After months of navigating and adapting to ‘’the new normal’’, people today want to stop listening to the phrase ‘’new normal’’. Why? They say it has been used enough ever since COVID-19 struck. While we have spent enough time in the new normal to make the phrase redundant in itself, we are yet to experience the much-needed shift in workplace policies that validate the existence of COVID-19 and the consequential impact on people, business, and the ability to perform.
Some say remote working has blurred the work and home boundaries, while some say that productivity in fact has increased, owing to the accompanying flexibility of working from home. But how flexible is remote working? It appears not as much, given the associated well-being costs of said enhanced productivity. How can we navigate these overlapping boundaries? How can employers play a role in managing work and performance?
As employees invest extra hours of work to help speed up the process of recovery, are employers reciprocating this sense of empathy and need towards employees? Shifting focus to business continuity was and to a great extent remains a priority, and employees have stepped up in this need of the hour. How are employers stepping up to empower employees and adjusting their approach to performance management in an evolving hybrid workplace? Let’s find out.
The intent behind performance management
The disparity and inconsistency in measuring performance that existed pre-COVID-19 has only amplified post-COVID, and in a majority of the cases the widening gap can be attributed to discrepancies in leadership styles and belief systems about what performance is and how it needs to be measured, followed by individual choices of adjusting or not adjusting these expectations in the face of the crisis and its resulting circumstances.
In conversation with People Matters, Ashley Goodall, SVP Methods & Intelligence, Cisco suggested an interesting perspective to look at performance measurement, “The fundamental currency of a performance management system should be frequent attention to the humans in our teams. We know that this is the most powerful thing to actually lift levels of performance over time. And the point of performance management, of course, is not to categorize performance as much as it is to enhance and increase it over time,” added Ashley.
This perspective highlights an important differentiator between effective performance management and regressive performance management practice - the ‘’why’’ of implementing performance management. Are we doing it to manage the performance of the workforce to identify strengths and areas of improvement, and equipping them with the needed tools to scale their performance, or are we doing it just as a routine exercise to categorize performance, bucket employees into different performance ratings, which yes continue to exist with different terminologies, and decide who to promote and who to let go off. Is the intent behind performance management, transformational or transactional?
Sure data on performance helps get clarity on how to reward employees who have gone above and beyond, and at the same time hold people accountable for their performance if it isn’t up to the expected and agreed-upon standards, and measuring performance is key there, but is that the sole purpose of performance management or is that only a part of it. Once there is clarity on that, only then can leaders identify the right strategy to measure performance, evolving what it truly encapsulates, and rethink how to measure, monitor, and assess performance.
Managing performance in the post-COVID workplace
There have been innumerable conversations around the globe on measuring productivity and performance in a remote working setup. Every organization has its own goals that need to be met and every individual contributes to those goals in their unique way through the role they are playing. In the bigger picture of how the last few months have unfolded from a business perspective, the outbreak of coronavirus forced organizations to focus on survival and sustainability, replacing the focus on exceeding targets set for the year. This led to the senior management having to explore alternatives to keep the ship afloat. In a nutshell, such exploration is bound to lead to new deliverables, new plan of action, rethinking strategy, reallocating roles and projects, and all that in an absolutely new workplace which is virtual, distant, and for many a first-hand experience of working from home.
Given individuals are working from home, under pressing existing performance expectations and culture for many, it is critical to realize that not just new organizational requirements, but the disrupted personal lives of employees is also bound to have an impact on performance. This calls for the HR function to evolve from business partners to people partners, and perhaps upskill managers and leaders to cater to these aspects on the people front.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to performance management, and there is certainly no proven methodology to get it right in the existing circumstances. Yet, talent leaders everywhere are doing their bit to make the process as seamless and empathetic as possible with the focus on keeping communication lines open. One such talent leader is Raj Karunakaran, HR Head Cargill India. Sharing with People Matters how Cargill India is solving the post-COVID performance management puzzle, Karunakaran emphasized frequent and future-focused conversations on continuous improvement and development as the pillars of a strong performance management process. Here is a four step approach by Cargill India to relook at performance management:
- Simplified process, goals aligned to the changing business needs, and a new way of working protocols
- Ongoing discussions between managers and employees, informal feedback, coaching, goal review, and adjustment during the crisis
- Simplified and flexible goal setting with fewer, more dynamic goals aligned to business strategy and tailored to the dynamic business environment
- Qualitative assessment of the employee achievements, contribution to business success, and development opportunities
Shifting the needle on performance assessment
Several organizations today are caught in the maze of finding the right way out to address performance assessment. There are several elements to performance today, with a trade-off of several responsibilities between the employer and employee, trust being a significant aspect of that. And while we have established that there is in fact no one-size-fits-all approach to performance management, here are some guiding notes to help you structure your efforts in this segment:
- Redefine performance and purpose, keep it realistic: The working environment that is in play today is one that has never been experienced before and is certainly different from the working environment the workforce functioned in during pre-COVID times. An overnight shift to working from home vs working across a hybrid workplace requires different performance measurement parameters.
