21 September 2020

Enabling Employees During Remote Working & Volatility

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • How the role of manager has changed in response to COVID-19
  • What adjustments do managers need to make in how they approach their employees
  • Metrics managers should focus on to assess work-from-home performance
  • Leadership during times of crisis

2020 has been a year of volatility as most of us have moved to remote work. In this Q&A call, we talk about how the shift to remote work has impacted managers and how they can better enable employees. We talk about how managers can be more responsive during and after COVID-19, a part of our Responsive Organization research. In the past, managers have focused on efficiency, but now organizations are focusing on different metrics and communicating with employees differently. Here are a few of the questions we discussed:

  • What aspects of managers historical roles have shifted due to COVID-19 and working remotely?
  • How should managers adjust their approach to better enable their employees in this new reality?
  • What performance metrics should managers focus on when assessing work from home performance?

There were many great insights during this Q&A. Thank you to everyone who attended and participated live. We hope you join us live for the next Q&A call.

Video Contents & Questions Asked

You can jump to the following locations in the video using the timestamps on the video and in the chapters menu (next to the full screen icon).

  • 0:00 Introduction & housekeeping
  • 1:23 Overview of responsivity research
  • 4:39 Managers role in responsivity
  • 8:41 The impact of 2020’s volatility on managers
  • 16:21 Changing role of managers during remote work
  • 20:33 Accountability & management
  • 25:29 Focus shift to different performance metrics
  • 28:32 Successful leadership during remote work
  • 35:10 Focus on performance not presence in remote teams
  • 42:12 Comparing employees vs measuring improvement
  • 45:08 Changes to management approaches during COVID-19
  • 53:21 Wrap up

Q&A Call Transcript

Introduction & housekeeping (00:00)

This Q&A session is on how managers should enable employees during remote work and volatility, which seems very timely. And it’s based on actually, let’s start with some, some housekeeping stuff. We always promote everybody to a panelist because we want the discussion. So we answer the questions that have been sent in, but we actually really want the discussion. So if you disagree, or if you have something to say or experiences, please feel free to share, but also make it a safe place. So no attacking. This is not CNN or the comments section of any website. Let’s keep it respectful. We’ve never had a problem with that, but we say it anyway.

Raise your hand to speak. Just to give us a chance to keep order, especially because we’re recording this. Unmute yourself and then feel free to discuss the topics in the chat. The chat often offers us quite a bit of color that we don’t actually get on the the recording. And if it’s of interest to you, we can send you the chat. The other thing that we want to make clear is you are being recorded. So anything you say will be posted live. If you don’t want to say anything to the entire world feel free to chat separately, or to set up a conversation with a separately. Cause we’d love the information. We’d love to talk to you about it. We just want to make sure everybody knows kind of where we are and what we’re doing. Any questions on that before we jump in?

Overview of responsivity research (01:23)

Okay. So late last year and early this year, and then into the summer and now into the fall, we’ve been working on this idea of responsivity. And we determined responsibility as “the ability of organizations to recognize trends in the operating environment and effectively turn possible disruptions from those trends into distinct organizational advantages.” So it’s basically all of the disruption that happens. What are you doing with it? Are you just reacting to it and putting stopgaps in place or actually looking at it and making something out of it? And organizations do this to varying degrees. Some of them do it really well. And some of them don’t.

We published some research in June of this year, which introduced a model. And this was based on lots and lots of interviews. It was based on four round tables and also some quantitative research. What we found was that organizations that were responsive, those that were able to respond to the environments that they’re in, basically looked through the world in four lenses.

The first one is respect for employees. And this one seems to be foundational. If organizations don’t have respect for employees and their skills and abilities, they don’t seem to be able to react much to their environment at all.

The second one is distributed authority, and this has two parts. The first one is how much do organizations push the decision making to the edges of the organization. But it also has to do with how clear they are about the authority that individuals have. So it’s so distributed authority obviously is going to be different in different areas, in different functions, in different industries, but how clear they are on the authority that individuals have seemed to be a pretty big determinant of how responsive they are.

