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The COVID-19 disruptor: Recalibrating employee performance management

By Jonathan Gove

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, millions of employees continue to work from home. And there’s no end in sight, as companies like Google and Salesforce have announced extending work from home through next summer.

And even in a post-COVID world, there’s a growing consensus that some form of remote work for large portions of the workforce is here to stay, given the potential cost savings and employee engagement benefits. Cases in point: Twitter and Facebook told employees they have the choice to work from home permanently.

Obviously, there are massive workforce ramifications stemming from the COVID-19 disruption. Perhaps one of the most important issues in this “new normal” is employee performance management. And quite frankly, performance management reinvention was long overdue for many organizations even prior to 2020.

During the past 6 months, we have seen employers struggling to modify their performance management programs—how they manage, motivate, and reward performance for remote workers in a virtual environment. Bigger picture, the pandemic might serve as a catalyst for a much-needed recalibration to ensure that performance programs are doing what they should: Driving business results. And smart leaders are thinking about this issue now rather than waiting until the end of the year, the “traditional” time for performance reviews.

For context, here is the scope of the issue: Only 1 out of 5 employees has a clear idea of what success looks like in their role, according to Eagle Hill’s national research. Moreover, 43 percent of workers said their performance metrics are not clear or no longer make sense.

Only 1 out of 5 employees has a clear idea of what success looks like in their role, according to Eagle Hill’s national research.

These should be startling statistics for managers and executives. How can you hit your business goals if your workers don’t understand where they fit and or don’t buy in to how they are evaluated?

Now, layer on COVID-19 and its myriad implications. More than one-third of employees across the nation said that the nature of their work has changed, further muddying performance objectives. Also, 34 percent of employees said they feel more pressure to prove their value, while 37 percent said they feel more pressure to perform well in their role during the pandemic.

Here in Boston, the responses from employees were striking. Only 29 percent of Greater Boston employees we polled said they have a clear idea of what success looks like in their current role. Few employees (11 percent) are having long-term career discussions with their supervisors, and only 19 percent are receiving coaching and mentoring from their supervisors.

Source: The 2020 Eagle Hill Consulting Boston COVID-19 Performance Management Survey

Fortunately, their commitment remains high despite these challenges: 60 percent of Boston employees who are working remotely are more committed to achieving quality outcomes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

As compared with nationwide data, a few areas are striking. More than half (57 percent) of Bostonians say the nature of their day-to-day activities has changed, substantially higher as compared with employees across the U.S. (36 percent). Also, nearly half (48 percent) of Boston employees say the expectations for what they need to accomplish day to day have changed, again notably higher than workers across the country (28 percent).

We found across the U.S. important differences by age group, especially among younger workers who feel greater day-to-day pressure to prove their value and perform due to the COVID-19 crisis, as compared with other age groups. Younger workers are nearly twice as likely as other age groups to say their performance metrics are not clear and need to be changed. And only 14 percent of Millennials said their supervisor provides coaching and mentoring. All of this is immensely significant given workforce demographic trends.

Clearly, all employees need more clarity on their role and performance goals and metrics, especially as they are working in new conditions like extreme teleworking. The problem boils down to this: how can we reshape performance management to support employees and drive business performance?

Here are three ways to seize the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to reinvent performance management.

Implement frequent real-time development conversations. This is a strategy we’ve implemented at Eagle Hill, and it’s quickly becoming a business trend. Essentially, this means moving away from the standard end-of-year performance process, or at least streamlining it.

We recently overhauled our performance management process because it wasn’t motivating, wasn’t achieving the business value we wanted, and wasn’t giving our employees the feedback they need to develop and grow. We crafted a “real-time development” process, providing continuous feedback and support to employees on a weekly basis, requiring team leads to meeting weekly with employees to discuss their work and how to provide support. This shift has allowed us to simplify, go back to basics, and focus on what really matters.

Act on performance data. The trend of moving more toward quantitative data-driven performance management makes sense, with one caveat: There has to be action as a result. We’ve seen too many organizations fall into the trap of collecting mounds of data and then doing nothing with it.

At Eagle Hill, we’ve put a structure into place to ensure we’re acting on performance data. For example, we convene a quarterly talent review to look at employee peer groups and discuss how we support those various peer groups. We look closely at the performance extremes—top performers and low performers—and then strategize how to better support and position employees in each group for improvement and advancement.

Get creative with employee communication in the virtual environment. If you decide to take on performance management changes, an added complexity is that changes will be implemented virtually. So communication is absolutely fundamental to success. Even in “normal” times, effective employee communications can be difficult, and it’s even more challenging when we can’t have in-person interactions. That means leaders must get creative to make sure their messages stand out.

For example, we’re using storytelling to really grab our employees’ attention. We’ve created an employee podcast that dives into our real-time performance management program. We’re giving specific examples to bring the program to life and providing regular updates. And employees can consume the information when it works for them—whether at their (remote) work areas or when they are out for a lunchtime walk.

Of course, no one wished for this crisis. But, perhaps a silver lining of this dark, dark cloud is that we can accelerate long overdue performance management changes.

Stay tuned for the next blog. We will dive deeper into how to tailor strategies to meet the unique needs of younger workers.