Many organizations feel an urgency to change how they manage employee performance. Talent professionals must embrace the changes of a remote and mobile employee base and implement long-term strategies to address the ongoing changes of a post-pandemic workforce. If your company is rethinking its performance management strategy, you’re not alone. Now more than ever, companies are reflecting on the new realities of a post-COVID workplace and the necessary changes that accompany this ever-evolving landscape. Talent professionals must reimagine the fundamentals of enabling work and results to navigate the challenges and uncertainties of 2020 and beyond. It’s critical to reflect on what has been successful as we begin to emerge from pandemic restrictions and work to drive engagement, performance and results for our employees. More than a year post-shutdown, strategic leaders continue to ask themselves what employee and company success looks like in a new era and how best to support it. The first step? Take a moment to pause and reflect on key talent strategies — even if it means going back to square one to redefine your organization’s approach to performance.
An unplanned pause
Prior to the pandemic, many people leaders were already rethinking how to approach performance management. Then two watershed moments occurred: the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic contraction that led to workforce reductions in many companies. Looking back, we now have a better understanding of the true gravity of the pandemic on the global workforce. The United Nations’ International Labor Organization reports 8.8 percent of global working hours were lost in 2020 compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of losing 225 million full-time jobs. When the pandemic hit, companies and organizations of all sizes were forced to take a step back – an unplanned pause, where many of us were compelled to reconfigure every area of our lives. As we juggled multiple life and work responsibilities, we got to know our co-workers better and our unique set of challenges, tools and resources.
Amidst the enormous uncertainty day-to-day, it became obvious that companies’ support and measurement of work and success needed to change. We began to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about the most fundamental talent concepts like performance management; the well-being of our people and the success of our businesses depended on it. Balancing what’s needed for our people and the business means moving beyond the traditional, one-size-fits-all performance measurement mindset to an approach that instead seeks to support each individual in engaging and performing every day. It’s not a novel idea — the research and shining examples of this approach have been around for years. However, the impact of the pandemic on the people we care about in the workplace (the people we were all counting on to keep showing up and performing so our businesses could survive) made us unable to look away from changes we urgently needed to make. It’s our responsibility to find a better way to sustain and improve performance following this black swan event and prepare for the future.
Focus on fueling the future
Traditional performance management programs tend to look backward, assess what has already happened in the past and assign and communicate a rating to improve future performance. If you’ve experienced a process like this, you know the bulk of the conversation is not spent celebrating your wins, but dissecting the 0.25 that’s missing in your rating of 4.75 out of 5. While it’s human nature to focus on what went wrong, the fact that ratings are often tightly linked to money in your pocket makes this a particularly stressful and dehumanizing conversation. More importantly, these models don’t improve performance because they fail to recognize the real driver of individual productivity is how engaged employees are in their work. These one-way evaluations and ratings are proven to disengage employees, focusing on the past when there’s nothing the employee can do about it. By calibrating around the needs of the individual, talent professionals can help fuel the inputs to performance, which will have an exponential impact on the outputs — individual and organizational results. M. Tamra Chandler, author of “How Performance Management is Killing Performance,” calls this a fundamental shift in focus from past performance to future capability. This approach is about performance enablement, in contrast to dated and ineffective methods of performance management.
Meet people where they are
Whether your company has a robust return-to-work strategy, is introducing a hybrid model between in-office and remote work or is embracing a fully remote workforce, workloads are heavy and working relationships are changing. According to a study by Gartner, in more than 70 percent of manager-employee relationships, either the manager or the employee will be working remotely at least some of the time. Now is not the time to revert to what seemed to be working pre-pandemic. The pandemic cemented that employees thrive when given the freedom to work and have accountability for what they produce versus how they produce it. The workforce has moved from desperately needing flexibility to demanding it. Employees have proven they can succeed and now expect to continue to work in a results-only work environment (once viewed by many as a novel Silicon Valley concept), where their output, not their activities, are the most important thing.The lynchpin to making this work is a cadre of capable, confident people managers who connect the dots between company strategy and front-line execution.
