Tackling poor performance when working remotely

During difficult times, like COVID-19, line managers must support, encourage and guide their teams. As always, they also need to manage performance and be ready to have difficult conversations if productivity falls below acceptable levels. What was ‘acceptable’ pre-COVID-19 has likely been flexed for employees managing the changing pressures of a COVID-19 world (work-related and in their personal lives as well) – but it’s unlikely that managers will be able to avoid under-performance conversations altogether.

In-person conversations were the typical way to manage poor performance in the past. So, how can managers ‘manage’ bad performance during lockdown, when the opportunities for face-to-face weekly meetings, check-ins and appraisals are gone?

Whilst there is no easy answer to managing poor-performance remotely, one thing is certain: managers can’t shy away from the problem, because ignoring it may cause even more issues in the long run.

Read on for ideas on how HR can support and advise line managers about dealing with poor performance.

Identifying and defining the problem

Spotting a performance issue as soon as it arises, or even anticipating it in advance, puts managers in the best position to sort out the problem. But it can be tricky to identify changing performance behaviour when people are working remotely.

HR can communicate to their line managers that while there may be an expectation that staff will act similarly working from home as they would in the office, managers can still monitor performance (without micromanaging) by being aware if their staff are:

  • taking longer to respond to emails than normal
  • turning up late to meetings
  • taking longer than usual to do a task
  • not engaging in team projects.

When these warning bells start to ring, managers have an opportunity to focus on the behaviour in question and to decide if/when to act on their concerns.

In some instances, the consequences of poor work behaviour might be only minor, and excusable considering COVID-19 distractions affecting the employee’s performance. But if the manager feels like the poor performance should be addressed, HR should advise them that they need to do their homework before having any conversations with staff – identifying exactly what the problem is (as they see it).

What HR can do to help

Managing poor performance isn’t easy at the best of times and can be especially difficult when managers themselves feel isolated. In the past, managers might have spoken confidentially with another manager or an HR colleague to brainstorm ideas for resolving poor performance. But, working from home may have left managers feeling cut off from this support network.

HR can help managers by proactively checking in with them to ask how they are going managing their remote team. If managers highlight people challenges, HR could help by facilitating online meetings of managers with similar concerns, or buddying more junior managers up with senior managers who may have dealt with the same problems in the past. This knowledge sharing will be beneficial for both the managers and HR in learning how to resolve poor performance in a remote workforce.

HR can then help managers form a framework for identifying and dealing with poor work performance. When appropriate, HR can also become involved alongside the manager in communicating with staff about performance concerns.

When under performance crosses a line and needs to be formally managed, it’s helpful if HR are already aware of the situation. HR advice early on can ensure problems are managed well – and according to company and legal requirements – from when the problem was first identified. This makes it an easier process if HR do need to become directly involved later on.

Plan how the performance conversation will start

It’s most likely that performance problems will be spotted by line managers rather than HR. But, being removed from the immediate situation puts HR in a good position to remind managers that for many people during COVID-19, it’s not just a case of working from home, it’s working during a crisis from where they can, and often with distractions around them.

HR can work with managers on planning their performance management conversations while bearing the unique circumstances of COVID-19 in mind. HR should have a good overview of what support the business is able to offer employees, and they can communicate this to managers so it forms part of the conversation with the employee.

A video call is probably the best substitute available for a face-to-face meeting. For managers who aren’t comfortable with video calls, HR can offer to do a practice call with them.

To help managers start performance conversations, HR can suggest that they talk about their own experience of working during lockdown, and then ask their employee some questions, like:

  • How are you feeling about the lockdown and social distancing?
  • What is your work set-up like? Do you feel like you’re able to concentrate and work well at home?
  • Do you feel like you’re as motivated and productive as you were in the office?
  • Is there anything else that might be impacting on your work that you feel I should know about?

Embrace ‘candid conversations’ and coaching

Trust is critical in the current working environment, and the other side to that coin is honesty. In order to have a productive conversation with poor performing staff, line managers need to strike the right balance between empathy for the difficulties the employee might be facing with COVID-19, and being upfront about the performance concern they’ve identified.

If it’s not already part of the company culture, HR can explain to managers the principles behind candid conversations. Taking a candid and factual approach during a performance conversation will ensure everything is out on the virtual ‘table’, so nothing is misunderstood. For ‘remote’ conversations to stay on track, it’s even more important that the manager has a clear idea of what they need to address, with evidence by way of examples.

Providing managers with training on coaching is another way that HR can help with performance management conversations. The CIPD has training course and factsheets on coaching that HR could recommend.

A coaching conversation allows the employee to explain how they feel about the concern the manager has raised, if they agree with it, and how they might resolve things. With ownership and responsibility being critical to remote-working success, a coaching approach, whereby the employee acknowledges the problem and solution in their own terms, has the best chance of turning the situation around.

The manager could ask questions such as:

  • How do you feel about your work lately?
  • What barriers are you facing in performing at your best?
  • Which of those barriers do you think you can resolve?
  • Have you had to resolve challenges like this in the past?
  • What do you think you could realistically do differently going forward?
  • When would you like to check in on this again?

If the manager finds that they have vastly different opinions about the work concerns to their employee, HR should remind them that it’s helpful to take the conversation back to work objectives and potential barriers to performance. Never let the conversation become personal – keep it focussed on the problem and potential solutions.

Follow up

HR should recommend that managers should use the initial performance conversation with their employee to agree a follow-up plan to check in on the concern that was raised. It is important that communication following the first call is consistent, to ensure there are no misunderstandings on either side.

It might be prudent to follow up the call with an email to the employee, reinforcing what’s been discussed, and asking for the employee to reply with their agreement. Taking this step will depend on how formal the manager wants to make the performance process at this early stage. Either way, managers should keep a record of all performance conversations, noting them down to allow for full visibility on progress and whether agreed goals are being met.

Having had the first difficult call with the employee about their poor performance, managers need to continue to ensure they do everything they can to support their employee in turning the poor performance around. HR and line managers should revisit what resources the business can provide to help the employee perform better (as solutions might change following the call with the employee). They can also look at whether these resources might be helpful to the wider workforce, aiding employee engagement and preventing other instances of poor performance.

At all stages of managing poor performance during COVID-19, HR need to reiterate that emotions and stress might be heightened. While productivity will always be important, managers also need to see the bigger picture so they can retain their talent – talent that might not be performing at their best during these unprecedented times of widespread strain and concern, but who are worth holding on to for the long-term success of the business.

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