Article: Measuring performance in a post-COVID workplace

Performance Management

Measuring performance in a post-COVID workplace

Shifting priorities to business continuity was and to a great extent remains a key focus for employers, and employees have stepped up in this need of the hour to help organizations sustain this crisis. Are employers reciprocating this empathy by acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances and adjusting their approach to performance management? Let’s find out.
Measuring performance in a post-COVID workplace

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 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? 

No employee is denying the financial setback borne by employers, they are in fact investing more time in work to help speed-up the process of recovery. However, are employers reciprocating this sense of empathy to employees? Shifting priorities 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? Is there a need to measure, assess and adjust performance in the post-COVID workplace? Let’s find out.

Performance: To measure or not to measure?

“The funny thing about how we experience work is that when you start measuring it, you find out it varies more within an organization than between one organization and the next,” shared Ashley Goodall, SVP Methods & Intelligence, Cisco, in an exclusive interaction with People Matters.

With that thought Ashley brings to fore a key aspect in measuring work. The disparity and inconsistency in measuring performance that existed pre-COVID has only amplified post-COVID, and in a majority of the cases owing 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 COVID-19 and its resulting circumstances.

Ashley suggests 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 an effective performance management and regressive performance management practice - the ‘why’ of implementing performance management. Are we doing it to manage 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, with the question then not becoming whether to measure performance or not, but in fact the question evolves to what constitutes performance, how are we measuring performance, how are we monitoring performance, what parameters are we assessing, and eventually what do we do with all that data.

How to approach performance management in the post-COVID workplace?

In conversation with People Matters about relooking at performance amid crisis, HSBC Singapore’s Head HR, Brandon Coate emphasized, “Organizations must remain committed that assessments must be based on reasonable performance expectations taking into account COVID-19, and agreed upon by both managers and employees through frequent, open conversations based on individual circumstances, including consideration of real-life challenges and factors that might impact employees’ performance outcomes.” 

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.

Being accommodating of the personal lives of employees and adjusting performance expectations, is as basic as expecting employees to accommodate work requirements from their home which is not essentially equipped to replicate a working environment, and yet employees are modifying their home environment to be able to deliver on work.

“This is an opportunity for managers to assess where their people most need support and to revisit objectives or goals that might need to be adjusted in light of COVID-19,” suggests Steven Baert, Chief People & Organization Officer, Novartis.

Being cognizant of the extent of impact of COVID-19 beyond business, on the personal lives of employees, is crucial to weigh in before establishing what performance would entail today. This calls for the HR function to evolve from business partners to people partners, and perhaps upskill managers and leaders to cater to both these aspects on the people front. 

“We have an obligation to empower our teams to lead, to be inclusive, to innovate, and to learn….At the end of the day, we want to attract and retain the best of the best, and our strategies should support and reflect that,” shared Donna Morris, EVP and Chief People Officer, Walmart as she spoke to People Matters about adapting to the changing times and embracing the new normal.

Beyond traditional performance parameters, employees today are contributing to organizations in ways beyond what their role demands of them. This puts greater responsibility on organizations to step out of the clock hour mindset and evolve the scope of performance measurement. In the current times, organizations must also be cognizant of voluntary contributions from employees, which are beyond the scope of their role. Brandon Coate from HSBC Singapore recommends considering an employee’s proactive behavior and attitude to supporting the wider team as their role may be momentarily less relevant but how have they supported other team members.

“Recognize employees’ flexibility and willingness to develop new skills and adapt to a different role and how they have contributed to overall service performance outcomes.”

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

“During the crisis, our managers approached performance management with more flexibility, leniency, empathy, and compassion. We looked at various ways to recognize and show appreciation for employees who ensured we continue to deliver to our commitments. This approach has helped Cargill in keeping high employee morale, engagement, and productivity during this crisis,” shared Karunakaran.

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. A conducive working environment is a prerequisite to effective performance, especially when employees are needed to function in that environment for a longer duration. A two week lockdown vs a 6 month work from home requires different performance measurement parameters. Employers must identify the priorities and assessment parameters and communicate the revised understanding of performance to the entire workforce. 

Beyond the environment, defining what constitutes performance, is it about the number of hours clocked in or is it about completing daily tasks? Should tasks be measured daily or weekly.

Timeline and expectation setting are two important elements of performance that must be mutually agreed upon by both managers as well as employees, keeping scope for flexibility, factoring in the environment employees are functioning in and the business need.

Some employees might be working remotely, some might be in essential roles on the field, while others might have had to return to office. In that context, maintaining 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. “Purpose matters. When people are connected to a company's purpose, they will do what is needed to support that purpose,” suggests Cristina (Cris) A. Wilbur, Chief People Officer, F. Hoffmann-La Roche.

  • 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 in time where needed. Shafaq Kamran, People and Culture lead at Roche Pharmaceuticals Singapore, in conversation with People Matters discussed an interesting approach to streamline goal setting and foster a culture of adaptability in the current circumstances. “We work in a 90-days cycle, which gives employees the flexibility to adapt goals and pivot if required due to the varying circumstances they are faced with...Both continuous feedback and goal-setting exercises on a 90-days cycle enables employees to keep their expectations in line with their contributions given the circumstances we operate in.” 

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 in performance assessment is among the basics that need to be checked.

  • Non-monetary rewards and recognition: Rewards and recognition are a critical element of performance management. They help positively reinforce great work and serve as an opportunity to benchmark performance for the rest of the workforce. 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. “Consider reallocating funding that was formerly used for expensive office perks - stocked kitchens, monthly team outings and happy hours - to education programs for employees so they feel the company is continuing to invest in career development and training,” suggests Rhiannon Staples, Chief Marketing Officer, Hibob. 
  • Align benefits programmes 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. Aligning their benefits with what employees need in the present scenario, Anjali Byce, CHRO, STL shared, "We instituted health & safety benefit schemes and welfare programs that are meaningful in these times. These include enhanced medical insurance coverage (including for COVID positive cases) for employees and their families, 24X7 residential wi-fi, and access to certifications from best-in-class universities globally. We had 1500 STLers (as we call ourselves) upskill themselves with almost 7500 hrs of training in 10 days during the early lockdown days. This continues to grow as we speak." 
  • 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 wellbeing 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.

The unprecedented circumstances have created a scenario where stepping out of homes is a possible threat to life, and staying within the boundaries of our homes is becoming a threat to psychological safety triggered by numerous factors. 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. 

The need to maintain an online presence in order to prove that one is working, is among the stressors that is detrimental to employee well-being.

To keep employees mentally stimulated and avoid burnout, Hibob’s Chief Marketing Officer, Rhiannon Staples suggests that modern leaders must recognize online presence does not always equate to productivity.

“In accepting this, leadership should focus on outcomes (goals) rather than perceived outputs (tasks) to ensure employees are remaining effective from home.” 

  • 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 mundane tasks. 

Leaders need to focus their capabilities on revisiting the approach to performance management, while leveraging tools to facilitate the process. One such tool is being used by HSBC Singapore. Brandon Coate shares, “We introduced the Continuous Performance tool to support our Everyday Performance & Development (EPD) Conversation, helping managers and colleagues stay connected, collect feedback and evidence their achievements throughout the year.” Such tools offer much needed support to people managers, equipping them with the required data and saving their time for more strategic decisions and tasks.

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 spot 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."

"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,” added Ashley.

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.

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Topics: Performance Management, #RethinkPerformanceandRewards

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