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The work from home model has become synonymous with flexibility – but when managing your remote employee’s output, it’s all about structure, says Frontier Software CEO Nick Southcombe.

A FEW years ago, it seemed the performance review’s days might be numbered. All the big players – including Microsoft, Deloitte, IBM and Adobe – were starting to move away from the formal process towards more frequent and ‘free-flowing dialogue’ between employer and employee. Critics of the standard performance review felt, among other things, that it was one-way, that it stifled discussion and happened too infrequently. Fast-forward to now, however, and the performance review/appraisal is alive and well. Not just alive but, in the remote working environment, more necessary than ever, says Nick Southcombe, CEO of Frontier Software.

“As we move to the new world where remote working is going to be available to a significant portion of the workforce, the proper setting of objectives will be even more important than it has in the past 18 months.

“Performance matters, no matter where you are,” says Southcombe, “but the difference is that, in a remote environment, managing it needs to be a lot more structured.”

By ‘structured’, he doesn’t mean that oldstyle ‘pull your socks up’ conversation that so irked the instigators of the ‘performance management revolution’, as the Harvard Business Review called it. Instead, he advocates a formal process complemented by regular, two-way dialogue throughout the year; checks and balances to ensure the critique is fair; and – importantly – the chance for employees to appraise their managers. Incidentally, Southcombe favours the term ‘appraisal’ over ‘review’ as it refers to a critique that’s either good or bad.

The need for core hours When your people are working remotely, you lose the opportunity to observe them and have those ‘watercooler’-type conversations – therefore also losing the chance to casually offer feedback, says Southcombe. Because managing performance should be about communication, feedback and coaching, you need to compensate with a disciplined approach. 

“That’s a good thing. If people are following a discipline, it makes them do it; it removes ambiguity, and it provides structure. It then becomes about what the measurements are.”

And what you base your measurement on shifts slightly in the remote working context, says Southcombe.

“The objectives are the same – you still have to generate a piece of work, but does your manager care if you’re doing it from nine to five or 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.? Not really.

Which means that – especially in lockdowns, where people are forced to work from home – measuring performance needs to focus on outcomes rather than perception. People are being more flexible with their time, but that’s because they have to, so if you do four hours’ work over six hours because of distractionsat home, that’s OK. It’s not just the elapsed time but more a question of ‘are they being productive in the time they are working?’

And while flexibility comes with the work from home terrain, there does need to be agreement about core hours, says Southcombe.

“There are times when you need to interact with people in your team. Those hours might be 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., which means if a team leader schedules a meeting during that time, the employee can’t use remote working or the flexibility the organisation allows to not attend.

“We need to be cognisant that there are other pressures at home, but ultimately we still need the outcomes, and we need those outcomes to be delivered in a productive way. There needs to be some understanding that flexibility isn’t king.”

Goal setting in a remote environment

Of course, in order to know how ‘productive’ someone is, you need to define clear goals to compare their output against. In fact, goal setting is perhaps even more important in a remote working situation where employees are not being closely supervised, says Southcombe.

What’s crucial is that these goals are documented. “Managers still make up their own mind about how someone is performing, so far better that they are required by methodology and discipline to document; it keeps the process even-keeled, unambiguous and honest.

“People like positive feedback, and it’s important they get the opportunity to receive it. Equally, it’s important for employees to know the areas they need to work on.”

What, then, if an individual is not performing as expected? How do you manage that conversation remotely?

“Having those conversations with underperformers is hard wherever it takes place,” says Southcombe.

“Whether you’re working remotely or not, a manager who has to talk about someone’s underperformance needs to prepare. One of the benefits of video meetings is they are usually scheduled, so, in a way, remote working actually encourages more of a planned approach.”

Also key, says Southcombe, is that you always follow up the conversation in writing. “If it wasn’t written it wasn’t said.”

However, this is only the first part of the process. “When you are managing underperformers, the objective is that you are coming up with a plan to get this person on track. That’s going to involve training, skilling and coaching.”

Crucially, a good manager should be identifying that someone needs coaching long before it gets to the ‘you’re not performing’ stage.

“With remote working it can be a little less obvious to co-workers if their colleague is underperforming. They’re not seeing that person is always late to meetings, taking long breaks, etc. However, it shouldn’t be any less obvious to the manager if they are assessing performance based on productivity and outcomes.”

The manager should also provide plenty of opportunity for regular feedback and exchanges with their employee so that when the annual review comes there are no surprises. The right software can help facilitate this, turning the ‘once a year’ tick-box exercise into ongoing and meaningful conversations.

“Frontier Software has a performance appraisal tool which we use in exactly the same way for people working remotely as for people working on premise,” Southcombe says.

“A good tool like ours should allow both manager and employee to make notes throughout the year. A manager might think ‘Nick did a good job; I must remember to raise that at his appraisal’ – but that could be 10 months away.

“Our Frontier Software tool has a journal function where you can enter observations as you go along, so when it comes to the yearly appraisal the manager can see what the employee did well, and the employee will have noted their own wins so they can bring them up.”

Regular face-to-face (or Zoom) catch-ups are still vital – here, the role of the online tool shifts to recording that the conversation took place.

“It can just be a checkbox ticked to say that the employee and their manager had the conversation and were OK with it. Or you can have the option of documenting any concerns. In our case it happens monthly; some companies may do it weekly or quarterly. Having the methodology and discipline of providing regular feedback creates that environment of visibility.”

Appraising the appraisers

Underperformance may not always be the employee’s fault, Southcombe emphasises, especially if they aren’t getting adequate training, or perhaps the goals were a bit foggy. So, as well as the manager having the chance to intervene early on to correct poor performance, the employee should also be able to flag, in a timely fashion, that they are getting insufficient direction. A good performance appraisal tool should have fairness built into it by allowing mismanagement issues to come to the surface much sooner.

“In our performance tool there is a section with questions like: Do you get regular feedback from your manager? Does your manager get you the resources you need? Do they advocate for you for training? Staff can answer those as part of their appraisal, but the manager doesn’t get to see it. Instead, the feedback goes to our HR department, who distribute it around as appropriate to those managers’ managers. That way you get more honest feedback.”

So, not only has the structured appraisal not been toppled by the performance ‘revolution’, but its place has been cemented by the needs of remote working. In addition, thanks to technology, we’re more easily able to accommodate what critics of the traditional performance review said it
lacked: regularity, fairness, meaningful two-way dialogue, follow-up, and a model that helps develop the employee rather than destroy them.

Originally published in HRD Magazine in October 2021