This new paradigm requires a shift from controlling and directing employees to meeting people where they are — asking questions, listening and removing blockers to performance. Start by equipping managers with the skills and tools they need to provide consistent connection and support in a world that is increasingly unpredictable. Keeping one-to-one meetings between managers and employees is a powerful way to make this a reality. Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, co-authors of “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World,” found that this consistent, positive attention alone can increase employee engagement by up to 57 percent, which directly correlates to better performance. Frequent one-to-ones are also an ideal two-way forum where managers can ensure direct reports have the answer to three questions in order to perform:
- What should I focus on?
- How am I doing?
- Where am I headed?
In addition to answering these three questions, one-to-ones provide the context, support and space employees need to thrive. In a particularly busy week, a streamlined one-to-one can still be effective. In Buckingham’s and Goodall’s research, all it takes is 10 minutes to ask about priorities for the week and how you can best support employees.
Set clear expectations
Not knowing what to focus on slows employees down. Clear expectations enable action. Almost all performance systems start with some sort of goal setting so employees have clarity around work priorities. However, setting annual or half-year goals doesn’t get the job done, particularly in fast-paced business environments. Instead, have your people managers use the Four C’s of Clear Expectations to make sure they can communicate clear priorities to their teams:
- Consult with the right stakeholders on a regular basis to validate needs and requests and uncover challenges.
- Confirm priorities and changes with their direct manager to stay aligned across teams and with top-level initiatives and priorities.
- Commission work to individuals on their teams based on their capabilities, interests and goals, not just their bandwidth.
- Communicate assignments with context and success metrics so employees understand the “why” behind the work as well as what good looks like.
This past year has proven that employees can’t wait for an annual or quarterly conversation to get the clarity and support they need to do great work. Skilled people managers significantly impact engagement and productivity by clarifying the work to be done and why it’s important every day. Managers who use the Four Cs create 360-degree alignment and focus around themselves and their teams so they can nimbly respond to changing priorities, while continuing to execute longer-term roadmaps.
Create a positive employee experience
In 2016, Google’s project Aristotle investigated the secrets of effective teams and identified and defined the top requirement as psychological safety, the “belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive … that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” Before the pandemic, this was the single biggest need from employees — and this hasn’t changed.
During the pandemic, calls seemed quieter and people appeared reluctant to bring up problems, present a different point of view or ask for more for themselves or their teams. Perhaps they deemed it enough to have a job, pay their bills, and for some, to have the ability to work from home. This feeling inhibits our ability to bring our creative, resourceful and whole selves to our jobs, stifling the problem-solving and innovation needed from employees. In addition to helping address employee’s concerns for themselves and their family’s physical safety, we need to do a better job combatting an ever-present undercurrent of fear in the workplace. As the separation between work and life thinned out, companies got to know the ins and outs of their employees’ lives at a much deeper level. Armed with this insight, how are you now instilling psychological safety in your workplace at every level so great thinking, creativity and innovation can flourish? The win-win is both clear and measurable. A Gartner employee engagement report calculates that employers who provide support for employees’ whole lives, not just in their work lives, realize a 21 percent increase in the number of high performers compared to other organizations.
Many of us experimented with different ways to build connection remotely (virtual happy hour, anyone?), but it’s important to note that some of our gold-standard approaches are highly effective at reducing interpersonal fear and are easy to deliver virtually. Emotional and social intelligence skills help employees at every level identify emotions and manage their responses to improve their interactions and impact on others. Workstyle assessments and workshops with a focus on recognizing, valuing and adapting to others’ styles improve communication and collaboration on teams. These proven solutions strengthen our ability to create a psychologically healthy work environment. Finally, if you haven’t yet, please make the time to take your “pause.” Talk to your leaders and employees and reimagine together what great performance looks like and how you can fuel it. A thoughtful approach that considers what individuals need to perform every day can transform an organization from the inside out. Start with elevating and strengthening people managers’ capabilities to provide the clarity and support their employees need to engage and perform. Ask yourself (or better yet your employees) if they have the psychological safety they need to fully contribute. These long-term talent strategies strengthen your ability to get results and retention now and in the future. It’s good for people and it’s good for business.
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