Performance management in the time of coronavirus

This is "uncharted territory" for HR, experts say.
By: | March 19, 2020 • 2 min read

As founder and CEO of OperationsInc, David Lewis has been overseeing remote workers for 19 years and was one himself before that. More than half of the HR consulting company’s 100-plus employees work remotely at any given time. Yet, these days, even he finds himself a bit flummoxed by the unprecedented changes prompted by the coronavirus pandemic that have suddenly swept millions of U.S. office workers into telework arrangements.

“We’re in brand-new, uncharted territory,” he says.

See also: Coronavirus-HR’s role

Managers who must now contend with managing the performance of large numbers of remote employees for an extended period would undoubtedly agree.

As a starting point, Lewis suggests they begin by doing something that’s normally ill-advised: micro-manage.

“Most employees aren’t used to working remotely,” he says. “Plus, they’re working in less-than-ideal conditions.”

In many cases, employees will also have their children and spouse home with them. Employees with roommates who are also stuck at home must find ways of remaining focused and productive. Teleworkers in most locations no longer have the option of working from their favorite coffee shop or the library as a place of respite.

All of this means that managers must play a guiding role in helping employees get acclimated to their new circumstances as best they can, says Lewis.

“These workers may be dealing with technology-related issues, getting used to using Zoom and other tools, and at the same time their young children may be pestering them for a snack or help with their schoolwork,” he says.

Don’t assume that even your team members who normally work well independently will rapidly adapt to telework, cautions Lewis.

“It’s a big adjustment for everyone,” he says.

Managers should start by helping each of their employees create an at-home work structure. They should also schedule regular check-ins by phone each day for each of their direct reports to get a sense of how they’re coping. In some cases, those check-ins should be twice a day—once in the morning and then late afternoon—to assess how they’re doing and help resolve potential issues.

“Frame it as ‘I’m not trying to monitor you, I’m here to help you establish structure because right now, structure’s been obliterated.’ ”

Managers may also need to reset their expectations for productivity, says Lewis. “In terms of widgets, whereas before, they were to produce X number within eight hours, perhaps now it could be 12 hours.”

Working from home means that work may occur more sporadically throughout the day, in some cases after the kids have gone to bed, he says.

Striking the right tone is critical.

“If you tell your employees this is less about getting this amount of stuff done between nine and five and instead by having it done by this date, then that’s huge,” says Lewis. “It will go a long way toward keeping everyone sane and on track.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.