Like most truisms, the saying ‘the only constant in life is change’ is both obvious and true. In most instances change is gradual, enforced upon us gradually over time, to almost give an illusion of statis. There are rare, once-in-a-lifetime instances though, where change comes abruptly and changes everything we know and assume at a dizzying space. The world is in the midst of one such epochal change affecting work, life and everything in between. We are talking, of course, about the global crisis brought about by COVID-19.
Tough as the environment may be, businesses have to go on, in a world that looks drastically different from even a few months ago. Co-located employees in bustling and vibrant offices, business travel, conferences and much more were so commonplace as to be assumed to be essential to running a business, are now shown up to be what they truly were – assumptions about a particular way to get work done. The ongoing crisis has asked every organization, leader and manager to test their assumptions and deal with a new reality.
Performance management, and the broader goal of keeping employees engaged and ensuring their professional and personal growth, is one of those things that looks drastically different in the current scenario. Remote work, an uncertain business environment and an overall lack of significant in-person interactions are some of the key factors that will impact how organizations manage and motivate teams and employees. We analyze these effects and recommend ways that organizations should adapt their performance management processes in response.
- Remote work – Remote work as a concept has been knocking around the periphery of the corporate consciousness for a while now. However, never before have organizations dealt with it as the norm, rather than as the exception. Before the current crisis, barring notable exceptions, companies have only allowed remote working in special instances – pregnancies, serious illness or similar special personal circumstances. Even when remote work was allowed, there was often an unwritten code which treated remote employees as second-class in some sense. There was a lack of trust, leading to over-monitoring on part of managers, and over-work and a blurring of personal and professional lives on the part of employees, to the detriment of both employee and organization. The fact that remote employees can be as productive and engaged as others, and need the same amount of investment in development and growth was often overlooked.
Needless to say, the current global pandemic created by COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of remote work, seemingly almost overnight. Entire organizations, from large multinationals to startups are entirely working remotely, and maintaining business continuity in the face of challenges both professional and personal. Even when things come back to normal, it can be argued that the number of employees working remotely will be significantly higher than before, so performance management will need to deal with the needs of such employees on an equal footing as employees who work from conventional workspaces.
One of the main things to keep in mind is around maintaining, and often exceeding, the cadence of communication between leaders, managers and employees. Remote workers tend to lose out on a lot of the informal and unstructured communication that happens in workspaces, so it becomes important for managers and leaders to go out of their way to over communicate, especially in the current scenario. This includes all-hands meetings where leaders communicate candidly the headwinds businesses are facing, and also the steps being taken to survive the current crisis. Check-ins with managers become even more critical now, with both objectives and key results having to be re-calibrated often, to keep pace with changing business priorities. All such interactions are also an opportunity for both leaders and managers to act as coaches and counsellors to employees, who are understandably anxious and look up to them for guidance.
On the other hand, these forums also give an opportunity for leaders and managers to hear feedback from employees, which should inform any strategic decisions companies take to deal with the crisis, including but not limited to cost-cutting measures, and in rare and painful instances, letting go of employees. Especially when the majority of an organization is remote, hearing from employees proactively and as often as possible is a key goal for leaders and managers down the hierarchy.
Building trust and respecting remote employees’ personal time is another key factor that the performance management process has to foster, in this time of remote work. Managers should put their trust in processes put in place to set and track objectives and key results, and regular check-ins, instead of being always mistrustful of employees’ productivity when they cannot see them. Instead of employees being anxious and insecure about the time they spend being visibly at work, they can instead focus on being productive and effective. This is especially relevant in the current situation where employees are having to juggle multiple balls in the air at the same time, with child-care, housework and more. Being empathetic of these realities will go a long way towards creating long-lasting bonds with employees, who bring their best to bear on their work, whether at home or in the office.
- Processes and metrics – Processes serve a very important purpose even in normal times – they remove guesswork and subjectivity from business functions, and make them less reliant on personal biases. Metrics, similarly, make it possible to measure the outcomes of processes in an objective manner. When applied to performance management, it makes sure organizations have the framework in place to track and enhance employee and business performance.
With limited in-person interactions, the post-corona world will need to rely even more on effective performance management processes like OKRs being put in place, and a renewed focus on being metrics based when measuring both business and employee performance. Business priorities are liable to change more often than normal, in keeping with external circumstances, and the organization needs to re-align with them and execute at speed. In such a situation, making sure objectives are set and re-calibrated often is critical. This goes hand in hand with setting key results in as quantitative and metric-driven a way as possible. This starts with individual employees and goes all the way up the hierarchy to leaders themselves – in a fast changing business landscape, the only way to survive is by being nimble, and an objective approach to measuring performance is at the root of that. With the necessary processes in place, some changes though will be warranted. Making review cycles shorter, even at a three month level, will help both employees and organizations take stock quickly and adapt. Given the prevalence of remote work going forward, the frequency of employee manager check-ins might also need to be increased.
Lastly, at a time where employees are looking up to management and leadership for guidance, employees should have as much visibility into business metrics as possible – new deals won or lost, opportunity pipeline, adherence to key product release deadlines, etc. In times of crisis when everyone needs to coalesce around a common goal and execute quickly, being on the same page is a necessity.
- Employee engagement and culture – The post-corona world will make every organization deal with a difficult question – how do you retain company culture and engage employees effectively in a time of crisis, with a predominantly remote and distributed workforce?
In times like these, there will be a natural tendency to keep things focused only on business. What sometimes tends to get lost though is the sense of being part of something bigger, formed around that amorphous thing called culture. It will be critical to adapt an organization’s culture to the current situation, to ensure that employees are engaged and empowered.
Examples abound of companies who got creative and adapted their culture to this new way of working. Getting together for virtual birthday greetings, organizing impromptu virtual parties, fundraising for worthy causes together, are some of the little things that add up. It is important to realize that as humans we are going through a shared experience that is demanding much of everyone physically and emotionally. Recognizing this shared humanity, and leaving room for levity and even a little bit of fun, will make it easier for everyone to get through this together.
The long term impacts of this crisis are still a matter of discussion, and we do not lay claim to knowing exactly what they are. What is clear though is that organizations who survive and thrive in the post-corona world will do so based on how they adapt to the current situation. Employees, through their creativity and resilience, will define how organizations sail through these troubled waters. If ever there was a time to focus on employee well-being and empowerment, it is now. Doubling down on the fundamentals of performance management – objectivity, transparency and communication – is the only effective option organizations have. Throw in a dash of creativity, and tweak things a little bit as needed, and you have an interesting twist on a time-tested recipe.