When executives at Ontario Systems decided some workers would work remotely, manager of talent development Kira Childers knew that keeping strong ties between managers and their direct reports would be key to the transition’s success. That meant giving feedback, setting clear expectations and monitoring employee engagement would have to be easier for leaders.
“In remote or hybrid work environments, you need to be much more intentional about your communication,” said Childers, whose company provides enterprise technology systems in Muncie, Ind. “That’s particularly important with performance management, because it’s easier to overlook the need to provide employees with feedback or set priorities when they’re out of sight.”
Two months after Ontario Systems workers went remote, Childers introduced a new performance management technology platform from vendor 15Five to help address those communication challenges. The platform features a continuous check-in system that allows managers to assess weekly or biweekly how employees are meeting objectives and delivering results. This way, they can provide performance feedback and stay abreast of how workers are faring as they adjust to a new hybrid work environment.
“Having the check-in … built into the platform is really helpful in a remote environment because you’re making it easier for managers to provide feedback to their teams,” Childers said.
Such platforms include features such as automated nudges that remind managers to check in with their direct reports, analytics that show managers patterns of how they’ve communicated with or provided feedback to employees, tools that make documenting one-on-one coaching conversations easier, and options that allow employees to request and gather feedback from co-workers after events such as delivering a presentation or completing a project.
“Having an agile performance management technology helps when we have people working at home, as well as in offices across different states,” Childers said. “It enables managers to be better coaches and stay connected with their people when not everyone is sitting right down the hall from them.”
Avoiding ‘Second-Class Citizens’
HR leaders continue to use performance management technologies at high rates with the goal of improving feedback and communication. According to the Sapient Insights Group’s 2020-2021 Annual HR Systems Survey, the most widely adopted talent management applications are in recruiting, performance management and onboarding, with over 70 percent of survey respondents using performance management technologies.
But Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst of RedThread Research, a human capital research and advisory membership firm in Woodside, Calif., said companies need to keep in mind special considerations when using performance management tools in hybrid or remote work environments.
“There is a lot of research that shows we are biased to positively rate people who are in closer proximity to us,” Garr said. “Managers need to be aware there may be an unconscious bias against the employee who only comes to the office once a week versus those coming in three or four days a week.”
Managers can help mitigate such bias by ensuring they regularly provide performance feedback, set clear expectations and keep in frequent touch with employees who continue to work from home, Garr said. Technology can help facilitate these tasks.
David Hassell, CEO and co-founder of 15Five, said CHROs frequently warn against the danger of creating “second-class citizens” in hybrid work structures. “HR leaders want to ensure they create a level playing field for those working at home and in the office,” Hassell said.
He added that using such tools as dashboards can give managers better visibility into the engagement levels, performance patterns and well-being of remote and in-office workers.
“When you’re in the same physical space, you don’t need to be super-intentional about your culture because you can tune in to subtle cues and manage by walking around,” Hassell said. “But when you go hybrid and still have remote workers, you need good, frequent reporting to help HR and line managers stay on top of what’s happening with the workforce.”
Garr said technologies like natural language processing (NLP)—when computers understand and analyze text and spoken words—available on some platforms can help improve performance management amid hybrid work.
“NLP can give managers insight and raise awareness about the type of written feedback they provide to employees,” Garr said. In addition, it can comb text for themes or trends that might include potential bias.
For example, she said, research shows that managers are more prone to giving women feedback that is behaviorally based—for example, “Mary, you did a good job of making that customer feel comfortable.” On the other hand, men are more likely to receive feedback that is more business-oriented and objective, such as, “Steve, you did a good job of hitting your revenue targets and client success goals.”
Hassell said tools that help provide structure and deliver nudges can encourage consistency when dealing with employees. “Some managers are naturally consistent, but others are more creative or intuitive and often forget to do things like give employees feedback or set expectations when they get busy,” he said.
“One of the simplest things to do is give people a structure and remind them to do the right things,” he continued. “We believe in creating organizational habits versus leaving things to chance, because habits determine results.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.