In my daily interactions with various Business leaders, I sense a great amount of distrust when it comes to allowing their staff and teams to continue with the remote working arrangement they had during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I sense that a majority of employers believe that that their employees should return to their workplaces now that the the Covid-19’s impact has diminished. Employers thinking so are greatly mistaken as working from home isn’t going to disappear. The reality is that the number of people working from home is only likely to rise post-pandemic. The reasons for this are endless and there are benefits for everyone. Less time wasted in traffic, more effective online meetings that start on time and discuss things to the point, smaller office space needed, greater employee satisfaction.
However, as always in life, nothing comes just with its pluses. Remote working also has various issues which need to be managed. As an employer you feel that with remote working you might be losing control but in actual fact what you should be focusing on is how to manage and deal with under performance from your remote workers. Although you might assume that managing an under performer in a remote environment would be more challenging (who wants to have a series of difficult conversations over Zoom or Teams?), there’s actually an upside. You may actually be more effective in handling the situation because you have to plan and structure your interactions, rather than catching up in the hallway or waiting for them to stop by when you’re in the office.
Here are pointers with regards what you can do to help under performing team members, who want to work remotely, improve their game.
Revisit your expectations. Take the opportunity to reconsider what you want most from the employee and why you feel you’re not getting it. Start by reviewing your recent instructions and whether your communications about what’s expected have been clear and consistent from the beginning. This is something you do with under performers in any context, but when you don’t see the employee in person, it’s even more important to ask yourself whether your instructions have been clear enough.Part of this process is separating out whether your dissatisfaction is with their work products or with the way they deliver.If their style or approach is the problem, check to see if you’re expecting them to work the way you do. If that’s the case, let go of those expectations and dispassionately assess their real strengths and capacities for contributing to the team’s work. If you suspect the underperformer’s difficulties come from insufficient experience, specific skill deficits or a lack of business or organisational acumen, consider whether they need training or to partner them with a more experienced colleague. This may be more challenging in a remote environment, but it’s too risky not to act upon it.
Learn more about them. Even if they’ve been on your team for a while, it’s important to ask about their goals and what they care about, as these things change as circumstances evolve. Plus, you don’t have the benefit of casual, in-person contact to pick up details about family or hobbies. Then, modify your management approach to match their needs. For example, you might learn that they miss working side-by-side with colleagues and would perform better if they were assigned to projects that involved more regular interaction.If you’re not familiar with their remote set-up and schedule, ask. Some team members may prefer strict deadlines to structure their often-interrupted workdays; others may benefit from more flexible deadlines than usual to help them deal with the additional pressures of working from home. Take their home obligations into account.
Level with them and be specific. You may not be in the same room, but providing feedback is still a requirement. Many people who aren’t doing well have a vague feeling that something is wrong, but don’t really know which of their behaviours aren’t working. For example, telling a team leader that they need to “be a better listener” doesn’t help them understand specifically what they need to do differently. It’s much more helpful to explain that when they turn away during video conferences or change the subject while team members are speaking, the team loses trust and confidence in them. The feedback gives them the opportunity to actively practice modifying those behaviours.
Help them learn how to improve their own performance. As much as possible, use questions to encourage them to self-diagnose and to project into their own future: “How will this experience set you up to do better in the future?” or “Why do you think I’m asking you this?” to encourage them to reach their own conclusions, rather than telling them what you have observed. This will help you avoid micromanaging, which is a significant temptation when you’re trying to be extremely clear about expectations.
Stay in close enough contact. Keep in mind that in the case if an under performer, working remotely, the onus is on you as their manager to stay in regular touch and to keep them in the loop. Don’t assume that no news is good news. After you’ve given an employee candid feedback and they don’t hear from you, they can start to worry that you’re ignoring them because you’ve written them off and hence their performance will likely deteriorate further. Schedule regular meetings to talk about their progress. If you’ve asked them to keep you up to date on their progress, make clear how you want them to do that.
I believe that employers who expect that remote working will vanish and everything will return as it was, are in for a nasty surprise. You will be likely putting yourself at risk of losing valuable employees to other business organisations who are more flexible on this point. Having said so, it’s not easy to work with a remote employee who isn’t performing well, particularly when you can’t sit down together and have a conversation. But using specific techniques to help them improve will strengthen not only their performance but their relationship with you as well….whilst you gain on both fronts – offer flexibility that creates better employee satisfaction and still manage things with an acceptable level of control.