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The coronavirus pandemic is forcing companies to change their way of thinking and reevaluate their processes. For many companies, one of the more testing issues has been how to manage and evaluate individual and team performance while working remotely. In this piece, we discuss how to handle this best.

At the start of this year, it would have been difficult to fathom the situation that we are currently in. Confined to our own homes, allowed out to exercise once a day, and forced to have the vast majority of our social interaction through various video conferencing apps. Yet six weeks into lockdown people are beginning to accept the current situation as the new normal.

However, for business owners who have been severely impacted by the outbreak of coronavirus, “normal” is perhaps the word furthest from their lips.

For many companies, coronavirus has pushed resources to the limits; with revenues severely impacted, and an even worse financial crisis to follow, many are having to take this time to try to refine and reorganise their internal processes.

While the financial side of coronavirus has been well documented up until now, little time has been given to the way that employers and managers are dealing with the internal disruption of their organisation.

With remote work now fully implemented across most sectors, managers are having to find new and innovative ways of engaging and motivating employees.

But how can managers ensure it’s “business as usual”? How can they help focus their teams and maintain minimal disruption to normal business flow?

How to manage engagement and performance when working remotely

A study conducted by the American analytics firm Gallup found that managers who were themselves highly engaged in their work would be more successful in engaging members of their teams.

The “cascade effect”, as it has become known, demonstrates that levels of engagement trickle down through organisations.

Gallup surveyed over 190 companies across a wide range of industries with the results showing that employees operating under the leadership of a highly engaged manager are 59% more likely to be engaged than those working under disengaged leaders.

Source: Gallup.

Source: Gallup.

The cascade effect certainly demonstrates the advantages associated with high engagement, but how can managers maintain levels of engagement when implementing full-scale remote work?

A study conducted by Karen Lojeski found that teams that operated at a “virtual distance” could see a 90% drop in innovative behaviour, a 50% reduction in employee performance and an 80% decline in job satisfaction.

While Lojeski’s premise relates to distance on a broader scale - i.e. geographical, operational and cultural - it is undoubtedly applicable to some of the challenges faced when working from home.

Whether it is down to reduced face-to-face interaction with colleagues, inadequate resources, loss of morale due to confinement measures, or simply a lack of suitable workspace, the remote work experiment is likely to yield changes to overall results.

Nevertheless, there are tools out there that can help organisations to minimise the overall impact of events such as these.

AssessFirst, a company that specialises in recruitment analytics, can help organisations, through predictive models, to better understand employee motivation and identify individuals who are more likely to perform better in a full-remote capacity.

But whether with or without the help of analytical tools, the challenge for managers at this time is to identify ways of preventing remote work negatively impacting the business and minimising its effect on key areas.

Offsetting this against the dangers of micromanagement may not be easy, yet it can be achieved through the employment of a specific set of rules of engagement that provide support and guidance for what is expected at this time.

These measures can take a variety of forms, including daily check-ins, different communication channels, and longer more comprehensive catch-ups.

☕️ Daily check-ins

By setting a fixed time every day, managers and team members can create the sort of routine that enables them to maintain a professional environment.

These check-ins could replace the usual coffee break conversation, or perhaps even replicate a short-over-the-desk chat. Either way, by organising short meetings such as these, managers can stay up to date with any concerns that their team members may have.

☎️ Vary the communication channels

Although routine is important, things mustn’t be allowed to become too monotonous and predictable. During remote work, it is highly likely that employees will find themselves repeating the same processes, living the same experiences and having the same interactions day after day.

Video conferencing has become an invaluable tool throughout the lockdown period but, even that, if used day after day can become a little tiresome.

Varying communication channels can liven things up a bit. Sending instant messages or having a good old-fashioned phone call can help people feel less isolated and more involved.

"We've increased the frequency of our company-wide updates and tried to vary our communication channels with our staff since we implemented a full-scale remote work policy. We have introduced “water cooler” chats over Zoom and implemented games and quiz nights as well as weekly Q&A with leaders to maintain overall employee engagement."

