Have you ever wondered if your team is actually working when they’re ‘working from home’? Or instead might they be catching up on their fave Netflix series, scrolling through Instagram and doing a few chores around the house? It’s unlikely that you’ll ever know for sure, but what you will know is when a team member is underperforming, which is why proper performance management is vital. So how do you approach and address underperformance in a remote team?
We caught up with Kateena Mills and Katie Hamilton from Club Sandwich HR to answer this question and to get some expert tips on how to manage teams from afar.
On a broad level, performance management is an ongoing process of assessing an employee’s expectations, needs, goals, and output to ensure they align with and are meeting the organisation’s strategic objectives. It’s a valuable process for managers to effectively appraise their team members and it can be a really positive thing, helping to ensure employees are satisfied, recognised for their achievements and provided opportunities for growth and promotion. It’s also vital for your business, as high performing employees equal more productive, satisfied and engaged employees, which impacts your businesses’ bottom line.
In some cases however, when an employee is not performing as expected, ‘performance management’ refers to the process of addressing the issue, whether that’s through conversations and coaching, a performance improvement plan or disciplinary procedures.
“When an issue is identified, whether that’s to do with performance or certain behaviours that aren’t aligned with getting the job done, that’s where performance management will begin,” Kateena explains.
But in this post COVID-19 remote-work world that many businesses including Twitter and Google are making a permanent shift to, how does this performance management process look, how do you identify an underperforming employee and what are some of the warning signs you should be picking up on before it gets to that point?
While you won’t be able to pick up on the typical warning signs that you’d see if someone was sitting in front of you in the office every day, there are a number of things you can look out for with your remote employees, Kateena says.
“Employee disengagement is the big one to be aware of, as this often precedes a measurable drop in performance.”
How does a disengaged employee look from afar? Here’s a few things to ask yourself.
Although many of these changes could be caused by COVID-19-related stressors, it’s still important for leaders to check in and, in the case that it is something more than just a global pandemic, if you pick up on the signs early enough you might be able to avoid the performance management process entirely, says Kateena.
“We often see minor issues like these that have been left unaddressed turn into something more substantial.
“That’s why a continual feedback process and using systems that have this built-in are vital, as they allow managers to pick up on potential problems and nip them in the bud earlier rather than being left to fester. Once someone is disengaged it’s a lot harder to bring them back.”
The best way to assess if a team member isn’t up to scratch is through clear goals, regular communication and constant feedback, says Katie.
“Goals will differ depending on your business and the employee’s role — KPIs and targets might be appropriate for a sales executive for example, but not a graphic designer, but having something in place is the main thing.”
One thing that is even more important when managing a distributed workforce, than those in the office, is to measure output and achievement rather than time on the job. Although someone sitting beside you in the office for eight hours might look like they’re working, that doesn’t mean they’re being productive. The best way to identify if a remote worker isn’t being productive either is to evaluate the quantity and quality of their work:
“Ensure these output or achievement expectations are set out in writing and clearly communicated from the beginning, so there’s no ambiguity and if a performance management process has to be executed later down the line you’ve them to refer back to.”
So you’ve got a remote employee who’s not meeting their goals. What do you do?
Depending on the severity of the problem and your HR policies, an informal or formal approach can be taken. The processes are much the same as when you’re working in an office, but Katie recommends adding in more frequent communication and check-ins.
“In a workplace you have the tacit ability to see how an employee’s going through informal interactions. With a remote employee, you’ll need to check in more regularly, whether it’s via phone, video-conference or a message. Keep these check-ins light and informal; avoid micromanaging.”
Informal performance management approach
This might include:
Ideally that’s the end of it, problem solved, but in a lot of situations unfortunately that’s not the case.
Formal performance management approach
A more formal performance management process involves:
Performance improvement plans
A formal performance improvement plan (PIP) is a framework that can be used to keep track of how your employee is improving and moving towards their goals. It’s essentially a contract that asks for a commitment from both the employee and manager, but to get the employee’s buy-in, Katie emphasises that it needs to be a collaborative process between employee and supervisor.
“It’s all about co-creation — asking the employee what it is that they need. Has there been a mis-step from a training perspective? Do they need a mentor?
“Then it’s about setting out strategies to support them and making sure they’re dedicated to making it work.
“If you come at it from a “we’re in this together” perspective, then performance improvement plans can be done in a really positive way, even though underperformance itself is not a
‘nice’ thing for either the employee or employer.”