Third one is not surprising to me cause I work in this field, but transparency and growth was huge. Organizations that focus on making sure that their employees are continually growing, tend to do better than those than those that don’t. And those that are transparent about what they’re doing and where they’re going, rather than just treating employees like cogs machine that do one thing all the time also tend to do better.

And then all of these things we thought were really interesting, but what was the most interesting of this study is that there’s a separate set of behaviors that kind of goes along with trust. Trust was by far the most impactful thing that organizations could do to be responsive. And that has a lot to do with community building and purpose-driven sort of mindset and how they handle failure and how they allow people to bring their real selves to work and all that good stuff.

So when organizations, and especially the people in the organizations that help develop the people processes when they develop those people processes, they should be considering each of these four things as they develop those people processes. They should be looking through these lenses and determining if they’re taking care of these four things in order to be responsive.

We actually think responsivity will become the new efficiency. We’ve been focusing on efficiency for about a hundred years, as organizations, we think the ability of organizations to respond to the environments that they find themselves in and take advantage of those disruptions is going to be how businesses get ahead in the future.

Managers role in responsivity (04:39)

So that was the main study. And this model can be found in the report that we put out on that. Since then Stacia has been doing a little bit of work on managers. We found managers to be an incredibly important part of responsivity and organizations. And so I’m going to turn it over to her to describe this side.

Yeah. So kind of to give a little context of you know, what Dani showed on the last slide, we found that there are basically three major factors that can influence organizations’ ability to effectively address what’s in those four lenses. And those three factors were data and technology (So people analytics), managers, and then culture. So we’re kind of working our way through these.

We wrote a report about people analytics which we call “the now of work lessons from an octopus.” And really the idea there being that people analytics and the data and insights that you have, are a big part of what kind of feeds the responsive organization. But so that was the article. Now we’re moving on to this next area of focus, which is around managers and what managers need to be doing.

So if you guys get our newsletter, you probably have seen this engaging in a lot of work on this. So we are, we have a survey live right now on this topic. We’re doing interviews right now on this topic, this Q & A session, and a roundtable really to try and understand this manager topic.

The reason that we're doing another survey is that we had the data from the responsive organizations study with immediately pre-COVID and so we wanted to really be able to focus our understanding on what’s happening during COVID in the social justice movements that you’ve been seeing.

So that brings us to this slide, which is we went out and we said, okay, we know what our data has shown in terms of what responsive managers are doing, but what are other saying right now? And so we went in and looked in and have been working on summarizing what we see and what you see here, I think is a, is a decent summary of what others are saying.

So the first thing is, is that managers have a, in this moment right now, a greater need for, for personal awareness. So an understanding of kind of how they are doing before they’re able, you know, it’s the whole “Fix your oxygen mask before you try to help someone else.” It’s kind of the same thing. You know, managers need to have an awareness of how they’re doing that. They’re doing okay. And before they’re able to kind of turn and support the people on their team.

The second one, and this really aligns to the research that I just mentioned about people analytics, is this idea that they’re gathering information, they’re getting information more broadly, and they’re using that to make better decisions. And that, you know, it completely aligns with what we see with this responsive org model around remote work around distributed authority. Because basically what we have with remote working is a need for distributed authority. We don’t have that kind of same hierarchy that we were seeing before. So that’s bottoms up information.

And then the other thing, and we actually heard this in the round tables that we did in the spring as well, is this, this high focus on authenticity, vulnerability and honesty. And that need certainly to come from managers, but really managers at all levels. What we’ve started to see in the interviews is the importance of just incredibly transparent and timely communications from leaders and then throughout the entire organization about what’s happening. And, you know, the, the statement that “We don’t know yet, but we’re looking at it” is an acceptable statement. Whereas before that may have hurt some organization seem taboo. What we’re seeing so far is that organizations that have done that are farther ahead than those who have just kind of kept their mouth shut and continued whistling in the dark, if you will.

