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Performance Management for the Virtual Workforce

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With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic acting as an unexpected catalyst for change, how we work is rapidly evolving. Of all the developments that have emerged during the “new normal” of the last six months, the biggest shift can be summed up rather succinctly with three simple words:

Work. From. Home. 

While it is true that remote/virtual work has seen a significant increase in popularity over the last few years (particularly among forward-thinking enterprise organizations), pandemic uncertainty has forced many businesses to leave their HR comfort zones and adopt some form or another of a fully remote work model.

For many of our clients, this adventure into the unknown depths of Human Capital Management has manifested as a rollercoaster ride of trial and error – one defined by the search for synergy between company culture, agile technology and industry best practices. One of the biggest challenges our clients have faced as remote work continues its transition from short-term anomaly to standard industry practice has been how to manage remote employees and their performance (i.e., the perennial elephant in the talent management room).

Most HCM practitioners would likely agree that performance management is complicated. From constantly evolving frameworks to the ever-lasting struggle to arouse sufficient employee buy-in, effective performance management is a difficult undertaking even in the best of times. And, as we are all poignantly aware, 2020 has not been the best of times. As it seems that our collective reliance on remote work is here to stay at least through the end of this year, we felt it appropriate to speak with some clients and put together a list of performance management best practices for remotely managed teams.

From technology to organizational culture, this article provides a high-level overview of what we know works.

Foster a Culture of Communication in Your Performance Management Framework

Communication has always been an essential element of successful team management, particularly in the digital age. And while most managers pride themselves on being effective communicators, it is clear that the rules of the game have changed.

Although we may not realize it, much of our work-related interactions are nonverbal in nature – from facial expressions to body posture. In fact, nonverbal cues go a long way in helping managers defuse conflict, avoid misinterpretations and improve team morale. Effective performance management in a remote, geographically dispersed setting means it’s time for managers to get creative and fully embrace a multi-channel approach to inter-team communications.

While chat and email will continue to remain powerful tools in management’s communication repertoire (i.e., the former for quick synchronization and real-time team talk, the latter for formal messaging and status updates), video conferencing is now the channel of choice for many of our clients looking to put effective communication at the forefront of their remote performance management strategies. On-demand video and “face-to-face” video conferencing will greatly assist management in their quest to humanize remote communications while also streamlining the constructive conversations needed to optimize remote appraisals.

Those organizations that successfully transition the “ongoing feedback” elements of their modern appraisal framework to a robust video conferencing platform will not only succeed in building a sense of community among their workforce, but will avoid the dreaded “out of sight, out of mind” mentality so detrimental to building remote team trust.

In summary, when it comes to weekly check-ins and quarterly reviews, keep the cameras on.

Align, Monitor And Recognize Employees in the Performance Management Cycle

Developing a culture of effective communication is key for effective performance management, as it lays the foundation from which the next batch of remote management best practices flow: employee alignment (i.e., role clarification), employee monitoring (i.e., goal tracking) and employee recognition (i.e., both public and private feedback).

In these uncertain times, employees are looking to organizational leaders for guidance. They want to understand both the micro and macro priorities on which they should focus, as well as what the expectations for their specific role will be. One particularly effective method for overcoming the heightened anxiety employees face in dispersed teams is to have managers focus the attention of their direct reports on goal setting – specifically the objectives and key results methodology (i.e., OKRs).

As we have highlighted in other articles, OKRs prove effective in enhancing both collaboration and agility as a bidirectional exercise in goal-setting. Rather than simply cascading down from the c-suite level, employees are encouraged to develop their own OKRs in harmony with an organization’s strategic vision. Once remote employees have established their OKRs, management should continue to monitor objectives and key results as they typically would (i.e., on a quarterly/yearly basis), but with an added emphasis the consistent communication/feedback we highlighted in the previous section (i.e., something outside of the formal review setting, such as pulse surveys).

Finally, organizations must also look to maintain engagement by focusing on developing a culture of employee recognition. Why recognition? Well, whether through gamification, public praise (via an employee experience platform), or a few words of gratitude shared directly in a weekly one-on-one, recognition confirms to employees that they are, in fact, valued. With employees and management having recently moved from a few desks apart to a few miles apart (in some cases, even further), the power of positive reinforcement shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Encourage Employees to Self-Evaluate

When it comes to performance management, most organizations tend to restrict the scope of employee evaluations to direct managers and peers. That is to say, what typically matters most to an organization when evaluating an employee is the opinion of a direct manager, followed by the first-hand experience of teammates and colleagues.

Employees aren’t always asked to critically reflect on their own performance and engage in a formal self-evaluation, and this tends to be by design. As Harvard Business Review pointed out a number of years ago, even the most well-intentioned self-evaluators can unknowingly – and very easily – 1) overestimate their performance (i.e., the overconfidence effect) and 2) fail to acknowledge the impact of environmental factors on success (i.e., fundamental attribution error).

While these cognitive biases certainly continue to exist in 2020, when it comes to performance review for remote employees, self-evaluations play a critical role in providing geographically dispersed employees with something they very desperately desire:

A voice.

Enterprise organizations that can effectively develop a remote work culture founded on demonstrably valuing the employee voice should find it surprisingly straightforward to generate the employee engagement necessary for remote team success. Combined in conjunction with peer and direct manager feedback, the reciprocal nature of self-evaluations can both empower and motivate employees, helping to demystify the process of remote appraisals at a time when the greatest fear for most employees is being left behind.

Once a sense of belonging is firmly secured among dispersed teams, organizations can look forward to more open, focused and effective performance conversations between management and direct reports.

Power Your Remote Performance Management Processes With a Modern SaaS Ecosystem

As the way we work continues to evolve, so too should the tools we use to support and administer talent management activities.

With cloud-based collaboration having replaced most in-person interactions across a wide range of industries, 2020 has forced enterprise organizations from all walks of business life to make substantial and unexpected investments in their SaaS infrastructures – even in the face of budget cuts. While most early pandemic investments were easily justified as “no brainers” in terms of their utility for optimizing a newly remote workforce (think Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Office 360, etc.), an alarmingly high number of organizations remain behind the curve when it comes to the technology and processes powering their remote employee appraisals.

Talent management – particularly performance management – is all about cultivating relationships. Our goal here at Avature is to strive to provide our customers with a SaaS platform that meets every conceivable talent management need. We’ve come to understand that effective performance management doesn’t happen in isolation. In our “new normal” of remote work, employee appraisals are inherently bonded to the strategic talent management pillars of employee engagement and internal mobility. The hard truth of the era in which we live is this: you simply cannot succeed in performance management without first unifying core talent management activities and technologies.

Remember, the modern enterprise organization is only as strong as its weakest link. And, as we have seen time and again, best-in-class SaaS tools, as standalone assets, can only do so much for organizations that maintain inefficient, piecemealed and siloed talent management software suites.

As such, we both position and challenge our clients to develop a more holistic picture of remote performance management, and the technology that drives it. In this way, when it comes time for evaluations, all employees – from first-year associates to seasoned managers – can leverage our talent management ecosystem to pursue the development path most relevant to their position – even from afar.

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