Employers transitioning to hybrid work arrangements may need to reevaluate their performance management strategies and recalibrate how they approach employees who are struggling, according to sources who spoke to HR Dive.
One of the biggest challenges may be the relative lack of face time employers have with their reports than they otherwise would have had pre-pandemic, according to Joe Du Bey, CEO and co-founder of workplace management software firm Eden Workplace. In the past, visual cues signaling distress could be easy to pick up. That same process might take a bit more effort when moving to hybrid arrangements.
“It’s not as hard to tell if someone is being productive [in a hybrid environment] as it is to tell whether they’re happy or engaged,” Du Bey said. “It’s very new to try to quantify happiness and engagement because that was something that was more intuitive to gauge in person.”
The way in which employers actually do this type of recognition may vary, said Jill Havely, global community excellence leader, employee experience at Willis Towers Watson, but she outlined a general series of considerations for knowledge workers in a hybrid environment.
“It’s very easy to end up in a transactional relationship with your reports, and if you do that, it’s a lot less likely for things to work.”
Joe Du Bey
CEO and co-founder, Eden Workplace
For example, Havely said, team leaders should focus on the timeliness and quality of deliverables. They also can evaluate how employees show up during meetings; “Are they contributing to brainstorming? Are they interacting in the conversation?”
But output measures can change in a hybrid setting, Du Bey noted, particularly with respect to the types of activities workers perform. Hybrid work generally necessitates the use of a variety of software in conjunction with team members, so instead of an employee needing to submit a test plan by the end of the day, they might instead be asked to update a ticket on a collaboration platform by the end of the day. And the idea of evaluating an employee’s efforts based on metrics such as instant messages sent can be a new muscle for employees.
For trickier concepts like morale, however, Du Bey said employers may need to utilize surveys that allow them to benchmark team sentiment. Employers can then compare that data between departments or measure themselves against competitors or other firms within the same industry, he continued.
Working through struggles
Employers can’t just take one approach to working with underperforming hybrid workers, Du Bey said. Some software platforms may allow managers to track how their reports are doing, but there also may be space for shout outs when an employee does well, which can be “critical for their mental health,” he added.
These successes also can be highlighted during one-on-ones, which may be structured to allow for constructive feedback. A methodological approach to performance management can be “really important from an equity perspective,” Du Bey said, as it can help managers avoid inserting their biases and demonstrate what success looks like for a particular role.
For many employers, formal review cycles have already shifted dramatically during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Google announced it would drop its traditional process of twice a year reviews in order to implement a more frequent system of check-ins and feedback. The company also said at least one check-in per year would focus specifically on learning and development.
The nature of virtual check-ins also impacts how connected employees feel with their managers, Du Bey noted, making it critical for managers to build a rapport with team members. “Even before that constructive feedback session, it’s important that you try to get to know the person [and] let them know you actually care about them,” he said. “It’s very easy to end up in a transactional relationship with your reports, and if you do that, it’s a lot less likely for things to work.”
The points brought up in a session “shouldn’t be surprises,” Du Bey said, and instead “should be something where you’re giving lots of feedback along the way.” Ideally, he added, managers are coaching employees and showing them different ways they can show their growth on a given task. Clarity helps when stating which improvements managers want to see, but documentation is also important, Du Bey said. Employers may want to consider using reference documents that allow employees to go back to agreed upon goals and follow-up points.
Virtual one-on-ones also differ from their in-person equivalent in one important way, said Havely: they don’t necessarily allow for time to debrief. “When you hit the ‘leave’ button on a call, it’s a black screen,” she said. “You don’t have the benefit of those nonverbal cues or the benefit of walking out of the room and having those moments of debriefing — those real, human moments.”
To that end, managers could build follow-ups into their meetings with reports, Havely continued, even something as simple as a short instant message inviting employees to share their insights and perspective following a meeting.
Interfacing with a screen also means employees may not feel that they have the psychological safety to interrupt their managers, supervisors or even their co-workers, said Havely. Instant messaging platforms like Microsoft Teams or Slack that allow users to display “busy” icons and calendars crammed with meetings, can lead to hesitation for workers seeking guidance.
Virtual working sessions and workshops can help to emulate the in-person feel of sitting a desk away from teammates, which otherwise may be lost in a remote or hybrid environment, Havely said. More broadly, she recommended that employers focus on creating a culture in which it’s okay for employees to ask for help.
But in order for that to work, managers and leaders need to avoid sending the wrong messages, Havely added; “If they’re joining a call and talking about how busy they are [and] how much they have going on, it triggers a reaction for others, especially early-career people, that says ‘I don’t want to pile onto this person’s stress.’”
It is important to understand an individual employee’s situation, too, said Havely. Employees may be facing circumstances that would benefit from additional flexibility, so long as the role they’re in allows for it.
Asynchronous work, in which team members don’t necessarily log on to work at the same time, has become a common feature of the hybrid model. Simply explaining how the concept works can ease stress for employees, Du Bey said, particularly when their team relies on a variety of platforms that ping them with alerts throughout their work day.
Setting norms also may be useful. “What we’ve found [helpful] is, ‘this is how much we hope you work throughout the week,’” Du Bey said. “When people ping you is not necessarily when you need to respond.”
Expecting employees who have commitments outside of work, whether they are related to family, caregiving or other matters, to adhere to a traditional work day could make it difficult for them to meet expectations, Havely said. This also may impact how colleagues who work within a more traditional window of time perceive them, creating a rift.
The downside of asynchronous work is that it involves some trade-offs, Havely noted. For example, working at a time during which most team members are not online can make it more difficult for struggling employees to ask their co-workers for help, or seek coaching that could improve their performance.
“I think those trade offs are things that managers and people leaders need to be aware of,” Havely said.