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Manage output not presence, in the new normal of remote work

Performance management can be an excruciating experience for both managers and employees, and the process of measuring performance is potentially even more challenging when done at a distance in today’s “new normal” of remote work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated trends towards technology-enabled remote work and meetings, teleworking, and automation, with a survey of South African firms finding that at least 38% of the country’s active workforce were working from home in 2020, compared to 4% pre-pandemic.1

Remote working is not expected to go away any time soon, as lockdowns continued into 2021 and employers in the same survey estimated that 33% of their employees would still be working from home in three years’ time.

The impact of the pandemic and successive lockdowns hit business hard – with liquidations in the 4th quarter of 2020 up by 20.5% on the final quarter of 20192, and 2.2-million jobs shed in July-September 20203 as companies were forced into retrenchments or closures – and the focus now for those that have survived needs to be on sustainability in the “new normal”, says Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

“2020 for business was about adapting and surviving and hoping for a ‘return to normal’ but clearly that is not yet likely in 2021 and business is now compelled to focus on moving from survival to sustainability. Talking about sustainability implies a need to focus on productivity, and measuring and managing the performance of individuals and teams in alignment with the business’s goals is central to this,” she said.

Performance management has its pro’s and con’s, she said, but most companies continue to use traditional methods of goal-setting, measurements, reviews and ratings. Research has shown that performance management is most effective when “managers have a clear purpose on why it needs to be done, and the purpose and process are communicated with employees openly and transparently”.

While remote work can become a situation of online meeting overload, Dr Winkler-Titus said the need for open communication did not always have to mean another online meeting or formal email. She encouraged “casual check-ins” on progress and how the employee is coping with remote work.

Online, collaborative progress tracking tools can also be applied to track delivery of individual contributors, ensuring meetings are focused on qualitative discussions as opposed to activity tracking.

“That kind of open communication is not easy to achieve in virtual meetings and emails but it is critical if performance management in a future of remote working is going to be effective. Research at the USB during lockdown showed that while employees experienced many positives in working from home, they missed the interaction and support of an office environment, and so it’s important that performance management methods continue to be done in a way that promotes connection and interaction, rather than disconnection and disengagement,” she said.

Dr Winkler-Titus said a “simple and engaging process with fairness and compassion at its centre” was a key element in performance management, particularly under the current circumstances where remote working presents employees with multiple social, family and financial challenges in addition to the pressure of working from home in an environment not always designed for work.

“On the plus side, this ‘new normal’ of working arrangements is an opportunity to really focus on actual output as opposed to mere presence and visible activity in the office as a measure of performance. Trust has been found to be a key element in managing virtual teams, and is built by setting accurate, mutually-understood expectations.

“Remote working arrangements are an opportunity for managers to build trust by ‘letting go’, not making stereotypical assumptions about working at home being an excuse to slack off, and showing that they trust their employees to get the job done without the control that applies when employees work in co-located spaces,” she said.

Best practice performance management systems should support achievement of the organisation’s strategic objectives and specific goals, and answer the questions of “what business problem needs to be solved”, what must be evaluated to show achievement of the business goals.

Dr Winkler-Titus said managers of remote teams could not afford to ignore under-performing employees whose lack of contribution negatively impacts or influences the team.

Her advice for managing poor work performance4 remotely includes:

  • Revisit expectations and make sure that they are clear and consistent. Clear expectations, priorities, standards and criteria for success provide a clear yardstick and fairness, especially in situations where an employee doesn’t share the manager’s view of under-performance.
  • If the employee lacks skills or experience to do the job, consider support mechanisms such as training, mentoring or coaching. Ensure that you understand the exact source of the challenge and put support in place in partnership with the employee. Set up the support remotely – training, mentoring and coaching are ideally suited for online and virtual modes – rather than waiting for a time when everyone is working in the same office again.
  • Don’t make the employee feel attacked as they will be forced into defensiveness, making it difficult to provide support and turn the situation around.
  • Avoid one-way communication – allow the process to be employee-driven by inviting feedback and finding ways for the employee to track progress.
  • Enable the employee to take ownership of their own development and how to improve their performance, by ensuring expectations are clear and mutually understood, having regular, informal conversations and providing ongoing coaching.
  • Invest in the person – understand their life goals and challenges, especially what may be their unique circumstances and challenges related to remote work, and show compassion. Understand their level of engagement with the work, team and organisation, and address problems they may have there.
  • Research furthermore shows that generally people avoid difficult conversations. “Especially after a tough performance discussion, the leader may be tempted not to engage, to allow the employee time to think, but this brings a risk of the employee feeling overwhelmed and insecure.

“Check in with your team informally, and encourage them to do the same with each other – don’t ‘ghost’ your people,” she said. Managing performance calls for managing delivery, leading and inspiring people and coaching the individual.

References:

  1. Survey by business consultants Willis Towers Watson of 66 SA firms employing 207 000 people, conducted in September & October 2020. https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-ZA/News/2021/01/working-from-home-is-here-to-stay-but-firms-have-no-plans-for-jobs-offshoring-or-pay-cuts-tied  
  2. Statistics South Africa report on liquidations and insolvencies December 2020, released 25 January 2021. http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=1854&PPN=P0043&SCH=72680  
  3. Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Q3 2020, released 12 November 2020. http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=1854&PPN=P0211  
  4. Pulakos, E. D.; Mueller-Hanson, R.; & Arad, S. (2019). The Evolution of Performance Management: Searching for Value. Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behavior, 6: 249-271, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012218-015009

Useful resources:
University of Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership.
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