Early in the COVID-19 crisis, when the number of Americans working remotely spiked to over 60%, many for the first time, we advocated for managers to recognize the unique challenges faced by their employees. We and others emphasized that remote work during a pandemic can differ dramatically from remote work in non-quarantine times. However, as it appears that remote work will remain prevalent for some time to come, many leaders are beginning to adapt their management practices to this new reality.
Our experience advising firms about remote work and human resources indicates that many managers are unsure of what to do when a remote employee is disengaged or underperforming. Managers may feel a combination of frustration and guilt when employees aren’t meeting expectations. One leader recently expressed this frustration to us, stating, “I’m just not understanding this. We are lucky that we still have jobs. How can anyone just be dialing it in?”
But demanding better results or disciplining an underperforming employee may feel inappropriate given the non-work demands that many people are experiencing during the crisis. Managers know that employees are struggling and this sometimes comes across as underperformance.
So, what should remote managers do to address persistent underperformance? We spoke with several experienced managers of remote workforces, as well as experts in remote work and human resource strategy. Here are several steps that can guide managers through this challenging situation.
Identify existing performance-management policies and processes
A manager’s first step should be to seek out existing firm policies on employee performance. Even if they do not address remote work specifically, a firm’s human resources policies (typically found in an employee handbook or firm intranet) can be a useful starting place, outlining expectations and requirements for ensuring fairness and legality. These expectations and requirements need to be met, even in a remote work setting.
“Step one for managing remote employees in COVID times is to find and learn your company’s remote work policy,” explains Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting and founder of the Remote Work Association. “[These policies] are absolutely essential for the protection of your employees and for the protection of the company. They are how you set expectations and behaviors that define that success and get everybody on the same page, and how managers can eventually hold their employees accountable.” Managers should determine whether their firm had a remote work policy pre-pandemic, and if not, learn if one is being developed now.
Strategic HR management consultant Kim Pelzar echoes the need for a policy but adds that the manager’s response to underperformance should also depend on “whether the performance issues are new—which the employee could claim are based on remote work [conditions], or if they were happening prior to remote work.” She says that if there is not an explicit remote work policy, “the manager must be clear about how expectations were conveyed during the remote work arrangement, and must be able to demonstrate when and how those were communicated.” If an employee could reasonably say they did not know what they were expected to do or how to do it, this gap in communication should be addressed before any further performance-management steps are taken.
Re-evaluate performance based on results, not physical presence
Many leaders have realized that managing remote workers (especially during the pandemic) requires prioritizing results over presence. When individuals are working remotely, it is harder to observe behaviors traditionally associated with ideal workers. Farrer explains, “So much of the physical demonstration of work orientation had been in place since the industrial revolution. Now we have to complete the transition from sensory supervision to results-based supervision in many of our management methods.”
When managers tell us that an employee appears distracted, or struggles to be physically present for remote meetings, we typically ask if the shift in physical presence is affecting the results produced by that employee or by their coworkers. Often managers realize that the key performance indicators that they’re looking for are satisfied, regardless of the face time the employee is putting in.
In fact, according to Farrer, remote work in the COVID-19 era “massively” levels the playing field for employee performance. She explained that results-based supervision often highlights that people who managers thought were top performers actually are not as strong as those who had lower profiles in the office. If work is diligently executed, says Farrer, “the who stops mattering as much when performance is evaluated against results.”
Hold a remote coaching conversation
Often, establishing and clearly communicating results-based expectations is sufficient to help underperforming employees course-correct. However, if underperformance persists, the next step is a remote coaching meeting.
Conversations at this stage are relatively low-stakes opportunities to course correct underperforming employees. Although managers are often reluctant to initiate these conversations, especially given additional non-work demands on employees and generally elevated stress levels of the pandemic, we advocate strongly for them. The alternative is generally worse: continued underperformance compounded by resentment from teammates and other peers.
Managers shouldn’t be surprised if an employee’s first response to a coaching conversation is strongly defensive. Newly remote workers aren’t able to calibrate their productivity or results against others in the office and may be surprised to learn that they are underperforming. This is where results-based expectations help. The manager can objectively demonstrate the gap between expectations and actual performance.
We encourage managers to ask neutrally worded questions that may motivate employees to disclose the challenges they are experiencing at home or with work processes or technology. We find that employees aren’t typically comfortable discussing these topics, feeling they should be able to resolve everything on their own. Often, coaching conversations will inform relatively minor management intervention that can mitigate or resolve performance issues.
Language plays an important role in setting the tone for the coaching conversation. To reduce employee apprehension, we recommend the manager makes the goals clear upfront. Saying something like: “It’s been six months since we had to shift gears to remote work, let’s use this time to talk about how things have been going,” shares the direction and applies context to the conversation. Transitions such as “let’s take some time to think about opportunities for improvements” makes the work—not the individual—the focus.
We recommend holding these meetings one-on-one using video. In most cases, this facilitates open communication. After the call, the manager should send a follow-up email to the employee, recapping the conversation, and any agreed-upon next steps. This email does not need to be formal in tone but can serve as documentation of conversations if needed at a later time.
If necessary, establish a Performance Improvement Plan
If performance doesn’t improve in the weeks after coaching, or if the coaching conversation leaves the manager feeling that performance is not going to improve, a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is in order.
A PIP is an agreement between employee and employer, stating expectations and measurable results that the employee must satisfy within a set period of time (usually 60 to 90 days), or be subject to demotion, transfer, or termination. A PIP doesn’t mean the employee will necessarily be fired. The process can be an opportunity for the employee to reset their performance and demonstrate their commitment to the company.
Human resources should be consulted when writing a PIP. Managers can consider offering in the PIP supporting resources such as unstructured online coworking time, flexible working hours, recording meetings for the employee, or having the employee submit contributions for early review and feedback.
When it is time to discuss the PIP with the employee, managers will likely be joined (online) by a representative from human resources who will also manage accompanying documentation. Like coaching, hold this conversation on a video call whenever possible.
Termination as a last resort
If the employee’s performance does not improve within the span of the PIP, or if performance issues are considered egregious, termination may be in order. This is particularly true if an employee’s position is expected to remain remote for a longer period of time.
While it is hard for many supervisors to become comfortable with the idea of terminating a remote employee, Pelzar explained that underperforming team members “can become toxic to their teams.” If not managed, those not meeting performance criteria or leaning on teammates to pick up the slack will breed contempt and resentment. “If these employees do remain on the team, lack of [performance] management may even cause stronger employees to quit,” says Pelzar.
If termination is required, consult with HR. Pelzar explains, “The HR office has an understanding of the nuances involved with employment decisions in this remote era, so reach out to them and allow them to lead you through the next steps.”
While it would be ideal if employee performance was never an issue, understanding the options enables managers to succeed when it is.
Susan Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant. Barbara Larson is an executive professor of management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.