Addressing Underperformance In Remote Work

Article submitted by Ellen McKitterick

The past year has necessitated many changes in the workplace, perhaps the largest shift – and challenge! – being the quick move to remote work that many organizations undertook during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that shift, many organizations redefined their definition of “acceptable” performance, as leaders flexed to accommodate and remain empathetic to employees managing the pressures of the pandemic in their personal lives, including health challenges, child care, and remote learning responsibilities. In fact, many managers have shied away from having difficult performance conversations because they feel guilty about holding employees accountable during this time.

However, as the world starts reopening, and businesses start making decisions about what comes next (remaining remote, hybrid models, or a return to the office), managers cannot ignore employees who are struggling to keep up – whether they are in the office or working remotely. Talking about underperformance is never fun, and the remote environment presents unique challenges; however, addressing underperformance head-on can help us grow and develop our employees’ skills (saving them, perhaps, from termination), as well as drive our organizations forward. Here are five best practices for managing performance challenges in the remote work environment.

  • Clearly define expectations. No matter where your staff is located, they need to have a clear understanding of their roles and what is expected of them. Now might be the perfect time to review and update employees’ job descriptions to ensure that they accurately capture the essential functions of the employee’s role taking into account any changes necessitated by remote work. Even apart from the job description and their essential job functions, employees should know what is expected of them specific to operating in a remote environment, including the expected response time is for return e-mails and voicemails, how they should engage with the team (for example, having cameras on doing virtual team meetings), meeting deadlines, and expectations around being on-time for virtual check-ins or available during certain hours. While defining expectations, managers must be sure to put their employees’ roles and responsibilities in context with the larger goals of the team, department, or organization because doing so can enhance engagement and drive greater performance and understanding of how their work (or lack thereof) affects others. Additionally, there is an opportunity for managers to engage in introspection when defining expectations by asking if they have provided adequate resources, coaching, and feedback to employees to support them in their performance. By providing supports, and being clear, we set the employee up for success and create specific items we can then hold them accountable for in the future.
  • Trust is key. The biggest hang-up managers have with remote work is that they can’t see their employees in the same way they can pop into someone’s office to check-in. And because they can’t see when employees are working and what they are working on, some managers experience anxiety about how productive employees are in the remote environment. In order for remote work to work, managers have to trust their staff to work effectively and efficiently. One of the ways we can build trust – and give employees ownership of their performance – is by tracking performance based on output – what are the performance standards employees must meet or goals the employee must achieve – rather than input – how long they are “logged in” each day. Collaborate with employees when setting expectations and goals and create task lists with deadlines to track progress towards completion.  This defines expectations for employees (See Bullet #1 above), helps keep them on track (without micromanaging), and helps leaders hold them accountable when tasks aren’t completed
  • Keep communication regular. The key to performance management, whether managing staff in-office or remotely, is to keep employees in the loop about how they are performing. Regular check-ins, and keeping the lines of communication open in between, helps managers and employees identify challenges early and provides an opportunity to explore what caused the challenge and try different solutions to improve performance before resorting to formal corrective action. Additionally, by leaning on video-call technology like Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, managers can help enhance the connections they have with their remote employees so that they feel a part of the bigger picture, and understand their performance impacts others, even when working remotely. It also provides notice to employees of issues and begins to create a timeline and record so that, if a more formal performance management process is needed, there is a history to support any corrective action. Ongoing communication also builds trust (See Bullet #2 above), and fosters a greater sense of ownership and accountability in employees in meeting their performance objectives.
  • Consider what underperformance is telling you. Many managers fall into the trap of focusing on the underperformer, rather than the underperformance, by assuming that poor performance is the employee’s fault and that they lack the skill, motivation, or commitment to succeed. While some of these may play a role in underperformance, by focusing on the performance itself and getting curious about other factors that might be playing a role in the employee’s performance, leaders may be able to get to the root cause of the issue, and ultimately a better solution. So ask yourself – particularly with employees who have just recently started to underperform – what’s different? Are they experiencing difficulties in their personal life that are limiting their ability to concentrate? Is their remote work set-up or other environmental factors creating more distraction? Are they experiencing issues with technology? Are our processes too cumbersome (maybe because they are still heavily manual), and made more so by being away from the office? Or, are you as a leader being clear in your expectations and offering your employees sufficient supports (see Bullet #1 above). By trying to identify which factors may be presenting obstacles to performance, you may end up taking a different approach to resolve the issue than simply moving forward with a written warning or a performance improvement plan.
  • Create a plan for performance conversations, and don’t wait. Even if leaders do all of the above, sometimes a more formal performance conversation and corrective action is needed. Most people dislike confrontation and avoid uncomfortable conversations, and remote work inherently makes performance conversations more awkward. However, when the need arises, managers shouldn’t delay scheduling time with their employees to discuss poor performance. Create a plan for the conversation – what time is best to connect with the employee when they will be the least distracted? Like regular check-ins, video-calls are the best substitute for the formal in-person performance conversations because it helps facilitate engagement in the conversation. Start by clearly stating what you have noticed in terms of the employee’s performance. Be specific and provide examples, and then follow-up with open-ended questions that allow the employee to share what is impacting their performance. Show empathy, but don’t let your employees off the hook. Restate or clarify expectations, help them understand that they are accountable for their performance and engage them in problem-solving. Ask what supports they need to improve, what they think they can learn from this challenge, and what steps they can apply in the future. By engaging them in the problem-solving process, you give the employee ownership over the solution and create greater accountability. Finally, revisit what resources you can offer employees and reiterate that you are there to answer questions and offer support. And, as with any performance management conversation, agree on action items for the future and create a plan to follow-up on their progress.

Want to learn more about performance management, effective discipline, and documentation best practices? Join us for our next session of Documentation Skills for the Supervisor.