Throughout my career in workplace change management, I’ve met many managers who were worried about whether they could trust their team to work away from the office. Used to managing by observation, they felt that people would ‘skive’ without supervision, or it would be difficult to know what they were doing. Performance management and assessment would therefore be challenging.

This concern has always brought up the question of how well managers know what their people are doing when they are in the office – but let’s leave that aside!

Managing virtually is okay for a while, but..

Concerns about people working away from colleagues and supervisors has been put to the test over the last six months since Covid-19 struck. This period demonstrated that many people can be trusted they work hard and often flourish.

That said, when the rallying cry came from governments a few weeks ago to get everyone “back to the office”, managers that were struggling were probably relieved they could get everyone back and return to managing through observation. The recent UK announcement that people should work from home if possible has therefore dealt a hammer blow for some!

Given that we are in this for the long haul – at least another six months we are told – now is the time to think about getting more comfortable managing and assessing teams we can’t see.

It’s a bit like wearing a blindfold

For managers, not being able to see and hear colleagues through the day can be challenging. But just as in any situation where we are deprived of one sense, the others sharpen up. Without the full set of cues, body language, tone of voice, posture and facial expressions, we need to focus on more active listening, asking questions, probing and operating with empathy and support.

There are many ways in which managers can support and develop their teams wherever they are working. I have written about the importance of psychological safety and team empowerment (both in the context of virtual teams) which definitely help. But the other aspect worthy of attention is how to assess employee performance. Best practice in this area applies to co-located or dispersed teams, but as it’s definitely more challenging to tackle with a virtual team, it’s worth spending time thinking about the following areas.

Is everyone clear about their goals?

Our research found that Vision & Goal Clarity is strongly correlated with team performance. Everyone needs a clear understanding of organisational goals (what the organisation is trying to achieve) and how their work contributes to those goals.

While goal setting is highly desirable, it isn’t always easy or straightforward. The SMART acyronym (and its longer derivatives) call for goals to be:

  • Specific (simple, significant, sensible)
  • Measurable (motivating and meaningful)
  • Achievable (agreed and attainable)
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic, resourced)
  • Time bound (timely, time/cost limited, time-sensitive)

This may be straightforward for some jobs / activities, but not for all. Research has shown that this works well with relatively straightforward and predictable tasks (i.e. not ‘easy’ per se, but those with defined outcomes). But with roles that involve more complexity and where outcomes are less predictable, having a goal which requires you to ‘do your best’ can be more effective. Having goals that relate to personal development and learning can also be effective.

A review of relevant research undertaken by the Center for Evidence Based Management (CEBMa) shows that having a mix of goals – some specific output / outcome related, some ‘do your best’ and others that relate to development and learning – works well.

Another important aspect of goal setting is that despite a desire to include individuals in setting their own goals, research has shown that these aren’t more powerful in motivating performance than goals set by others. In fact where achievement of the goals is linked to recognition or reward, then intrinsically they are likely to be more motivating. By the same token, evaluating ones own performance has less impact than the performance evaluation of others (essentially the manager).

We need to know what is expected of us and to understand our value to the organisation. This principally comes from the ratings of others. People do need to have a voice in the process and a genuine two-way conversation about performance, improvement and development is highly desirable, particularly when set within a fair process.

Recognising that organisational objectives may have changed over the last six months, it would be beneficial to review team and individual goals as part of ongoing change management, to ensure they are aligned. It may feel like a luxury to to do this, but goal clarity is of prime importance. It can be easy for people to get off track when working virtually if this aspect has been neglected, so ensuring everyone knows what is expected is vital.

How do people perceive their supervisor?

Another important factor is the support that supervisors/managers give their people.  There are many aspects to this, but a couple worthy of attention are feedback and bias.

For people to work towards goals and objectives, they need to know how they are progressing – through the provision of convincing information and inputs. Understanding how their performance against goals will be assessed – whether in pursuit of simple recognition on a day to day basis, or how this maps to their development path or pay / promotion prospects – is critical.