The impact of 2020’s volatility on managers (08:41)

So so these are kinda the 3 things that we seen At least in the external research and that we felt have been validated by what we’ve seen in our own research. So I’d like to pause there and we’ve got a whole bunch of questions. But I want to pause there and just see if anyone has anything else that they want to add in terms of how they’ve seen the volatility of the last 6 months impacting managers.

I think from my Stacia side, it’s MJ, we’ve seen a lot around the trust because we historically had not been an organization where we, I mean, we’re very relationship based. So we, we weren’t remote workers at all. And then all of a sudden we were dabbling in remote working, which is not a bad thing, but a bit of a culture shift for us. Then all of a sudden we’re slammed into this. And we’ve had a lot of conversations about how we support our managers, how we give them the tools to, you know, just let people do their jobs, you know. And if people went dark, how do you go and explore where that person is? You know, what is going on with them without going and being appropriate and doing that without, you know, making assumptions and that kind of stuff.

So all these three things along with the prior slide that Dani presented around trust are things that are manifesting for us. But I do like what you said last, which is we don’t know yet, but we are researching it. I absolutely think, I mean, as a former consultant, especially that that’s a really good answer. But part of the challenge is people don’t have the language and this is, this is a challenge with management anywhere in any organization. If you don’t have the words, you either stumble through it or you make promises, you can’t keep. And so I actually like us getting to the point where we have a different vocabulary.

Yeah. Yeah. And I, I think that the thing that I really like, what you just said MJ, is this idea of even just the phrase it’s giving the phrases to people like these, these are the sorts of things. Like not, not that you have to read this and be an autonomous, but like, these are some of the things.

I often I’ll tell Dani this, like with my kids, this is really funny, but you know, I read these various parenting books, and I used to think that that was completely ridiculous because in the moment I’m clearly gonna know what to say. Obviously that was before I had kids. That’s what I thought. And then now with having kids, I find that, you know, some of the actual literal phrases that come out of the book, that’s like, I see you doing this. Maybe we should consider that. Like having just those words, somebody put them in my head, even though obviously I changed them in the moment when I’m under stress, I need that help.

And I think we’re not that different at work. If it’s a different vocabulary, it’s a different situation that we’ve had just having those words handed to us. And then at least it’s a tool that you can kind of tweak in the moment. I think that’s so, so important.

I think Stacia and MJ, both alluded to this idea of tools, which I think is really important. For lots of years everybody that we talked to said, you know, “our managers suck.” And okay, maybe that may be true, but you can’t fix managers by sending them through training only. I think those tools are tools are increasingly important and I’ve seen more focus been being given to those tools in the last three or four months than I’ve seen it in the last 10 years probably. Yeah. Any other thoughts?

Yeah, Dani, I echo that not all of these problems can be solved with training and it’s really hard to solve it overnight. If you weren’t already on that path and you don’t even have the words word for it, the longterm solution. And I think the willingness and capacity are huge factors. And what happens if the person was not willing or has no capacity? So there’s lots of other factors that take a long time just by definition.

I think that’s true. I think that’s totally fair. And I think I’ve also seen, and Stacia I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too, I’ve seen more of a focus on, are these people, the right people for the management position? Like, can they actually lead people and manage people or do we have the wrong ones in place? Have we been promoting on some weird criteria instead of the ones we need to?

What’s interesting and what I’m seeing, as I’m talking to other people as well, is that there’s like this manufactured authenticity, is the word I might be using, where the managers are now like manufacturing this interest in you and you know how you’re doing. And it almost seems like it’s scripted. Right. Whereas you know, and that’s, that’s emerging a lot through COVID, which it should, people should be interested anyways if your a leader. But that was always a good quality of a leader is like, you know, I care about you, the person I’m leading in addition to, you know, what we’re trying to accomplish here as the business. But it’s one of the downsides I think of what’s happening right now is it’s just, people are manufacturing this care, which again, points to the fact that maybe you shouldn’t be in charge of people in the first place.