Nick Miller, Country Manager @ PayFit UK

Performance evaluations during coronavirus

A significant number of organisations may have decided that there’s little point in holding performance evaluations at this time and instead decided to put them on hold.

There may be a variety of reasons for this: the fact that there may already be increased interaction between managers and team members could mean that a performance review becomes an unnecessary extension of the smaller daily discussions. Others may feel that the current situation is not conducive to enabling successful performance evaluations.

Another could be that the subjects typically discussed at performance evaluations - i.e. pay increases and promotions - have been put on hold due to the financial constraints many companies are experiencing.

However, there is an argument to suggest that running performance evaluations in this time takes on even greater significance for organisations.

Performance evaluations, whether conducted on a quarterly or annual basis, are unlikely ever to be based just on recent performance. Instead, the framework in which they are usually undertaken tends to be more extensive and takes into consideration performance and results over a sustained period of time.

Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of coronavirus may mean that long-term goals will need to be readjusted; however, choosing to negate what preceded the lockdown is not necessarily the best business decision.

With companies struggling to make ends meet, there is an emphasis on gathering information on where to focus resources and abandoning performance evaluations is likely to mean that managers could miss out on crucial information needed to make business decisions.

A further consideration is how performance evaluations can provide the setting for formalised and frank discussions on performance as a whole and how success can be generated through learning and development.

Research conducted by the Boston Consulting Group following the 2008 crisis, showed that opportunities for learning and development were crucial in times of crisis in order to maintain the efficiency of organisations. Yet despite this fact, training is often a casualty during a time of financial instability.

Training and learning new skills can be instrumental in helping to plan and invest for the future. It can also help reinforce overall engagement and breed trust between an organisation and its staff.

Finally, performance evaluations in the current climate allow for companies to refine business targets. Most organisations across a whole range of sectors are likely to be impacted by coronavirus. Therefore, evaluations provide an opportunity to review goals and targets and ensure that they are applicable and realistic under the circumstances.

Managing performance during coronavirus

✅ Maintain performance review cycles but redefine expectations if necessary

✅ Check with your employees if you need to adjust targets and KPIs

✅ Consider adding more regular pulse surveys to ensure the wellbeing of your teams

✅ Be transparent in your communications

✅ Honour your commitments

Pay and bonuses during coronavirus

As previously touched on, cash problems are unfortunately a byproduct of any financial crisis. While some companies may be able to maintain a certain amount of business continuity, an awful lot more will likely be heavily impacted.

Looking at the bigger picture, ensuring financial stability in the long-term is always in the company’s best interests. Nevertheless, each situation is different, and companies must be able to understand the conditions in which they are able to operate.

A good way for a company to ensure that its finances remain secure is by putting an immediate freeze on salary increases and postponing all bonuses.

The postponement of bonuses is always likely to be a sensitive subject, particularly if targets were pre-agreed and reached within the required timeframe.

Bonuses are the proverbial carrot dangled before employees to motivate them to achieve set targets. By going back on the promise of bonuses, companies risk causing widespread disillusionment within their ranks.

Postponing bonuses is unlikely ever to garner much support, especially if decisions aren’t made on a company-wide basis. The cascade effect previously alluded to is also applicable here. If a company is going to go down the route of making financial cuts, streamlining pay and withholding bonuses, then the decision should always be implemented, top down, throughout the company.

In the “coronavirus age”, the furloughing of staff has become a fashionable yet necessary way of extending the runway of a company. While the decisions are never likely to be easy, they are at least palatable if there is evidence that the cuts are being made for the right reasons - i.e. to ensure the long-term survival of the company - and not just to maintain bonuses and dividends for shareholders and directors.

Each situation is unique

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to pay and performance.

Every organisation will have its own processes and theories on how to best deal with the situation.

Whatever it is, it’s vital to remember that providing clear and regular communication, being consistent and transparent on policies and remaining agile and adaptable, is always recommended when looking to navigate through a difficult or uncertain situation.

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