Managing remote teams can be stressful. This article provides some tips for managers on how to add a little more flexibility and heart into the process.
I have had my fair share of interesting (read: terrifying, awkward, engaging, meaningful…) performance appraisals over my career – from a 15-minute one-way discussion that consisted of my manager asking if my admin files were up-to-date and if I was coping, to a five-hour (no kidding!) deep dive into my performance over the previous 6 months and long-term career aspirations. I have also had excellent performance appraisals, where I have come out of the session feeling inspired and refocused, with a clear understanding of the value I bring to the team and the business.
I suspect that these first two reviews happened the way they did for the following reasons:
The business structure did not support a performance management culture – i.e. my manager had over 40 staff reporting directly into him, and there was no way that any meaningful performance discussions could take place. There was a huge sigh of relief when I confirmed that my files were in order and that I was indeed coping (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was completely burnt out), because this meant that he could end the meeting quickly, and that I was one less problem to solve – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
The punitive nature of the performance management process in the organization terrified my other manager, and she micromanaged me to cover all her bases. So, while I was appreciative of the time investment and perspectives shared, one can only handle so much developmental feedback. I left the session feeling physically and mentally exhausted, and not really sure what to work on first.
Managing employee performance has traditionally created much anxiety for managers because:
- There may be no clear performance management process that aligns how the organisation measures performance, and management has limited access to documentation to support them
- The goals and metrics set are ambiguous
- There is no culture of feedback in the team/organization
- Line Managers have not been upskilled to understand how to measure performance or have difficult conversations, so they avoid them altogether
The move towards working remotely has not helped the situation. This has left some managers feeling out of control, with an overwhelming sense of dread when it comes to discussing performance.
But, do not despair: the good news is that research has shown that it is possible to manage staff performance effectively from a distance, and that if given the right tools, managers can create a thriving team in their unique environments.
For example, while managers may be concerned that their employees are not putting in the required hours when working from home, a survey conducted by California-based company, Prodoscore, identified that in fact, the average remote worker starts work at 8:32 a.m. and ends work at 5:38 p.m., indicating that our employees are present for a majority of the work day – it is our job as managers to ensure that we are engaging them effectively during this time.
To help managers on their way to successfully managing performance remotely, the following tips and approaches can be used:
- Think about why you’re conducting these reviews in the first place. Freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University, Rebecca Knight, suggests that “as the Covid-19 crisis trudges on, you’re not necessarily looking to weed out poor performers or decide who gets a raise. Rather, it’s to strengthen your organization’s culture and reinforce its values”.
- It is important to consider your employee holistically (yes, including their messy emotions) and the context in which they are operating. When we genuinely seek to understand our employees and their unique situations, we acknowledge their humanity and build loyalty and trust, which are all essential to building an engaged team. Mark Mortensen, owner/principal consultant of Global Works Consulting and Associate Professor and the chair of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, sums this up well: with your team members working from home, your approach calls for a “little more flexibility, a little more heart, and a little more leniency.”
- Get to know your employee’s dominant communication style. Using behavioural assessment tools such as the DISC (Dominance, Influence, Compliance, Steadiness) model will help a manager understand how best to keep the individuals in their team updated, and how to help keep them connected and engaged. For example, according to Thomas International, the talent assessment platform provider, team members with Influence as a working strength “could see drops in productivity if they don’t have access to others within the team to discuss ideas or problems with. They are likely to experience loneliness and boredom quickly, so regular check-ins are essential to avoid this”.
- Although we may be drained by back-to-back calls on collaboration apps such as Zoom and MS Teams, it is important to have regular check-ins with your employees. This provides an opportunity for you to connect with your employee, coach them, identify areas for support, and proactively problem solve.
- Preparation is key. Agreeing goals and performance metrics upfront will ensure everyone is clear on what the individual and broader team is working towards. While a performance check-in for some may be more casual, it is important that you and your employee still leave the session with a clear idea of where they stand on their performance against deliverables, the support required and next steps. Using a template to prepare for your check-ins will help you and your employee align on what needs to be discussed in the sessions and will help you to manage time.
- Use your camera when having a check-in or performance discussion with your employee. You can get a better sense of the environment in which they’re working and will also be able to use visual clues to determine how your employee is responding to the conversation.
- In the session, be sure to use active listening techniques, such as:
• Paying attention to what the other person is saying – do not listen simply to respond
• Paraphrasing: Reflecting what you are hearing
• Clarifying information: asking specific questions – e.g. who, what, when, where, how
• Summarising what has been said
- Make a habit of recognizing and celebrating your high performers. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on the metrics that, and employees whose performance, need improvement. The fight for high potential talent continues, so if you do not take the time to communicate the value of your employee’s contribution, or do not continue to give them opportunities to stretch themselves, another organization will.
- To address the problem of old biases rearing their heads in the absence of traditional performance data, you need “to be conscious of those biases” and “look for other sources of data,” says Mortensen. Self-evaluations and peer reviews may be a solution that gives us a more holistic view of performance.
- Most importantly, be kind to yourself and to your team! We’re all figuring out how to adapt to our shifting world; if you display empathy and kindness towards yourself and others, your team will follow suit.