It’s true. And I think to your point, Brad, at what I’m seeing is there are some intrinsically good managers, right? And there are some genuine people out there who have always, for years been doing this, they had good role models and they had the language. But I think there’s also a point now with COVID, because it is more of a personal type intrusion or disruption, people are like, okay, when do do I hand them off to a therapist? Or when do I actually have this person get help that I’m not qualified for too? Right? Because I think we all need to know when we’re not an expert in an area, right. There are some things that I am happy to discuss with my talent with my peers. But then there’s some stuff that I’m very well versed in knowing that I’m not trained to handle that. So I think this is a new dynamic too, because for those managers that are really good, they also, I think have to form a bit of a line or a barrier or an understanding to the point about personal awareness of where their capabilities top off.

I think that’s a nice highlighting of the division of responsibilities, if you will, between what managers should and can be doing and what the organization should and can be providing. So, you know, to your point, if, if a manager gets to a point where it’s like, you know, this might be a bit out of my depth knowing where they can turn. Cause I could see there being a hesitancy to have the conversation because it, you know, they forecast it, maybe getting out of their depth. They don’t know where to what the next resources to hand someone off to.

So, you know, knowing, okay, well, if we get to this point, we’ve got a resource that’s now being offered around kind of COVID stress with connections to therapists or, you know, whatever, whatever the particular benefit or resource is. But again, that goes back to, to the concept of communication of information and or organization being able to say, know, this is what we have on offer for this particular moment and the difficulties that are inherent and here’s how you might want to use it. I think that’s kind of the distinguishing factor there.

Anyone else have anything they want to share on this one?

Changing role of managers during remote work (16:21)

Okay. I think we’re going to move on to some of the questions that were submitted for this Q&A session. Let’s start with this one right here. How are organizations communicating the changing role of the manager in the world of remote work? I’m going to kick that to Stacia right off the bat.

Yeah. I’ll start with this and then I want to, I’d love to hear what you all are seeing. So on the basis this on some of the interviews that we’ve been doing. And what we’re hearing is really a range. So we talked to someone yesterday who basically said, “yeah, we’re not talking about this. Like they’re still just managers managing.” We’re like, “Oh, okay. That’s interesting.” And they’re like, you know, “they should probably be talking to their people a bit more and we’re encouraging that. But like, you know, nothing is kind of fundamentally different.”

So that was one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum was an organization that we actually will be featuring in the research. And that is one that kicked off a concept of managerial commitments. And to be fair, that was already in flow before COVID happened, but they’ve kind of tweaked and refined what was happening as a result of COVID. And so they had Chelsea will probably be like, she got this wrong. I think it’s six managerial commitments that every manager is expected to do for their employees. And then the idea is that employees can then hold their managers accountable for them as well. So things that they’re asking you know, whether it’s frequent one-on-ones with the focus on growth and how people are doing kind of in the moment. There’s a of a range of things that are in those managerial commitments, but they’ve been very clear. I’m like, this is what you’re supposed to do. And this is how this looks up at different within COVID and working remotely, et cetera.

So I’ve kind of seen the range of things. And those communications I think, are coming out in a couple of ways. One being certainly direct communications around like, Hey, this is what we expect, et cetera. This organization I’m talking about with the managerial commitment actually then developed a self assessment for the managers to go through and see how they thought they were doing with regard to the commitments. And then they enabled a basically a feedback mechanism. So they could say, “Hey, you know, like I just assessed myself and I kind of have a perspective on how I think I’m doing. What do you all think of how I’m doing so that I can adjust those right now during this time? So I think what I’m seeing is quite varied in terms of that focus.

What are others seeing?

Hi, this is Sandra I’m calling from Quadient. One of the things that we have started to do, we introduced what’s called “smart work.” And it’s around new ways of working and we’ve got three pillars. One is about wellbeing employee wellbeing. And continue to focus on wellbeing as well as the other pillar is empathy. So wellbeing and empathy really came through for us, you know, with the pandemic and employees appreciated the way that the leaders handled and managed and supported. And so we’re looking at well-being, empathy, and we called the way we work.