And if their performance still doesn’t improve?
“As a formal performance management process is typically not a very pleasant one for the employee, you often find that they’ll move on of their own accord, but if this doesn’t happen, you will need to move onto written warnings and termination, which would work exactly the same as in-office. The key thing is to make sure that the employee has had a chance to fix performance issues,” Katie says.
Performance management: things to be aware of
Performance management and termination (if it gets to that point) must be done properly, as unfair dismissal and general protections claims can be costly in both time and money, and harmful to your business. Avoiding these risks and ensuring procedural fairness can be done by having a good performance management process and documentation.
“Keeping records is really important,” says Kateena.
“Ensure you’ve recorded everything — what you’ve agreed upon, what the employee has agreed to in terms of expectations, timelines and goals, what the check-points will be, and notes of any meetings as well as conversations outside the PIP — somewhere central yet confidential.”
Need somewhere to track and document your performance management processes? intelliHR’s people management tools take care of the admin through goal tracking, performance management and diary notes so that you can focus on leading and nurturing your team.
Think of performance management like a soccer game. When the other team scores, it’s not all the goal-keepers fault for missing the save, because the ball has gone through the line of defence of 10 players first. In HR, a formal performance management process is the goalie, and the 10 other players are all the other things that could be done differently before the striker gets to take a shot.
So what can a manager do to manage and enhance the performance of their team from afar? Here’s Katie and Kateena’s six tips.
It’s been said once (or maybe a few times) and we’ll say it again. Conducting pulse checks on staff wellbeing and keeping an eye on the data and any hotspots within the business helps to identify issues as they arise and address them before they escalate.
The day of work has changed so it might not make sense for employees to work 9-5 anymore if they have children or their energy preference is to work later at night, and it doesn’t make sense for you to micro-manage their work hours.
“Focus on what you need, and when, not how the employee gets there. Expectations should be in writing so that if they need to be referred to at some later date they can be.”
This goes hand-in-hand with point no. 2. Build genuine rapport that’s about support rather than overseeing. Micro-management doesn’t breed satisfaction, productivity or any of those other things businesses want (and need).
“There’s a lot of letting go that still needs to happen. Having an ongoing feedback culture helps to create an environment of psychological safety, rather than one where the employee feels like they’re being ‘checked up on’. Ask the employee what barriers they’re facing and ensure they feel comfortable being honest.”
Establish regular communication on both an individual and team basis. This might include 1:1 catch ups, WIPS, and team meetings. Katie suggests that for teams who have been working from home for some time, or who may have partially returned to the workplace, evaluating these processes can be useful.
“Reflect on what you have in place from a communication-rhythm perspective. How is it working? Is it still working? Is it getting the outcomes we need, or do we need to change it?”
“Once it’s in place, stick to it so that employees have consistency and can be sure of the expectations. Otherwise that’s when communication breaks down and things get missed.”
Write down expectations and goals, and use a system to track metrics. Whether this is a spreadsheet, project management or data visualisation tool, or your HR platform, ensure that it’s recorded somewhere (and referred back to!).
Underperforming employees aren’t the only ones you need to watch out for. High performing employees can often work too hard and too many hours, which increases the risk of burnout.
“The same rules apply for your top performers — ensure you’re communicating regularly with them and giving lots of feedback to ensure they know they’re doing a good job,” Katie says.
“Make sure there’s a delineation between work and home and encourage them to create a shut-down routine where they say goodbye on Slack and switch off from their devices.
Leading from the top is also crucial.
“As a supervisor or manager make sure you’re taking breaks and following good work practices and making these visible to your team. I’ve seen CEO’s post photos of themselves walking the dog at 2pm. More of this needs to happen.”
Lastly, Kateena and Katie emphasise that it’s so important, as a manager, to be kind to yourself and don’t go-it alone.
“It’s important to make sure you’re doing everything you can to give that person the best chance to improve, but at the same time you need to understand you can’t save everyone. Be kind to yourself.”
“Performance management is hard enough in person but then when you can’t pick up on visual cues or body language it adds another layer of complexity.
“Make sure you seek out someone to support you, not just procedurally but emotionally, whether that’s from someone in your HR team, your boss, an external advisor or mentor.”
Is performance management and reviews taking up too much of your time? Read how McCullough Robertson Lawyers reduced their performance review process from eight months and 49 clicks to just 6 clicks that staff can do themselves.