Managing underperformance can be a challenging task at the best of times. The reasons for underperformance are not always easy to gauge, and can come down to a range of personal issues, as well as dynamics and factors within the workplace.
With many employees still working at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, these issues are naturally amplified. Not only are you unable to keep an eye on employees in the same way, but there are also a range of new problems and distractions.
This doesn’t mean that you should surrender everything to trust, however. While many people’s performance will not change due to remote working – and may even rise – others may need some cajoling and help along the way.
By using technology to your advantage and remaining attentive to people’s needs, you can continue to ensure high productivity while remote working – and intervene should it be necessary.
Working from home undoubtedly has its benefits, and may be something that you have taken positive experiences from. The flexibility you gain from integrating remote working into your business under normal circumstances can be hugely beneficial, and a significant factor in attracting and retaining employees.
With many businesses trying remote working for the first time during this pandemic, it seems likely that there is no going back to a 100% office-based schedule.
However, there are also challenges to this model of working, many of which are exacerbated by the current climate. While remote working is helpful as an occasional option, doing all of your work remotely is a different beast altogether.
While providing support, guidance and structures of working can help to manage and improve underperformance, problems are inevitable; you just need to make sure you identify them correctly, and deal with them in the right way.
Lack of guidance
One of the most obvious drawbacks to remote working is the lack of immediate oversight.
While most employees are clear and self-motivated enough to pursue their own objectives, others need a hand to guide them, a sounding board for ideas and the ability to ask questions to colleagues. Removed from the office environment, they may find themselves drifting without a clear idea of what to do next and feeling unable to make a call to ask for guidance.
The easiest way to solve this is to establish clear lines of communication to reduce the barriers between managers and staff. One option is to hold a regular conference call each morning, laying out everyone’s plans for the day ahead, allowing individuals to ask questions and flag up issues.
If this isn’t viable, you may instead want to use a messaging system such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, which allows staff to chat with each other and send links and files. This can be a great way to ask quick questions without the formality of emails and makes it easy to link to other collaborative spaces such as Google Drive.
Should further input be needed you could then arrange a call and use tools like Google Docs or a shared remote server to work together on a document in real time. The other party will be able to see your changes and input, and vice versa – ensuring that they receive the support they need to work as efficiently as possible in the same way.
A particularly relevant part of remote working during the coronavirus pandemic is the mental health of employees.
The nature of the virus and measures to control it mean that many people have been stuck at home for months now, with minimal social contact and even less with older family members. This is likely to have exacerbated any existing metal health conditions, caused new problems for people who may normally be outgoing and thrive on social contact.
The potential for mental health issues to cause underperformance when working from home highlights the need for a sensitive approach. As an employer or manager, you should always assume that underperformance isn’t a deliberate act or a fundamental shortcoming of an employee, and instead try to help them improve.
In the case of mental health issues, this means giving employees the confidence to speak up and the space to recover when they need it.
In order to address mental health when remote working, it may be helpful to make a statement on the issue as a company, and signal that you take the mental wellbeing of staff seriously. This may take the form of ‘duvet days’, where employees can take one or two days off sick a year without having to explain why just because they need a day at home.
Beyond this, you may also wish to create channels for discussing such issues privately to make resources available for staff to seek help.
Laziness and apathy
Finally, you may have to consider the possibility that your employee is simply not suited to the freedom offered from working remotely. The temptation to slack off may be too much, and you may find that they simply aren’t performing to the levels required regardless of the help you’ve provided.
In this case, there are a couple of other options to set them back on the right path, before you think about whether to keep them at the company. One is to think about using some form of tracking software, if you aren’t already.
While some companies take an insidious approach of tracking every action an employee takes, there are more palatable alternatives. The app Toggl Track for instance allows employees to log the tasks they are working on, with options to define the project and split tasks up using tags.
This gives staff some autonomy and makes it feel less like they are being surveilled, while also giving you more of an insight into the work they are doing. Similar technology can often be facilitated via remote servers to review the work completed and time spent working.
On the more extreme end, you might want to increase the level of communication with a particular employee and replicate the benefits of an office environment.
It may be worth keeping people on a call using apps such as Skype, with microphones muted. This way, one party can check in on the other and ask questions at a moment’s notice, in the same way you might in an office. This is particularly useful for managers to work with their teams, especially if they have a good working relationship in the office.
You could also schedule a similar call at the end of each day to get an update on the work that’s been completed, and troubleshoot any issues.
Managing employees during periods of remote working is tricky, but something that many businesses will need to get used to, even beyond the bounds of this pandemic.
By putting the right structures and guidelines in place, and providing ample support and oversight to those who need it, you can continue to capitalise on the benefits of remote working while reducing any underperformance.
About the Author
Pam Loch has more than 20 years’ experience in employment law, supporting clients along the way with a whole host of employment-related matters. Loch Associates provide a combination of employment law, HR consultancy, health and safety, corporate employee wellbeing programmes and mediation services to clients.