melon, head of people at Tidio, a customer experience tool for small businesses, suggests testing out tools to “figure out what works best for your company and your employees.”

Once you roll out a solution, be sure to provide the necessary training and support so employees get the most from the tool.

2. Set communication expectations.

The same tools that empower us can also distract. Haselberger says when she runs productivity workshops, clients often cite messenger apps as “productivity killers,” in part because there is an “unspoken requirement that employees answer messages immediately.”

“If you are getting pinged and dinged all day long, it’s hard to actually make real progress at work,” she explains.

To overcome this challenge, set clear expectations for how quickly messages should be addressed. You can also encourage employees to block off time in their calendar to focus on set tasks and purposefully ignore their inbox.

“If we can all agree, say, that emails should be answered within one business day, then employees can address communication as needed, while still being responsive,” Haselberger says. 

She also suggests defining an “emergency channel”-- a go-to method for reaching out when you truly need an answer fast.

3. Protect against burnout.

According to Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index survey, high productivity can mask an exhausted workforce. While 82 percent of respondents felt they were as, or even more productive working from home, 54 percent felt overworked, and 39 percent felt exhausted. The Employee Burnout Report by Indeed reported similar findings, with 52 percent of respondents experiencing burnout in 2021.

Employers can help prevent burnout by allowing workers to keep flexible schedules, encouraging time off, emphasizing work-life balance, and adding new perks, such as mental health support, according to Indeed’s research.

4. Show your team you trust them.

Jeff Mains, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Champion Leadership Group, says managers often think they can boost productivity by pressuring workers to put in longer hours or prioritize work above all else.

“The difficulty with such a strategy is that it directly conflicts with numerous essential determinants of employee productivity, including engagement, autonomy, and general well-being,” he says.

Instead, allow your employees to work independently, whether they’re in the office or at home.

“The fewer distractions your staff are exposed to, the better they will concentrate on creating outcomes that will propel your firm ahead of the competition,” he explains.

That said, be sure to schedule regular check-ins so you can offer feedback and support and keep the team on the same page.

5. Offer flexible scheduling, if possible.

One of the most effective ways to show trust is to offer flexible schedules. Microsoft research found that employees thrive when given autonomy, says Desmond Dickerson, director of future of work at Microsoft.

“Small businesses should heed that insight and provide flexible work arrangements that allow employees to work from home when they prefer or in office if that suits them,” he says. 

Failure to offer flexibility could threaten employee retention, Dickerson says, as we are living through “the Great Reshuffle,” a time when everyone is rethinking everything, including their employment options.

“Small business leaders must understand they now compete with even more organizations for the best talent since remote work has lessened the impact of geographic boundaries,” he cautions.

6. Run productive meetings.

In case you haven’t heard, employees have had it with unnecessary meetings. Be conscious of when and why you request a meeting and be understanding of employees’ competing tasks and deadlines.

“Having too many meetings only decreases productivity at work,” says Alejandra Marqués, a productivity and balance mentor.

“To have productive meetings, you need to set the date, create the agenda, and make sure the main topics are discussed. If the meeting finishes before the established time, congrats! You just have some time back to get back to focused work.”

7. Lead by example.

“The most essential thing business leaders can do is lead by their example,” Melon says. “Showing the best use of productivity tools, being understanding and empathic, learning to delegate responsibilities, playing fair, and holding oneself accountable both for successes and failures are the keys to efficient leadership.”

She also cautions leaders not to favor in-person workers over remote ones. Fair and consistent communication takes mindfulness and effort but is essential to ensuring everyone can achieve their objectives. 

With these tips in mind, you can promote productivity and ensure your business can achieve its goals, even amid challenging times.

For more valuable content like this, please visit The Hartford’s small business blog.