Articles & Insights

WT in the Press: How to manage performance virtually

Added - 25/06/2021

Author: Lynne Hardman, CEO
Publication: Management Today

The future of work is remote - at least, part-time - so, it’s time to stop firefighting and reassess your virtual leadership style.

Remote working was for a long time a hard sell. Historically, managers have cast doubt on how much working genuinely takes place when working from home. In the case where remote working was only an option in emergencies, employees may have taken advantage of the novelty of being surrounded by home comforts (read: the TV and unlimited snacks). 

But if working at makeshift home desks for over a year through the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that your employees are working even if you don’t see it happening. Really. Also many surveys - including by Management Today - show that productivity goes up when working from home.

So while the jury is still out on whether the current WFH default is here to stay once the dangers of coronavirus have subsided, it’s clear that some form of remote working, at the very least part-time, will persist. 

Having ironed out technical issues that arose when overhauling systems to online and now that employees have acclimatised to working virtually, it’s time to stop firefighting and reassess your (remote) leadership style.

So Management Today asked a panel of leaders for their advice on managing performance virtually.

LYNNE HARDMAN, CEO, WORKING TRANSITIONS

Managing performance virtually isn’t a new concept - many managers already manage remote teams. The Covid context however means that most managers need to develop better coaching skills to ensure that they are effective.

Setting clear expectations is the key to managing performance. When managing remotely it is essential to ensure that these are well communicated, frequent and visible at the company and individual level via a range of methods – in writing, online meetings, personal conversations etc. It is also critical to make time to check in with team members to see how they are progressing, what support they need and how they are coping personally. This requires a more deliberate effort when you are not sharing workspace with your team and it's easy for weeks to go by without speaking or properly connecting with a team member. That’s when you risk being unaware that someone may be disengaged and need help to perform as required.

LUCINDA CARNEY, CEO AND FOUNDER, ACTUS SOFTWARE

In a recent Actus survey, when asked what people management behaviours were more important in a virtual environment compared to face-to-face, 82% rated providing frequent check-ins and one-to-ones as significantly more important. Although we might have had one-to-ones relatively often pre-pandemic, working remotely has ramped up the requirement for us to talk to our people.  

Pre-coronavirus performance management became primarily about ‘the task’ yet virtual performance management requires us to start with empathy. We cannot expect our people to work like robots, simply replicating office work at home. Coupling this with revised employee objectives and goals, employees need to be given the time to adapt to a new way of hybrid working. With teams distributed across various locations, pre-arranged conversations give virtual management a sense of being more formalised and onerous whereas office-based management allows for more ad hoc conversations. As such, bringing people together more frequently brings a sense of collaboration and familiarity that many colleagues need.

MARK SEEMANN, FOUNDER AND CEO, STAFFCIRCLE

Visibility is the greatest challenge when it comes to virtual performance management. Reduced face-to-face communication can create an out-of-office, out-of-mind mentality amongst managers and lead to decreasing employee engagement levels. This can negatively impact performance, promotion, inclusion and knowledge sharing within the workforce.  

It is important for businesses to find a method to provide employees with a voice whilst avoiding the pitfalls of micromanagement. In other words, communication will be key. Whilst video calls and messaging tools can work, they are hard to measure and to extract information from. Performance management tools that focus on recognition can foster a culture where employees are visibly appreciated for their efforts, work and achievements. Keeping track of employee achievements digitally and in a central place can ensure that moments of success inform overall virtual performance evaluations. Positive reinforcement fosters a success-orientated culture which is shown to skyrocket engagement.

NICK GREENSTON, CEO AND FOUNDER, RETINUE TALENT SOLUTIONS 

With many companies opting to continue to work remotely as we step out of the pandemic it would appear that managing staff at a distance is not hampering businesses or employees. There shouldn’t be much of a difference between managing staff performance remotely compared to an office scenario. What is key is having a clear set of objectives and measurables so that everyone understands what good looks like and what the goals are.  Micromanaging staff just because they are working remotely does not serve to foster confidence and build trust. Hands-off management works well if you all agree on checkpoints along the way to ensure everyone is on track and on board with their tasks.

Measurement and dialogue can be remote or in person, it should not make a difference. And whilst different roles may command more frequent discourse, regular communication with all employees to review inputs and outputs makes for a more productive, engaged and happier workforce.

PAUL LINDSELL, MANAGING DIRECTOR, THOUGHTSPARK

Too many businesses fail to precisely define the work outputs required from employees – mainly because managers haven’t been forced to. Now, remote management absolutely requires outputs to be closely defined, right down to the granularity of week by week. Those outputs need to conform to three criteria. They must be reasonable, mutually agreed, and carry consequences if not met.

The alternative is some form of remote surveillance, which almost certainly won’t be ethically acceptable. Having practised remote management for the last four years, we haven’t found it necessary to breathe down people’s necks. Meeting required, agreed outputs shows whether someone’s doing their job. Every job can be analysed and broken down into measurable outputs – it just requires a new(ish) skillset from management. Indeed, the managers themselves will need to submit to the same disciplines. Expect a lot of resistance. But this approach will become the norm.

DOMENICA DI LIETO, CEO EMERGING COMMUNICATIONS

A key element of managing performance virtually is giving staff the resources and support they need to be autonomous so that they can get on with what they are good at. But working independently so much of the time places great responsibility on the individual. As a result, fear of failure can become a significant problem.

Fear of failure creates inertia and anxiety, and mistakes may go unreported. It is therefore important for staff to know they should not be afraid of failure. If they need help, they should understand they will not be judged. That if things do go wrong, they will be supported. Above all, failure should be embraced as the best opportunity to learn, improve and move forward with a greater amount of knowledge, experience, allowing people to grow and be better prepared for the future leading to greater productivity.   

JEREMY BLAIN, CEO, PERFORMANCE WORKS INTERNATIONAL 

You don’t. By that I mean you don’t manage performance, you support it. Old ways of management and supervision are not fit for purpose. The best-in-class organisations have repurposed line managers into what they are supposed to be – champions of working in the right way, growing their teams and people to grow the organisation and helping to create early wins for everyone. This has been lost in fire-fighting and short-termism in many organisations.  

Line managers who have created high performing teams, do three things really well: 
1)They know that there is a link between wellbeing  and their people’s engagement and performance;
2) They do not try to replicate how they ‘used to work’ pre-pandemic. Instead they embrace and encourage asynchronous working, supported by productive technologies and tools to help them and their teams – like the Pomodoro technique;
3) They act as a coach and sounding board, empowering their team to support each other, make decisions, and solve problems. 

Read the story on Management Today here

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