2020 has already shaped up to be one of the most momentous in recent history, due to the coronavirus crisis spreading globally and disrupting lives, business and economies at a scale never seen before. While the long term implications of this crisis will be profound, in many sectors they are hard to predict yet. For knowledge workers and their employers though, this crisis has accelerated trends which were already in play, and therefore provide us some background with which to analyze the current situation.
From the perspective of continuous performance management, while the fundamentals of employee engagement, effective communication and two-way feedback remain the bedrocks upon which it rests, the new reality of the current situation will necessitate a recalibration around how organizations implement it. Let’s dive into some of the factors that will affect how organizations measure and manage employee performance in 2020:
- Remote work: The most common and widespread shift that has happened almost overnight, globally, is remote work, with companies realizing that most of what they do can be done by employees working from home, thus ensuring business continuity.
Companies had been slowly warming up to the idea of remote work over the past few years. However, the fact remains that remote work was an exception, rather than the rule, often granted grudgingly and under special circumstances. All of a sudden, the exception has become the norm, and is expected to remain so for most of 2020. In other words, in 2020 the most pressing question facing executives and managers will be about how they can effectively lead and manage a workforce that is almost 100% remote.
To make ensure employees and teams are at their most productive in the current situation, paying attention to the following factors will be critical:
- Empathy – Most people working from home in the current situation are wearing multiple hats. They are looking after kids or the elderly, doing house work, and in general dealing with an enormous amount of stress, while also trying to be at their most productive at work. Leaders and managers should first and foremost openly acknowledge this, and make it clear to employees that it is OK to not be 100% productive. As the old saying goes ‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’.
- Structure – Maintaining the cadence of manager-employee discussions, and even increasing the frequency of them, would be needed. First, it provides the structure around which managers and employees can plan their activities on a weekly basis, review progress and share feedback. Second, it gives a forum for employees to talk candidly about their hopes and anxieties to someone who can listen and offer counsel. Modern management theory views managers also as coaches, and now is the time for managers everywhere to step up and fill those shoes.
- Candor – As organizations deal with the current situation, difficult decisions will need to be made in many instances, like letting people go. In normal circumstances itself this can be stressful even for those employees who remain, and can cause serious issues with motivation. When working remotely, the anxieties are amplified, and it is incumbent upon leaders and managers to talk to employees candidly about why certain decisions were taken, how it helps the organization, and why the employees who remain have a critical role going forward. While it cannot take away all the negative emotions around losing close friends and colleagues, employees will appreciate being made privy to the thought process that led to tough decisions.
- Virtually together – A challenge when entire organizations and teams are working from home is maintaining the sense of being part of a bigger team, and not just an individual contributor sitting in isolation. While the use of modern messaging and productivity tools can hide some of the seams in remote work, the situation also demands creativity on the part of organizations in creating bonding experiences. Team dinners and activities, which cannot be held anymore, can be replaced by virtual coffee breaks, Friday happy hours, and much more. Anything that adds some levity will go a long way towards creating a sense of kinship between individuals who are not physically co-located.
- Communication – Now, more than ever, employees are looking up to their managers and leaders for guidance and reassurance. While even leaders do not have full clarity into what is an unprecedented situation, honest and clear communication into the challenges the organization faces, the strategic decisions taken to mitigate risks, and how every team and employee can align around it, is critical.
The guiding principle in these trying times is to over-communicate, all the way down the organizational hierarchy. A bi-weekly cadence for a virtual all-hands meeting initiated by the leadership team can help the entire organization come together and reinforce the sense of being a team. Leaders should use these forums to candidly share how business is being impacted, and also the steps they are taking to ensure that the organization is not adversely impacted to the extent possible. It should also give employees the forum to ask any questions they have around strategy, business headwinds and the broader economic scenario, directly. As a follow-up, managers should then communicate within their teams and in one-on-one’s with reportees, to break down and explain clearly what the organization’s priorities are, and how they map to the team and individual.
- Feedback – Even under normal circumstances, bottom-up feedback that is able to travel up the hierarchy and inform even strategic decisions made by leadership, is important. In the present situation, filled with uncertainty and economic anxiety, it is imperative for managers and leaders to hear what employees are saying, and vice-versa. This serves a variety of purposes:
- Making sure that key business objectives are on track, and that employees are aligned and executing at the needed pace, is even more important now. Organizations are being forced to focus only on the most important things in the current situation, and executing on those is paramount. Feedback from leaders and managers can make sure teams and individuals are always rowing in the same direction.
- Leaders need to hear from all levels of the organizational hierarchy to understand the business in depth, and inform their decisions on optimizing operational expenses and conserving cash. For all leaders, letting go of people is the last decision they want to take, and in many cases the entire organization will rally and find savings in every nook and cranny of the business. Further, in this time of critical decision making which directly impacts everyone in the organization, taking employee perspectives into account will only build trust in leadership.
- Measurement– Modern performance management is built on measuring what matters. In times of crisis, finding key metrics to focus on, and tracking them obsessively can be the difference between survival and oblivion. As it relates to team and employee performance, it starts with setting objectives that are in alignment with company strategy, and coming up with relevant metrics that track progress. For example, in a situation where cost optimizations are key, managers need to be given savings targets, and progress tracked weekly against those. Even for product teams, the metrics need to be re-calibrated in light of the crisis. Where earlier, the number of new features implemented might be the most important metric to track, pivoting to track customer engagement and retention might be more relevant. The list can go on, but the central theme is that paradigms like OKRs provide the flexibility to change plans and realign entire organizations around them quickly.
The world has changed very abruptly, and it is a crisis across multiple fronts all at once. Acknowledging that, and changing the mindset to crisis management is the first step towards preparing for what lies ahead. That said, crises often lead to lasting change, and that opportunity should not go a-begging.
Remote work, which looks like it is here to stay, was always a good idea when incorporated into company policy as a valid option for a significant section of employees – parents of young kids, those with sick or elderly dependents, and more. Finding ways to integrate them with the rest of the organization, motivating them, and effectively managing their performance and growth should have been done long ago. If the current situation forces us to do that, this crisis will not have been wasted. Likewise, when companies are forced to focus on the absolutely essential, managers and employees are also forced to do the same. If that drives more discipline into how objectives are set and what key results are tracked, that can be a habit that will outlast the current situation.
There is talk going around of survival of the fittest, implying that only the organizations with the heft and financial reserves to weather the current storm will survive. That misses out on a key part of evolution – the ones that adapt best to the external environment are the ones that not only survive, but thrive.