Performance Management for the Hybrid Workplace? It’s Complicated.

October 19, 2021 John Rossheim

Through 2020, performance management typically took a backseat to managing the multiple workplace crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Just getting the work done – even when the economy slowed to a crawl – was an all-consuming effort at every level of the suddenly dispersed enterprise.

But this decade has finally left the launchpad, and leaders are being called on to return to a core responsibility: managing their people’s performance and development for the long term. And the pandemic has served to highlight chronic shortcomings, including in the very foundation of performance management: setting expectations.

“Only 6 in 10 workers know what’s expected of them, and it’s worse in hybrid and remote situations,” says Adam Hickman, senior workplace strategist at Gallup. “The forced work-from-home situation has caused bad managers to get worse, highlighting their deficiencies, such as not setting expectations,” says Hickman. 

“Talented managers are listening to employees, trying to learn how to help them be more productive.”

At the same time, long-term remote work brought a reckoning in how supervisors assess performance. “For many managers, showing up in the office was a proxy for performance,” says Ben Eubanks, chief research officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory. “But we all know that a worker putting in hours doesn't necessarily mean they're doing good work. So hybrid is going to push managers to act on this.”

Measuring what matters

How can organizations optimize performance development in a hybrid workplace? It begins with making rating systems – and their basis – explicit. “A lot of employees don't feel comfortable asking what they’re being rated on,” says Eubanks. “So it’s on managers to make clear how employees are assessed. HR and talent leaders can give them tools help to support that.”

“Hybrid is a good thing to the extent that it puts emphasis on actual objectives – the evidence, the outcomes we should be focusing on,” Eubanks says. But even in a hybrid situation, assessment should include 360-degree feedback alongside a year’s worth of check-ins, priorities, recognition moments, and project reviews.

Especially with a scattered workforce, it’s important to maintain focus on teamwork and collaboration in every aspect of performance development. “A single metric rarely reflects all the nuances of an employee's responsibilities and contributions – whether they are remote, in-person, or hybrid,” says a March 2021 report by Gallup.

Managers also need to think flexibly about the context for communications about performance. “For hybrid workers, consider scheduling check-ins about performance in-person for a more natural conversation flow, but don't wait if the feedback needs to be timely,” says the Gallup report.

Whatever choices managers make about how and where to have these conversations, in a hybrid world, it’s more important than ever to make performance development a continuous process rather than a one-off annual event.

New challenges in equity and inclusion

For us social animals, it still matters whether we meet in person or online. In the hybrid work world, managers must take extra care to avoid inequality and exclusion.

“Hybridity is inextricably tied to power — it creates power differentials within teams that can damage relationships, impede effective collaboration, and ultimately reduce performance,” write Mark Mortensen and Martine Haas in Harvard Business Review.

If mothers with young children are likely to work more days from home, reduced power may correlate with gender; if people of color are less likely to have good Internet service at home, their contributions to online meetings may suffer. In 2021, most organizations will find these inequalities unacceptable.

“Managers must remain acutely aware of how hybridity creates an imbalance in their teams with respect to employees’ access to resources and visibility levels,” says the Harvard Business Review article. “Reviews present an opportunity for managers and employees to review and discuss imbalances and how to address them going forward.”

It’s also critically important that leadership keeps an eye on how hybridity may be unfairly influencing who moves up in the organization and who does not. “Research shows that prior to the pandemic, whoever worked remote was less likely to get promoted, even if their performance is better,” says Eubanks.

Performance development for a far-flung workforce

In the chaotic first year of the pandemic, employee performance development may have been one of the most neglected dimensions of performance management. With the great resignation now hitting countless businesses hard, it’s paramount to make visible investments in workers’ careers.

But that investment need not be in the form of an expensive external program. “Work from home has helped by showing that effective employee development is not so much about spending money and sending employees somewhere for training, but rather using internal opportunities,” Hickman says.

Says Eubanks: “It’s always important not to focus only on tasks, but also to talk more openly about opportunities for career growth.”

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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