So we’re introducing working from anywhere. And with all of these, we are providing managers as well as employees with toolkits. And part of the toolkit is coming up with team commitments and holding each other, including the manager, accountable for the team commitments. So I think we are requiring not necessarily more of managers, but a different way of working and how things have just changed and what our expectations of a manager are in this very changing world.

Accountability & management (20:33)

Sandra, you brought up a really interesting point and that is accountability. So when we did our performance management research last fall, every company that we talked to didn’t really have a lot of accountability for their managers to actually develop their people or take care of their people. I think we’re seeing that shift a little bit as well. Accountability is becoming more of a thing. Wondering from all of you, if you’re seeing that as well, if your organizations are more sort of inclined to, to make your managers accountable, whereas before maybe they were just assuming that they were doing their jobs?

Hey gang, this is Ryan. I can speak a little bit of how the transition went for us. And I think we’re fortunate that we have a lot of employee listening tools and you know, we’re able to put in a bit of a continuous listening strategy. But I think how, when you talk about accountability, how it really went for us, it actually went in phases.

So the first phase of accountability was really around communication, and like communication from leader leaders, managers. I think that was like early in the sense when people were a little bit in the dark, not sure what was going on. Are we going remote? Are we, how long are we doing this for? So a lot of what we focused on was just getting that communication out.

The second phase that we started driving accountability on was really then around prioritization, right? So it was around like, how are we making decisions? How are we allocating resources? And that became the next big question. I would say around the summer of like, how are we getting this information out to people? How are people people being brought in to the decisions that are being made around prioritization?

And then I would say the third area that we really, again, been running pulse survey has been getting data back from our employees. The third area that we’ve been most focused on has been burnout, right? We’ve been 6 months in. Schedules have changed. Fluctuated people have been living in this new reality for some time. So the accountability that we’re now bringing back out to the managers and communicating out to them is a more focused accountability around checking in with your people and understanding their wellbeing.

So I think that’s what’s been helpful for us is not to say, you know, let’s, we need to do all of the things all of the time, but dependent on what people are feeling kind of the most strain with and having some of the data to be able to drive us. I think that’s how we’ve seen some of the focus area shift over the last six months.

Nice. So when you say that you’re creating that accountability, is that through the poll surveys kind of getting data feedback back from folks on, on what’s working or not who’s doing it or not?

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s always obviously having our platform makes things quite a bit easier. So I, I recognize that. But in terms of accountability, I think there’s within platform or, you know, within the tools that you have, but then there’s also a lot that we can be doing outside of that, right? And I think that’s again where our people and experienced team has really, really plugged in in terms of creating those forums and those abilities to support managers in that.

So again, when we’re talking about language, that was super important, we have Slack channels built out specifically for mentors, specifically for leaders. So, you know, when things were happening around the social justice movement and how to talk about it, it was just posting language and the manager and leaders channels of like, here’s a Slack that you could send to check in. Here’s a prompt that you could use to open up again. I think there’s stuff that was happening within the platform and how we drive accountability through that. And then I think there’s lots of other ways, again that are asynchronous or almost like communal source, I think is what we’ve went to. It’s like, let’s put the resources out there, whether it’s confluence or in Slack channels and you’re not getting singled out to go and use it, but you can come in and draw from that well when you need.

So that’s another thing that’s been really helpful for us. So it’s been kind of creating those spaces for people to go and grab that language or those frameworks or those templates or whatever it may be that we’re really trying to have a push on. And I do think another key thing that’s been helpful for us as again, like a single focus. So like with managers, we have so many things that we need to carry. So again, being able to focus on a particular thing to work on has also been something that’s worked really well for us. It’s like, let’s just focus on this for this quarter because we’re sensing that this is what our employees are really asking for and what they need.

I absolutely love that, accountability in phases. Our managers are so overwhelmed right now with all the information coming in, everything that we’re asking them to do. You know, we’re shutting down locations or bringing people back in to the office, making decisions about hybrid, remote, onsite. And I think there’s just so overwhelmed with all this information coming at them. And I love this idea of accountability in phases because it makes it, I think, more manageable and more digestible for managers. So thank you. I love that. Any other thoughts? Sorry, go ahead Stacia.