Feedback must be seen to be fair and transparent – research shows that it is the reaction to feedback that affects performance – not the feedback itself. This is illustrated in Figure 1 and reflects the importance of procedural justice (fairness) when assessing performance.

Figure 1: Links in the performance appraisal chain

Source: Rapid evidence assessment of the research literature on the effect of performance appraisal on workplace performance, CIPD, Technical Report December 2016

If individuals feel that decisions are biased, or they lack consistency or accuracy, then there may be a perception that procedural justice is lacking. Evidence shows that if the process is seen to be fair, then people will be much more accepting of the outcome (and of course, vice versa!).

One of the issues associated with feedback is that it can be threatening if delivered in the wrong way. Rather than focusing on weaknesses, concentrating on building strengths is a better approach. Providing coaching for leaders to themselves take a coaching approach with their people can pay dividends. Looking at strengths and seeing how they can be developed or used in different contexts / aspects of the role is a genuinely developmental. Clearly weaknesses may be important, but it is important to establish where the focus should be and whether the ‘missing’ skills are really where we want people to concentrate.

There is an approach called “appreciative enquiry” where managers support their teams by asking questions, taking an interest and asking where they can help, rather than directing the team’s efforts. If there is more active listening during management coaching, those being coached feel more in control and may find their own solutions more easily.

Bias is something that everyone with a brain experiences, although often unconsciously. It is difficult to identify biases in ourselves, although we can more easily recognise them in others! Humans are prone to availability bias – we recall frequently occurring events more easily than rare ones, so relying on what is “available” in our memory should generally lead to good decision-making.

However, other factors come into play such as the vividness of the event and so when reviewing colleagues’ performance, it is easier to recall vivid examples of someone’s behaviour (either positive or negative) as opposed to something more commonplace. As such, a rare but vivid example can assume greater importance in our evaluation of performance – leading to bias.

An extension of this is that those that work in the office alongside a manager are potentially more likely to receive a more favourable evaluation than someone who is rarely in the office, because the manager is more aware of the achievements he/ she can observe directly. Managers must be aware of this bias and take some steps to mitigate it – for example by going out of their way to seek evidence of colleagues’ achievements. People working away from managers may worry about whether their efforts will be recognised or if they will be overlooked for promotion. As with everything, a fair and transparent approach which identifies and acknowledges work wherever it’s carried out is essential.

Things we can do

When managers aren’t with their colleagues in the office, there is a need to pay more attention to finding out how things are going, without micro managing. As mentioned earlier, people need clear goals and to understand how their performance will be assessed against them – particularly how the manager will make that assessment ‘virtually’. Here are some other aspects to consider:

  • Maintaining an ongoing open dialogue – having regular conversations about performance ensures that any issues are able to surface. Don’t assume that if you don’t hear from a colleauge, everything is ok – check in with them and find out. This is particularly useful after a feedback or appraisal session where the manager can seek to understand how any feedback has been received (remembering that the reaction to the feedback determines whether it will be acted upon).
  • Identifying problems and barriers – part of the ongoing conversation enables and encourages issues to be raised – potentially helping to overcome the tendency of some people to sit on a problem and not seek input from others that could provide assistance or support. Asking how you can help is a great way for a manager to provide open support, leaving the nature of the support to be determined by the recipient.
  • Commitment to discussions – 1:1s and team discussions are only valuable if seen to be important. Cancelling them, truncating them or postponing them sends a clear message that they aren’t useful and may be just “going through the motions”.
  • Keeping an eye on trust – a key part of work relationships – we should all look for signs that trust may be under strain or has been broken. Another part of heightening our senses, being more aware of emotions and the circumstances under which people are working (particularly during this pandemic period) can enable more empathy and understanding to be expressed.

Finally, although it isn’t as easy as when we are physically together, it is very important to celebrate success and to express appreciation for people’s efforts. Being out of sight cannot be allowed to become “out of mind”, as this will inevitably lead to a lack of trust. We must maintain strong virtual working relationships so that the benefits of an empowered and trusted workforce can continue to deliver organisational value.