Performance management during a pandemic

The impact of COVID-19 on the workplace has been far reaching. One of the most significant changes has been the exponential growth in remote working. Primarily driven by public health concerns, the rollout of remote working, across entire workforces in some sectors, has required organisations to become increasingly adaptive. As we head into what may be a ninth month of full-time mandatory remote working for many, organisations are facing important decisions on how to manage performance.  

Performance appraisal is a critical undertaking, the output of which can have far reaching consequences in areas such as employee engagement and reward. There are a number of areas for employers to consider as follows.  

  

Measurement of performance  

Productivity and performance may not look the same way now, as it did a year ago. Very few job roles were untouched by the impact of COVID-19, however it is in the space of remote working that perhaps the most significant change has occurred. For managers and employees alike, there is a paradigm shift needed to understand what this change is.    

The established performance management system and metrics may be unsuitable where rapidly adapted work processes, atypical work patterns and/or full-time remote working has applied since early this year. The established performance metrics may be misleading or even unworkable in some instances. In a year where employees were likely faced with multiple challenges within and outside of the workplace, the expected standards of performance may need adjusting, along with the performance targets against which objectives have been set. Within the work environment, employees have faced the need to upskill in virtual communications, new work protocols and new customer engagement channels. Challenges presented by the balancing of home and work life simultaneously may also have affected productivity. Taking this context in to account in any performance related decisions is critical.  

Where remote working has applied, managers may feel ill equipped to assess performance. Traditionally, there is an association between hours spent in the office and perceived performance. However, remote working requires a shift to focusing on output not hours. Ultimately, it is results that matter, not the hours spent at the desk.   

Detractors of remote working will focus on the lack of supervision and how this may contribute to underperformance. However, multiple research studies have shown that, on average, remote working does not negatively impact productivity and that it can even lead to increased productivity. High levels of employee engagement and improved talent retention can also result. The critical ingredient for effective remote working is trust. An absence of trust can lead to attempts to micromanage, poor communication and employees disengaging from their work. In general, managers of newly remote teams should be wary of perceived underperformance. Considering the pattern of past performance will assist managers to form a balanced view of variations in performance in the current year. 

It should also be recognised that remote working works best for certain job roles (for example where the role has high levels of autonomy and work is apportioned into discrete tasks). Individual personality and working styles also make certain individuals more suited to remote working. (Employees with high levels of intrinsic motivation can adapt better to remote working). A further factor which effects performance in remote working is the level of support, training and enabling tools and systems provided to the employee. For some, there will have been numerous obstacles to high performance in 2020 and managers should consider this impact.   

The decision on formal annual performance reviews is not straightforward in 2020 and will be dictated by the flexibility within the existing performance management system to accommodate the varying impacts of this year’s developments, the type of work/industry involved and the extent to which work processes where impeded/altered. Organisational culture is another critical factor. How the organisation manages performance sends a strong message to staff. Where, how and if performance is recognised will inform an employee on their own contribution and value. In a year where opportunity for ongoing feedback may have reduced in the face of more pressing concerns, the messaging around annual performance appraisal is especially important. For some, this may mean a temporarily adapted approach to performance assessment.  

Effective performance management is the process of creating a work environment in which people are enabled to perform to the best of their abilities. This will involve formal performance appraisal, but it also involves more routine performance activities, which have a significant role to play in enabling high performance. These include: 

 

Goal setting  

Formal performance management cycles will involve goal setting. This may happen at the start of the performance review cycle and the individual/team objectives should cascade down from the overall company strategy and goals. In recent years, there are noted examples of organisations that have moved to updating employee objectives on a regular basis throughout the year to keep pace with the changing demands of the business. Whatever the established approach in your organisation, the unprecedented events of 2020 do require that any formal objectives be revisited to ensure their suitability.  

Goal setting should not be simply the preserve of the formal performance management system. Setting short term goals on an ongoing basis, can be an important motivator for staff members. It provides role clarity which enables the employee to reprioritise their work. This is especially important in a remote working scenario where the employee is generally entrusted with more flexibility to manage their workday. Specific achievable goals contribute to an ongoing sense of accomplishment at work which drives productivity and can cultivate the right atmosphere for development discussions.  