Focus shift to different performance metrics (25:29)

I was just gonna say there was a comment in the in the chat that I wanted to kind of bring up, which is the question. It gets an accountability around the kind of metrics and some of the metrics that may be shifting. So if, if in the past we were focused on efficiency, like what Dani was talking about and maybe some productivity metrics, are we shifting down to metrics such as engagement or resiliency or some other human focused metric? What are your thoughts on that? Particularly in this context of accountability,

I can give you my thoughts, Stacia. I think it’s really scary for organizations who have never done it before to start putting metrics around these types of things. As you heard in the interviews we did for performance management last fall, they’re not doing it. And one of the reasons they’re not doing it is because of that accountability issue. I don’t think a lot of people know how, or what kinds of metrics to put into place to make sure a manager is a good manager. And I think that’s scary for a lot of people.

Yeah. I mean, I’ll maybe share anecdotally what I’m hearing on that kind of the people analytics side of the world. Because a lot of them, you know, kind of what Ryan was talking about are being tasked with, you know, these, these pulses and these updates and the like, and it seems like there’s a real grasping at straws if you will, for, from senior leaders to say, “How, how are we going to be sure that people are doing things like?” There’s a lot of these tools that can look at the email traffic, or when people log on or log off. And like, are those the right metrics? And God bless, most of the people analytics people are like, “No, stay away from this. This is a terrible idea.” Which is, you know, makes, makes me happy.

But I think there is a legitimate question around what are we gonna hold people accountable for? You know, kind of a concurrent area of interest for me right now is what are we going to do with PM this fall? I mean, I know it’s not an annual review of blah, blah, blah, yet a huge percentage of organizations have an annual review. So what are we going to hold up? What are we gonna, what are we going to ask people to measure on? Or are we not? And I don’t, I don’t know the answer there. I know that there’s certainly a lot of consternation around it, which is why, I especially wanted to bring up this question that was submitted.

But you know, my guess has said, it’s going to be much more around on people’s reflections on other people’s impact to them. You know, on the perceptions of how much they helped their ability to flex to the times their ability to kind of think through the problem. Which are much more complex metrics and more subjective. But let’s face it, every metric we’ve had for white collar workers is somewhat subjective. So that’s my gut on where it’s gonna go, but I just don’t know.

Successful leadership during remote work (28:32)

What to make sure we get to some of these other really good questions. I’m going to move us on to the next one. What are the indicators for the types of role person leader that is successful when working remotely? And Stacia actually put a great big, huge X through this one.

And the reason I put a great big X on this one is I don’t think it’s a type of person, right? It’s not a type of leader. Instead if we go onto the next slide, Dani. It’s really about the behaviors, right? So what are the behaviors that can enable that more effective remote working both from a manager, but then also what are the behaviors that our employees need to adopt?

So I have some thoughts here based on kind of some of the reading that I’ve done, but I’d love to turn it open to you all first and get your thoughts on kind of what manager behaviors have you seen that are enabling more effective, remote working.

I think perhaps empathy because everybody’s situation is a little bit different and I’ve seen really great managers kind of flex if you will to situations. So I think empathy is one. Doing more of the checkin before you do the checkup. How you doing? And really, you know, again, that empathy understanding that, you know, some may be parenting, you know, children remotely. So I really think empathy is really key for the managers right now. And resilience, right? They’re often the ones that, you know, they’re the first line of the employees and what’s going on all the emotion there. So I think really empathy and resilience, cause it’s not all going to be pretty.

Yeah, I think from my side, it’s a little bit flexibility and understanding, which ties on to what Sandra was saying about the empathy piece. But I think it’s, it’s this idea that, especially in remote, we don’t all work the same. And so, you know, I have people on my team who are working parents. And you know, when everything’s closed and you’ve got your toddlers at home, they get up and they work from five to seven, they get the kids going from seven to nine, they hand off to their spouse, they get back on. So it’s just being flexible. And I think a little bit adaptable.

