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How to overcome the challenges of managing performance during the coronavirus crisis
Overseeing the performance of individuals and teams remotely has been one of the biggest adjustments for many managers during the pandemic. The truth is that there is no handbook on how to shift from sitting next to your colleagues one day, then communicating solely through Skype or Microsoft Teams calls the next. In the early weeks of lockdown, practical concerns were the immediate focus for many people managers – ensuring that colleagues were set up to work remotely, reviewing and amending plans and strategies, and looking after staff from a pastoral and wellbeing perspective.
However, with the lifting of lockdown restrictions coinciding with the traditional mid-year review period, managing performance is becoming a bigger focus once again. Clearly, this is a complex conundrum with multiple facets – and not something that can simply be approached in the same way as it was before. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing the performance of your employees during these unprecedented times:
Adapt your review system to ensure it is fair
Employees at all levels have faced varying degrees of upheaval as a result of the pandemic. In some cases, carefully constructed plans quickly had to be abandoned. Long-established strategies and tactics became redundant overnight. In many organisations, it was necessary to furlough staff or even make them redundant, meaning that those left behind faced the challenge of keeping operations running with reduced resource.
First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind that although the pandemic is a macro challenge, everyone’s individual circumstances have been, and will continue to be, different. Before commencing a performance review, you should first consider how an individual’s role and responsibilities have been impacted by circumstances out of their control and how many of their associated goals you can fairly assess. It may well be that you decide that formally grading a KPI that has been severely hampered by the lockdown is not a constructive thing to do on this occasion. For example, if you manage a sales team who all have the same monthly targets, but some members have been grappling with childcare or illness in the family, you ultimately cannot assess everyone on a level playing field. If such mitigating circumstances are not factored into a review, it could prove seriously demoralising for an individual – and then hamper performance in the intervening weeks and months.
Focus on behaviours
If assessing on KPIs or goals feels unfair, then it is more meaningful to focus on how an individual demonstrated key behaviours during the crisis. How did they adapt their approach? Did they display good teamworking skills and support their colleagues? If you are assessing a manager, did they stand up to be counted as a leader, make decisive decisions around shifting plans and ensure they were meeting their duty of care to staff? Skills such as adaptability, teamwork and communication are going to be needed more than ever in a post-pandemic world – so it is important that individuals understand their level of competency in these areas and learn the lessons of the lockdown period.
It could even be that you have seen different behaviours from an individual than before as a result of the circumstances – and if this has been a positive change, it is important to highlight and celebrate this here. If these behaviours have been less constructive, this is your opportunity to highlight them and look at strategies for change.
Make your feedback motivating and meaningful
For many, adapting to the realities of working from home has been challenging. For this reason, you should consider how your feedback can serve to motivate an individual rather than potentially demoralise or demotivate them further. In the vast majority of cases, it should be straightforward to pick out areas where someone has excelled, however big or small. Of course, what constitutes achievement can vary depending on seniority or tenure – for a new starter at the entry level, simply learning the basics of a role and getting to know colleagues virtually could be considered a big plus in the circumstances. For a manager, it could be that their direct reports have fed back positively on the level of support and guidance they received.
Do not be afraid to highlight areas for improvement
As we have discussed, there are extenuating circumstances for many people at the moment. However, it is also important to highlight areas where work has not gone well, and the lessons that can be learned as a result. Strive for balance; ultimately, you will need to establish how far an individual’s personal challenges hampered their ability to complete a task or hit a target. It could well be that the lockdown period has profoundly affected an individual’s motivations or even career ambitions and if this is the case, this is a good chance to have a constructive discussion on how both sides move forward. It is important to let the individual take the lead on explaining what they are going to do to fix the situation, as this helps to creates buy-in and drives accountability and ownership. Collaborate with the individual to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-framed) performance goals to facilitate improvement.
Although these can be difficult conversations to initiate, if poor performance is left unchecked, you will only be storing up problems for further down the line – particularly as you will need your staff to be on top of their game in what is expected to be a challenging market.
Ultimately, any feedback on poor performance should not come as a surprise to an individual if you have been communicating effectively as a manager, during regular one-to-one catch ups and feedback sessions. Ultimately, the performance review system can help set your team up for success as they grapple with how to adapt to the realities of a post-pandemic world – so it is essential to get it right. For more helpful tips on successfully leading a team, check out our comprehensive management advice section.