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How to Handle Underperformance in the Hybrid Workplace

April 28, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

After two years of working remotely, many companies are now trying to find a work-life balance that provides the benefits of both flexibility and proximity. While this new model may seem to combine the best of both worlds, it calls for new management approaches, among which lies performance management.

There's little doubt that the hybrid work model offers some benefits for employees and employers alike. At the top of the list is engagement, which, in turn, drives results. According to data from Ergotron, a Minnesota-based workplace furnishings company, 88 percent of workers believe that the flexibility provided by hybrid work has led to an increase in their job satisfaction. That's great news for employers who continue to struggle with retention. 

Yet, while that makes the hybrid work model seem like a win-win, it doesn't guarantee performance. As with any other setting, the responsibility for performance management lies squarely on managers' shoulders to recognize subpar performance, understand its root cause, find a solution and implement it. Here are some tips to handle an underperforming workforce. 

Performance Management in the Hybrid Workplace

It isn't uncommon for managers to question an employee's attitude toward work when they see a person's declining performance and there appear to be no other outside factors to justify it. In some cases, managers may brand underperforming workers as "uninterested."

While there are numerous cases where performance is linked to disengagement, a sudden dip in performance, particularly for an employee who had been performing well previously, should be investigated to ensure there isn't a component of the culture or leadership style that is driving the trend. 

One of the most common sources of underperformance, particularly in a hybrid or remote workplace, tends to be lack of clarity from leaders to employees. To perform at their best, employees need to know what's expected of them and what exemplary performance looks like. The sudden move away from the traditional workplace left gaps in performance management strategies that used to rely heavily on physical proximity.

"Because COVID-19 has disrupted most businesses’ regular operations, management has had to swiftly rethink and restructure their performance models for a remote workforce," said Vartika Kashyap, chief marketing officer at Walnut, Calif.-based ProofHub.

Witnessing firsthand an employee's approach to work is no longer possible, short of monitoring technology. But even then, such technology can't gauge an employee's genuine interest. Hybrid leaders and managers must adapt their performance management approach to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

Related Article: How the Hybrid Workplace Is Changing the Culture of Work

Manage by Metric, Not Proximity

In an office environment, managers tend to resort to the eye test to judge performance. In a hybrid environment, things are different.

Datha Santomieri, co-founder and vice president of Austin-based insurance company Steadily, said managers in a hybrid workplace can more accurately judge performance by setting tangible metrics. Because of the heightened risk of proximity bias in a hybrid workplace, she recommends managers set objectives and key performance indicators to help more accurately assess someone’s contribution and evaluate performance based on what an employee accomplishes.

Ryan Urban, CEO and founder of New York City-based Wunderkind, said organizations need to set the standard for defining what success looks like to a person.

“In addition to a person’s core role, are they also contributing in macro ways? Establishing success in advance for every person in the company will increase performance,” he said.

Related Article: Designing Performance Management to Work for Hybrid Work

4 Ways to Manage Underperformance

After identifying a dip in performance, the first step, regardless of the work model, should include a conversation with the underperforming employee to make sure there are no external, non-work related issues at play, and that the company can play a role in getting that person back on track. If the source of the underperformance is of a personal nature, the company may have to choose different ways to support the employee through a difficult time.

Otherwise, here are four ways leaders can address and even prevent performance from dipping in the first place:

1. Define Success

Employees need to know what it means to be successful in their role and within the organization. “Companies must clearly define success, what it means and how to achieve it,” said Urban.

Only then can companies locate the right resources, mentorship and coaching to help them succeed. “High-operating companies that use this approach should see a decline in underperformance,” he said. 

2. Have Regular Check-Ins

Managers shouldn’t wait until an employee’s performance starts to dip before attempting to steady the ship.

“Managers need to make it a priority to make time to catch up with employees — they shouldn’t wait for employees to initiate them,” said Santomieri, who believes scheduling time for impromptu check-ins can help build trust and improve relationships.

“Taking time to foster a relationship based on understanding and empathy can make employees more open to feedback, which can lead to positive changes in their performance,” she said. 

Related Article: Who's In Charge of Your Hybrid Workforce Strategy?

3. Give Internal Feedback

While check-ins between a manager and employee can be beneficial for nipping underperformance in the bud, it shouldn’t be the only component of the relationship. Kashyap recommended implementing an internal feedback mechanism for monitoring remote worker productivity.

“To accomplish this, you should require your employees to complete brief questionnaires in which they provide candid feedback on their coworkers’ performance and attitude toward work,” she said. 

4. Use Project Management Tools

Finally, when thinking about performance management, hybrid managers should consider how they manage processes and the tools at their disposal. Project management and collaboration tools often have features that allow managers to assess remote performance and help teams adjust in a hybrid workplace. Software has been a key component for successful remote or hybrid companies, and project management tools can enable managers to assess their employees and help them succeed. 

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