Performance Management for Remote Employees

Refocus the Traditional Employee Performance Review to Frequent Feedback Opportunities, Self-Evaluations, and Professional Development.
11 min read | by Kaleem Clarkson

It remains to be seen what vestiges of lockdown life will remain in the United States, but it’s safe to say that offices will look different going forward. According to the 2020 OwlLabs State of Remote Work report, 80% of employees expect to work from home at least three times a week post-COVID-19, also known as a hybrid-remote work model. It’s a radical shift from the pre-pandemic norm of working five days a week, in person, in the office. While many employees are relieved to continue their now-ingrained work-from-home lifestyle, they do worry about the professional consequences of the choice. That OwlLabs report revealed that the percentage of respondents concerned that remote work will hinder their career development has risen from 23% in 2019 to 43% in 2020.

These findings present challenges for managers of remote employees. Managers need to be aware of how they might consciously or unconsciously treat employees who choose to return to the office differently from those who choose to work from home. Remote employees need the same opportunities and planning for career development as their colleagues in the office. Companies must stand behind their promises to invest in training and development for all employees, regardless of where they perform their role. Not only does it create more skilled employees, it gives employees confidence in the company, resulting in better performance and increased loyalty.

One way companies can reassure employees that they care about their goals for professional development is to rethink the way they measure employee performance by moving from traditional annual reviews to more frequent and focused conversations.

The Problem with Traditional Performance Reviews for Remote Teams

Though traditional annual performance reviews are still performed at a vast majority of companies, they have a lot of drawbacks. First, they involve a large investment of time and resources. Managers gather and compile feedback, then write and deliver. For their direct reports who might have spent much of the year focused solely on day-to-day tasks, answering questions for self-evaluation and thinking about their goals for career development only once a year makes those exercises especially daunting. And after all this, studies have show that most employees and managers don’t find them to be a useful endeavor. Companies need to ask themselves if there is enough return on this investment. Does this method deliver enough value to make it worth continuing the practice?

In traditional reviews, some employees resent the feeling that they are reduced to a rating scale that doesn’t accurately reflect their value to the company. Many fear the negative feedback that goes on their “permanent record” gives outsized importance to small infractions. Inherent biases mean that recent feedback is more weighted, both in a positive and negative direction. It can be hard for employees to shake past negative feedback in more recent reviews.

These issues can be exacerbated for remote employees. Without regular in-person interaction with their manager and peers, remote employees don’t have the reassurance of non-verbal cues from their manager. Waiting a year to get a true understanding of their performance increases that anxiety and fails to provide an opportunity to course-correct for any concerns.

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Sometimes, performance reviews give too much weight to results and not enough to the manner and methodology in which individuals perform their jobs. Soft skills are important, too, especially in an unpredictable year when companies had to pivot and concrete goals may have been harder to achieve.

Add to these issues the fact that some managers are just not very good at performance reviews. While companies emphasize the need to execute on the performance review process, they don’t always focus on training managers to evaluate performance and provide meaningful, actionable feedback. Some industries are still rife with managers who have been promoted based on tenure or their skills as an individual contributor, not because they truly want to manage performance and development for a team of direct reports.

Worst of all, some organizations rate employees against each other. This can be a challenge for remote employees who might not feel like they are being fairly judged against colleagues who work in the office. It also encourages the achievement of individual goals and makes employees less likely to work together for the good of the company. This result can’t be what anyone wants, and there has to be a better way to manage performance and motivate employees.

A path moving forward. A selfie of two feet with an arrow pointing forward
The path moving forward for managers of remote teams should be more focused on professional development.

A Better Way Forward for Managers of Location-Independent Professionals

What would better serve employees, managers, and the company at large? To start, performance management should focus on real-time feedback AND ongoing conversations about career development.

Employees deserve communication through a real-time continuous feedback loop. When they get more comfortable with receiving feedback regularly, they are less anxious about it and more accepting. Most important, employees are more empowered when they feel they have a voice to both respond to and give feedback. 

Frequent check-ins help ensure a strong connection between remote employees and their manager, particularly in the absence of those casual encounters they would have in the office. For managers, it’s an opportunity to build a relationship with your team members as individuals and assess what support they need you to provide to do their best work. 

Managers should reaffirm good behaviors right away. They should recognize remote employees and celebrate their successes in the same way they would employees in the office. On the other hand, managers must also correct bad behaviors before they get out of hand. Can you imagine how demoralizing it would be to wait a whole year to find out that you should have been performing some aspect of your job differently? 

Organizations at large need to work with managers to help them become better coaches to their teams. Managers need to learn how to give actionable feedback and focus on growing their employees both in their roles and in their careers. They need to be able to evaluate what skills they have, what skills they want to develop, and what motivates them. Building that trust between manager and employee results in better performance and increased engagement.

Focusing on development and creating a growth mindset is vital to engaging and retaining your employees. If you’re only talking about it once a year, it’s not enough. Development needs to be an ongoing topic of conversation between employees and managers, based on the individual’s interests and needs, and the needs of the business. Get out that professional development plan template during your one-on-ones, and talk about what it means for each employee. Keeping the conversation focused on individual accomplishments helps reduce that competition between employees that feeds a toxic workplace. Be honest about what opportunities exist for promotion and what development it takes to get there.

Companies need to commit time and money to these efforts, but tight budgets need not be a barrier. There have never been more free and low-cost options for classes, webinars, and virtual conferences. Many online learning platforms are free through your local public library. Keep your eyes open, and share that information with your teams and colleagues. Set a goal for attending class(es) a set number of hours per quarter, for example, and hold your employees and managers accountable to make the time to do so. If your organization offers tuition reimbursement or assistance programs, talk to your direct reports about their interest in furthering their education. It benefits everyone.

It’s time for companies to flip the script on performance management. No one wants to receive a report card of their past failures. They want someone to see their potential and empower them to realize it. Let’s start conversations that employees can look forward to, rather than dread.

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Originally Published by Kaleem Clarkson on Tuesday, August 10, 2021 | Updated on Wednesday, September 21, 2022

We would like to thank Brett Perceval for her contributions to this article. 

Onboarding Strategy and Design
, Employee Research and Engagement
, Employee Performance
, Establishing Trust Checklist
, Professional Development
, Self Evaluation
, Trust
, Perform
, Develop
, Human Resources Today
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