Remote working is here to stay, and after almost half a year, the conversation around its impact on productivity and performance remains as brisk as ever. People Matters asked Annie Weckesser, Chief People Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Uniphore, for her thoughts on the performance question and how corporate culture is adapting. Here's what she shared.
When dealing with a remote workforce, some managers still equate output with productivity, while others factor in visible (online) presence as an indicator of engagement. What's your take on this?
Employee productivity in a remote setting has been a debate even before remote working became mainstream.
At Uniphore, we believe the productivity of our employees is about setting clear focus areas (KRAs) and working to achieve those – whether they are working remotely or in a physical office. KRAs enable focus and an understanding on how an employee will be measured because being busy should not be confused with being productive and accomplishing results.
Managers should set measurable outputs and realistic goals to obtain desired outcomes from team members. To enable this, it is important that the company and managers ensure all employees understand the company’s vision, strategy, products, processes, and culture. A regular review of metrics remains highly important today to have a fair and consistent evaluation, especially when there is a remote workforce.
Lastly, trust is of utmost importance. Being a company with global presence, we have employees with managers across countries. For instance, an employee in Singapore can have a manager based in the U.S. We have been leveraging remote management of our employees, instilling trust between managers and team members even before remote working became mandatory. This approach has worked well for us.
What do you think are good differentiating factors to focus on when evaluating performance for a remote workforce?
What performance or productivity means to a company needs to be defined first. Job functions that have measurable output like emails sent or data gathered may not directly translate to quality work. Business leaders need to first establish what they mean by performance for their remote workforce.
Leaders need to establish early on that teams have a common mission. This ensures all employees work towards a common goal. Arriving at SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) objectives are important as they set clear, specific, and metric-oriented goals. This serves as a concrete base for employee performance evaluation and leaves no room for subjective interpretations.
Many organizations still seem to struggle with communicating performance-critical information such as expectations and feedback. What are your thoughts on how to deal with this challenge?
Part of this struggle has to do with the fact that in many organizations, this type of feedback only happens once a year. Regardless of the channels used, the key is to regularly communicate with employees. This ensures there is mutual understanding about common goals and objectives. Given the current circumstances, it is important to conduct regular check-ins through one-on-one video interactions, individually and through joint video calls with team members. Unlike a regular phone or voice call, video calls make an interaction more personal. Managers need to pay close attention to oneself’s, as well as the employee’s body language. Video calls eliminates the lack of contextual cues that could arise over voice calls which may then lead to misunderstandings. It is important for managers to over-communicate and to take the time to make sure things are not lost in translation.
Employees also want to hear more from their leadership team. It speaks volumes when leaders make themselves even more visible even in a virtual setting. We try to reach out to employees on a regular basis. Since we have been virtual, each employee gets calls from a top executive on rotation basis to check-in. This may be an employee they have never met, but it lifts the cloud of uncertainty and our employees feel valued and taken care of.
What are some ways of improving performance reviews during the current work situation?
Leaders should aim to over-communicate with teams to inspire, support, build or sustain camaraderie, collaboration, and passion. A strong sense of unity and support is critical during challenging times especially when it involves remote working situations. We ensure we organize a monthly all-hands video meet where everybody including the complete leadership team come together from across geographies. The company’s achievements during the month, expectations, introductions to new hires, bestowment of individual milestones and work anniversaries, etc. are all discussed during the monthly get-together.
Implementing a peer feedback process where each employee shares opinions every quarter is also beneficial. Every employee can cover a fellow team member, a team lead, a cross functional team member, a manager, and do a self-evaluation. The forms could include questions on how employees are performing against their goals, their strengths, and areas of development. These will provide managers with a more rounded, pointed and development-oriented performance overview of teams.
It is also critical that, given the many challenges we face today be it company-wide or at a personal level, managers need to be empathetic towards employees. Empathetic by way of listening to what employees have to say and being open to their suggestions.
Managers should ask them what steps they think they should take personally and professionally to achieve their respective goals. This approach helps build trust within the company. It allows employees to have greater responsibility to not only check things off their to-do list but put in 100% of their effort to meet the company’s goals.
From the managers' end, how can they manage employee expectations with regards to feedback, workload, and rewards?
It is very critical for managers to show empathy towards their team members. This can be done by looking beyond deliverables achieved and considering different situations employees face when working remotely. We recently held a LinkedIn poll around the most challenging part of working from home. In this poll, 46% of our employees cited ‘Interruptions’, and 37% cited ‘Prioritizing work’ as the most challenging aspects.
Managers need to do more frequent, smaller evaluations such as weekly one-on-one meetings to help employees overcome or ease into the above challenges. This gives them an opportunity to provide feedback, and it offers employees a chance to make adjustments and ensure course corrections immediately rather than having to wait for quarterly or annual check-in. This allows managers to work on the employees’ developmental needs, and to guide and coach them. Rewards, recognition of small wins, appreciation notes, gift vouchers and spot bonuses are also ways to show compassion and encouragement.
Finally, would you be able to share any specific strategies you are considering around performance planning in the post-COVID world?
There is no set template or a “one-sized-fits-all” approach. It is important to reflect on our purpose, look at employees’ resilience, efforts, and capacity to adapt and develop, especially during challenging times.
Contributions should always be acknowledged and rewarded. Recognition and appreciation for employees engaged during meetings and brainstorming sessions are critical for their morale and our ability to retain them.
This is also the time to remain close to employees and teams and watch for signs of burnout. Back in April, we noticed that employees were struggling from the long hours and offered a day-off for the company for mental health. It was very well received and necessary, so that we offered a second one in June.
Invest in a team’s development. Build capabilities through online learning platforms, expert sessions, leadership coaching development, external coaching, mentoring and guiding sessions. The rewards need to be ongoing.
Lastly, teamwork is of utmost importance especially while growing during testing times. We recently hosted a parenting chat for our employees and invited an external speaker from the Mom Project. She said something that resonated with me: “It no longer becomes an issue of if we are going to get out of this, but when we do get out of this, and who are we going to be on the other side. This shifts the focus to think about how we can grow through challenges. As a manager, one needs to keep in mind that, where the focus for the team goes, the energy will flow. This will help better navigation towards growth through closer collaboration, above anything else.”