Remote work doesn’t mean performance appraisals shouldn’t go ahead, but they do require more forward planning. Here’s what HR needs to know about virtual performance management.
In a standard performance management discussion, there’s already a vast amount to consider. An employee’s progress to date, their goals, the company’s objectives, and opportunities to upskill all need to be covered off.
Add remote work to the mix and things get a little more complicated. Suddenly, working from home arrangements, the possibility of juggling work with homeschooling, and an alarming surge in mental health issues, are all considerations that might need to be factored into virtual performance management discussions, too.
“I think the business needs to be empathetic to an employee’s position… We know people are working from home, and there are additional challenges, says Niall Kennedy, Director of Preferred Training Network.
“But you need to still be clear in your expectations, and reflect on their performance.”
HRM recently shared some of the legal considerations to keep in mind when conducting virtual performance management meetings. Now we’re looking into the practical considerations of running performance management remotely.
Although a similar set of processes and steps apply regardless of whether performance management is being conducted in person or remotely, there are some additional points that employers should tick off their checklist before heading into a performance review.
Performance management traditionally took a retrospective view of an employee’s performance, and was often designed to address underperformance.
While performance management now tends to be a wider discussion that encompasses an employee’s career trajectory and future development, there will still typically be areas of improvement that factor into the discussion.
This means, before entering a virtual performance management conversation, most employees are going to be feeling some degree of apprehension.
In a virtual performance management meeting, some employees might have privacy concerns about a situation transpiring that couldn’t occur in a face-to-face setting. For example, an employee could worry about the presence of others in the room, says Kennedy, such as people sitting outside the camera’s view.
“They might be looking at their manager, but there could also be a lawyer and a redundancy expert on either side,” says Kennedy. “This could be a very real fear for some employees.”
While the vast majority of employers wouldn’t be so duplicitous, it’s possible this scenario could cross an employee’s mind.
To allay their fears, it’s best to inform the employee of exactly who will be present and what their role will be before the meeting takes place.
“Set the expectations beforehand by saying, ‘This will be a conversation about your performance to date and how we can help you grow from here. It will just be you and I on the call,’” says Kennedy. “Or flag that the HR manager will be there too, if that’s the case.”
Managers should take the time to create a soothing environment by ensuring there is minimal noise or background distractions, such as kids or pets roaming around.
“There’s nothing worse for an employee than having a remote performance management discussion with a manager who hasn’t set the environment properly,” says Kennedy.
“Ten minutes before the conversation, look at your setup and think about what you need to change in your environment so the other person doesn’t have their horns up straight away.”
Better yet, consider whether a video call is the best medium to hold a performance management discussion.
Video conferencing has become the default option but in striving to build a calming setting for performance management to take place, it’s worth asking the employee whether they would feel more at ease with a phone call. While it’s always best to offer employees a choice, many experts advise sticking with video conferencing, since it can create a more personal and familiar atmosphere.
While some employees may be able to breeze through these meetings relatively quickly and with ease, others might take longer to ease into a virtual performance management discussion, so to be safe, set aside a generous chunk of time for the conversation.
Setting aside a good amount of time for this meeting also indicates that you are making the employee’s development a priority and not simply scheduling a meeting so it can be ticked off your to-do list.
In advance of a performance appraisal, employees should be reassured that despite the change in setting, virtual performance management will still cover the same material as a face-to-face one, says Kennedy. This includes reflecting on previous and current performance, strengths, areas of improvement and goal-setting.
What might need adjustment, however, are the KPIs, which will need to align with the change in circumstances.
Pre-pandemic expectations placed on an employee might differ from current expectations that would be considered achievable in today’s climate.
If an employee is in a sales role, for example, they might struggle to hit the sales targets they would reach in an ordinary year due to business closures.
In this vein, if your company has a rating system, consider whether it might be appropriate to suspend ratings, even if temporarily, to acknowledge that people can’t always give 100 per cent when working in a challenging and uncertain environment.
In a Harvard Business Review article on virtual performance management, Dr Anna Tavis, Clinical Associate Professor and Academic Director of Human Capital Management Department at New York University suggests opting for a “flexible system that recognises the hardships that many people are enduring”, and doing “more of a narrative assessment” including their strengths and areas of improvement.
Kennedy agrees that suspending formal ratings during a time of flux is a “valid choice” but caveats this by noting “employees should always know what their manager thinks of their current performance level”.
“You don’t have to formally record a rating to have a discussion about where the employee’s current performance standard sits. It is useful for the manager to ask questions around what’s helping or hindering the employee.”
Frequency of virtual performance management
While you might be preparing for a formal performance management conversation, bear in mind that regular check-ins and informal development discussions should be occurring on a more frequent basis.
“Do performance management every day rather than once in every blue moon virtually,” says Kennedy. “If you communicate daily, you’re setting expectations and frequently reflecting on their performance.”
This creates a continual cycle of feedback and helps to ensure issues don’t build up without being addressed along the way.
“Performance management should be a way to bridge the gap – an employee is doing X, but you think they should be doing Y.”
This is also a great opportunity to clarify your expectations of the employee, and what you’d like to see from them in the next three-six months as role ambiguity can not only lead to disengagement, Kennedy says it’s also the number one cause of conflict in the workplace.
A discrepancy in understanding about work responsibilities is often reason for conflict whether performance management is happening in-person or remotely, but issues might slip under the radar more easily in a virtual environment when managers have limited oversight.
For this reason, managers might need to seek additional inputs, such as peer feedback and self-evaluations, when conducting virtual performance reviews.
Doing so will allow them to paint a fuller picture of an employee’s performance in a remote setting in the absence of physical cues about metrics such as productivity or communication skills.
Tavis recommends asking: “How is this employee proactively communicating? How are they connecting with clients and colleagues? Who are they helping?
“Put those [positive] questions front and centre.”
Kennedy adds that considering a variety of viewpoints, regardless of whether the employees are remote or working in a physical workspace, is always better than relying on a “single truth” – i.e. the solely manager’s perception of the employee’s performance.
“Managers should always consider the full impact of the employee within an organisation, not just the pure results and outcomes.”
To illustrate the importance of 360-degree feedback, Kennedy uses the example of an employee who is only just meeting performance standards. But when a manager seeks feedback from the employee’s peers, it may come to light that the employee is often supporting, sharing knowledge, and lending a helping hand to others in the team.
“The contrast is an employee who delivers well on bottom line outcomes but leaves a trail of disgruntled peers in their quest for success,” says Kennedy.
“When seeking that broader feedback, it is useful for the manager to provide a series of guiding questions – which would include elements of collaborative impact and EQ – that help others to paint a fuller picture. A key principle is that the manager asks the same set of questions about all their team members and uses a broad cross-section of peers .
HRM is doing a deep dive into the history of performance management in the November edition of the HRM magazine. Become an AHRI member today to receive your monthly print magazine.”