Performance Anxiety
#evolve Magazine
October 20, 2022

For all the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic, few organizational touchstones were thrown into as much turmoil as performance management systems. Suddenly, employees faced challenges they had never expected or encountered before — such as balancing child care with fully remote work responsibilities — and as their well-being fell victim to the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic’s ever-shifting profile, measuring performance and productivity took on a new level of complexity.

And yet, to the surprise of many, productivity hardly suffered. In fact, it soared globally, especially at firms equipped to transfer employee energy and output to a fully remote new reality. In the tech, consulting and other digitally-based industries, teams took to Zoom and other network tools with hardly a skipped beat. Still, high productivity levels didn’t mean that workers were necessarily better off or destined to thrive in their jobs in the long-term.

Lacking social outlets for their energy during the thick of the pandemic, workers logically turned to more work, improvising their child care, pet care and self-care routines as best they could, often at the cost of mental health. This contributed to much of the Great Resignation that ensued. Amidst so much change, how fair and meaningful had their once office-based performance goals become? Performance management systems had to change as the pandemic ran its course.

“We think about this in a couple of ways. There’s the performance review process, and how it may or may not evolve. And then there’s the question of how [to] support employees through different work environments — in-person, hybrid, fully remote — to provide them the sort of coaching and development to support their performance,” said Jill Havely, manager director and global head of community excellence for employee experience at Willis Towers Watson (WTW).

“Right now, we’re working with organizations to understand the unique needs of employees at different stages of their career and work life — how they learn and how they develop.”


Situational Coaching is Key

Havely noted that a key byproduct of the pandemic on working life has flown under the radar. “For those of us in more hybrid or remote work environments, the loss of situational coaching has had a far more dramatic effect than anybody realized,” she said.

“When they hit that red ‘Leave’ button at the end of a Zoom call, employees often are sitting there with no idea of what just happened. The traditional, in-person, impromptu opportunities to clarify things and have some discussion as you are walking out of the meeting or on the way to the coffee station are just not there.”

This sense of performance isolation, said Havely, challenges executives and team leaders to focus more on extending the parameters of their employees’ sense of “psychological safety,” going beyond inclusion and equity to ensure that leaders are leaving open space following a remote team call, especially when an employee is asked to develop a deliverable.

From a performance management perspective, it can be as simple as getting a few minutes of discussion time on a project leader’s busy calendar so they can help an employee get started on a task, ask focused questions and avoid mistakes.

Not surprisingly, recent data reveals a mixed response to performance management and evaluation in the pandemic era.

For example, WTW’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes survey on remote working shows that, while 65% of surveyed full-time employees feel they have received fair performance evaluations while working remotely, 52% of them feel more disconnected from their team at the same time, while 56% of team managers report greater difficulty in managing their teams remotely. Some groups — specifically, recent hires, minorities, LGBT+, and lower income employees — are less likely to think evaluations are fair while working remotely.


Hybrid Work Trends

Indeed, as organizations and their workforces emerge from the pandemic cocoon, trends in performance management are at least becoming clearer. To Jessica Kreigel, chief people and culture officer at Experience.com, the impact of hybrid work is felt mainly in terms of location and time.

“Customer service support roles need to be performed during business hours. Other jobs need to be performed at a specific location but can be carried out at any time,” Kreigel has reported. “For example, a stocking position tends to be more deadline-driven. Stockers can manage inventory and move things around by a specific date and time, but the work can often be performed during or outside business hours.”

Then, there’s the trend toward more aggressively deployed performance management, which calls for continuous feedback and more check-ins as fresh cornerstones of the performance management process. A Mercer Global Performance Management Study presaged this development, finding that just 2% of companies feel their performance management approach delivers “exceptional value.”

But if the quantity of check-ins and feedback is increasingly important, the quality is no less so. Helpful check-ins and feedback require that employees clearly understand not only what they should focus on, but also how they can improve and develop — a crucial concern coming out of the pandemic. Research from McKinsey says that 47% of employees feel anxious due to their lack of clarity about post-pandemic work. Alleviating that anxiety can only have a positive impact on productivity and well-being.

Of course, the longstanding, pre-pandemic systems of performance evaluation have acquired an almost quaintly outmoded patina in the course — and wake — of COVID-19. “Performance management must evolve,” wrote Gallup research executives Ben Wigert and Heather Barrett. “Before the pandemic, many organizations believed they had modernized their performance management systems. But when true disruption occurred, ‘agility’ in the workplace was nonexistent.”


Adjusting Accountability and Incentive

While Gallup research also affirmed that more frequent feedback was key to engaging remote workforces, it further stressed the value of making “dynamic adjustments” to accountability and incentive structures, noting that incentive structures that made sense before COVID can seem “cruel and needlessly painful” for workers, and that relying heavily on financial incentives as an employee motivation driver is questionable in the uncertain post-pandemic marketplace.

“Taking a performance goal-based approach to performance measurement that focuses on clearly defined expectations and standards … allows for a more flexible or task-based approach where metrics don’t exist or can be deceiving,” Wigert and Barrett concluded. “This is especially important for teams new to working from home … Don’t mistake activity and participation — such as emails, meetings, hours on a timesheet — for high-quality, productive performance outcomes.”

In the course of the pandemic, organizations have had the opportunity to recognize the higher degree of emotional and mental well-being risks faced by their employees. Clearly, workers have become more open about their needs in an extraordinary time, when the sounds of children or pets, and the imperatives of caregiving, have become hard if not impossible to screen out from team video calls. A greater awareness of the need to support colleagues in different, pandemic-induced ways has become apparent to leadership — or should be.

“Meeting people where they are and providing what they need is becoming a more purposeful focus for organizations now,” said Havely. “In terms of culture and the employee value proposition, these types of issues are coming to the forefront. It’s a matter of building them into leader expectations and coachable moments for team members as well as people leaders and project leads.”

Still, observed Havely, the performance management transformation wrought by the pandemic era hasn’t entirely upended the traditional performance review “text” that has predominated over the past decades, despite its evolution. “I don’t know that we’re seeing them throw out the performance review at this point,” she said, “but they are looking at both the frequency of their conversations around performance and the type of expectations of those conversations.”

Ultimately, there’s a growing awareness that, when it comes to performance management, it’s simply — or, more accurately, not so simply — different when things are no longer conducted in person.

“People hear things in different ways when they are working and communicating remotely,” Havely said, “and as emotional well-being levels have been stretched and are declining, organizations are being thoughtful about what performance management looks like, even while they are not changing expectations about performance outcomes and results. Those expectations are still there, but how people achieve them are shifting. It’s more focused on the individual.”

Editor’s Note: Additional Content
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