Some employees might be working remotely, some might be in essential roles on the field, while others might have had to return to the office. In that context, maintaining the flexibility to enhance the performance of a distributed workforce becomes even more critical. Additionally, in the present day, we aren’t only redefining performance but also redefining organizational purpose, and that needs to be communicated to the larger workforce to align efforts and enhance performance.
- Adjust goals: The pandemic has led to revising focus areas for the business which trickles down to revised deliverables for employees. There is a need to clearly define these goals at the earliest to help employees plan their efforts accordingly, and ask for help where needed. Redefining performance and adjusting goals is only scratching the surface of a redesigned performance assessment strategy. To ensure effective implementation, organizations must appoint culture advocates to both lead by example the revisited performance assessment mindset as well as reinforce abiding by the new guidelines to avoid any deviation or falling back into the old practices and notions.
Culture and mindset are a precursor to performance. While the responsibility of performing work lies with the individual, that of providing an enabling culture rests with the leaders and managers. Mindset is an important aspect of change management. Given a more flexible and open approach to performance management might go against age-old assessment strategies, breaking through those mental roadblocks is among the basics that need to be checked.
- Non-monetary rewards and recognition: Rewards and recognition are a critical element of performance management. Employees today are already experiencing a financial setback, much like their employers. To keep up the morale there is a need to explore non-monetary methods to reward employees and also identify avenues to reallocate funding to make employees feel cared for.
- Align benefits programs to current employee needs: The existing circumstances also provide an opportunity for organizations to tap into revamping benefits more in tune with changing employee needs.
- Employee wellness is core to productivity: “I strongly feel that this is a time to show more empathy, be role-models and be declarative on employee well-being and work-life balance,” shared Raj Karunakaran, HR Head, Cargill India. Employee well-being is core to productivity and performance. This sentiment is echoed by organizations and visible in the increasing focus on employee wellness initiatives. In such times, it is all the more important to provide employees with resources to help them combat the threat to their well-being, physical, emotional as well as financial.
- Invest in technology: “It would be desirable for organizations to invest in a technology solution for effective management of performance if they don’t have any in place,” suggests Sushil Baveja, Executive Director - HR, DCM Shriram Ltd. Building a performance management system from scratch would be an additional stressor at this point in time for leaders and managers, this is where technology comes in. These times are a great way to test the entire human-tech debate - the need for humans to invest their time in strategy and culture, and leverage technology for routine tasks that can be automated.
As we strive to adapt people policies and the workplace to the circumstances before us, Ashley Goodall, SVP Methods & Intelligence, Cisco, hits the nail on the head with his description on the best way to measure performance: “The best way to measure what a team leader thinks of somebody on their team is not to have them attach a rating to that person, but to describe how they would invest in them." He added, "And so, the performance management system of the future will have some way of understanding which investments we decided to make in people—who did we decide to move, who did we decide to promote, who did we decide to give a stretch assignment to—and ask which of those decisions we followed through on, and then use those as a gauge of what our team leaders actually think about their team member.”
Measuring performance in a post-COVID workplace will have its own trials and errors as organizations undergo the journey of evolution in adapting to the virtual workplace with a distributed workforce. Performance in the current scenario will therefore need to be driven through a partnership between employers and employees, with each having to step up for the other and making this transition, while a struggle, but one that leads to a brighter future for work, workplace as well as the workforce.