 

One to one meeting 

Regular one-on-one meetings play a key role in setting performance expectations. In a remote working scenario, the one-to-one meeting has even greater value as it presents a focused opportunity for the manager and employee to give feedback and to seek feedback. It is normal to become less disciplined about these meetings over time. However, the one-to-one meeting is a key opportunity to have an in-depth discussion, to understand what is happening, to identify areas for development and to grow relationships. The one-to-one meeting is often the most appropriate time for an employee to raise any concerns or challenges that may be concealed when working from home. For the one-to-one meeting to be effective, the manager needs to set aside the time to be present and tuned in to employees' needs and priorities. One-to-one meetings can be short (15 – 20 minutes) and having a set agenda will ensure preparation on both sides in advance of each meeting. To ensure that productivity do not falter, these meetings are a key tool for managers to set clear expectations and ensure coherence across different work streams.  

 

Feedback  

Feedback in both a formal and informal context is hugely valuable to nurture high performance. Where undertaken in the correct manner, feedback enables employees to improve and to understand their contribution. Informal feedback can diminish naturally in a remote working scenario and employees may feel a sense of disconnection or lack of purpose over time. It is therefore critical that managers become adept at giving regular feedback, in real time where possible. Traditional approaches to feedback may lead to managers giving feedback in line with established performance management cycles. However, an ongoing practice of recognising performance as close to the event as possible has been shown to be most effective for positive impact on the staff member. Giving feedback as soon as possible also helps the manager overcome recency bias. Where feedback is happening infrequently, there is a natural tendency for a manager to focus on more recent events that come to mind easier and thus key employee achievements may be missed. 

Remote working will generally lead to more written communications and managers should take care not to rely on written exchanges exclusively to deliver feedback. The absence of body language and tone along with the inability to see an employee’s response is significant and may result in employees placing an unintended or negative interpretation on the feedback. The communication channel used is therefore critical. Face to face is best for delivering sensitive feedback and where this is not possible, a video call is preferable to ensure that feedback and discussion can be instantaneous. Words and tone of voice do have a significant impact on how the message is received.  

Feedback should be primarily positive where possible and care should be taken where negative feedback is needed. The best feedback is actionable, and constructive. Detail is best to show the employee that the feedback is not tokenism. Where possible, highlighting the precise activities that worked well and any identifiable positive outcomes from these, will ensure that the feedback is impactful. There is a tendency to call out high performers frequently, however all employees should receive feedback on their achievements. Recognising progress as well as achievements can enable the manager to identify constructive feedback for all team members.  

 

 Role of recognition 

There are multiple factors that will impact an organisation’s approach to formal performance appraisal in 2020. In some organisations, formal performance appraisal is linked to pay progression and/or bonus which are set out in company agreements or employment contracts. Formal appraisal ratings may also feed into career progression and development decisions.  

The benefits of recognising performance and contribution include a more engaged workforce and improved talent retention. Ensuring that the work of employees, especially those working remotely, are recognised may be more significant in 2020 than in previous years. The impact of this year may mean that some organisations are financially constrained in terms of reward and investment in learning/development. However, recognising performance, in whatever manner possible, is an opportunity to give employees a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. Where an employee feels that they are valued by the organisation and where they understand the importance their contribution, this can drive personal fulfilment and ensure that the employee feels connected and part of the organisation. The positives of these two factors alone cannot be underestimated.  

Whatever decision your organisation makes in relation to performance management and measurement in 2020, it is critical that this is communicated effectively to staff. This involves consistent messaging across multiple channels, both formal and informal. It requires nuanced messaging, that shows careful consideration and a deep level of insight. Communications on this topic should include definitive commitments that are actioned in a timely manner. Communications on this topic should strive to prevent any uncertainty, misunderstanding or perceived unfairness.  

 

 Claire Hellen, HR Strategy Specialist, Ibec