And it’s also understanding that we have a shared experience in that we’re all in this together, we’re all home together, but our experiences are not identical. So it’s kind of refraining from judgment to. Just because I don’t have little ones and my guys can go upstairs and basically, it does still challenge their 14 year old executive functioning skills, but they can still, for the most part, get things going. I don’t have that same panic when the kids are running through the camera or I’ve got a toddler on my lap who wants to play with my keyboard and be like mom or dad.

So I think it definitely is stretching managerial capabilities because we all have to get something done, but how we do it and how we go about it isn’t the same. So even though I’m a more senior, more experienced manager, I’m finding myself gut checking myself in my own bias, just to say, “look, if this were you in your twenties, what the heck would you have done? What would you have done in your thirties?” And you know, now that I’m more senior, you know, I still have to kind of bring myself a little bit back and say, “alright, Mary Jo, take a break, see what’s going on. We’ll all get there.” And then just try not to be so judgy.

I think it’s interesting that we stepped out of this sort of sameness. So if you, if you think about zoom calls or conference calls before everybody had the same background. We were talking about background a little bit yesterday. But today everybody’s got a different background and we can actually see in their lives a little bit more than we could before. And I think that speaks to your point, MJ, everybody has to do this differently. And the way that we manage people seems to have become much more flexible and much more empathetic, and I’m going to use the word human because it has to be. I think we’ve stepped out. I think this has been a major step in moving away from sort of the robotic way we’ve treated employees in the past to a much more human and empathetic way that I’m hoping that we continue to treat them in the future.

I want me to ask a question though, cause we’ve been asking this from the interviews. Which is, this is great, like we should be more empathetic. We should be less judgy. We should be all these things, but what’s the organization’s role in enabling managers to do that? Because there’s a lot of onus that we’re putting on managers and saying, “Hey, go do these things that you didn’t do before.” So what do we, as organizations, do to help them do that?

Yeah, I can share a little bit on our end. It was adjusting our performance process, right? So the question that, the very questions that we asked and how we asked how to be looking at accomplishments in light of the last six months or in that last period really made their way into the language by which when we did our performance process the questions had quite dynamically changed. In terms of not moving from what was their accomplishment or, you know, what was the rating or, you know, those types of questions, but very much around you know, “looking in the light of all the change over the last six months, how would you rate how, or how would you go about giving guidance on the, you know, what, what this person did?”

So again, I think it’s just like, again, adding that additional layer of context, knowing that the last three to four months that we went through and we were doing this review are just like unlike any other business period that we’d went through. And so giving that baked into managers to again, give them that framing while they were going through the process of looking back and evaluating and thinking about how performance had looked over the last period was one of the ways that our organization kind of systemically tried to put that mindset across the organization.

I love that. Yeah. And I think that’s the ultimate question. What is the system and what are the incentives within the system to encourage people to do this?

Focus on performance not presence in remote teams (35:10)

And I think that’s actually a really good lead into the next question as well. Which is how best can managers focus on performance, not presence with remote teams. This is something we heard quite a bit in the round tables we did with respect to the responsivity research. A lot of people said ditch the nine to five, it’s not going to work. It’s really not going to work. So how are you doing it within your organizations? And Stacia what have you seen in the interviews that you’ve done with respect to this?

Yeah, I’ll start there and then let others in. You know, the biggest thing is a focus on outcomes and clearly defined outcomes. So moving away from the, we actually talked about this in the report, we did the double double shift on performance management women in COVID. There is a perception or we have a bias that when we see other people working, even if we’re not working with them, but we’re in the same office building with them and we see them over there doing their work, we have a bias about the amount of work they’re doing, the quality of the work they’re doing, et cetera. When someone is physically removed from our vision, our bias is that they, you know, may not be working. Your brain starts to populate with all these questions.

So if you then translate that into exactly what MJ was talking about, where you have some people who are working from five to seven AM and nobody else is online to see them online. And then, you know, they’re breaking off for a period to help their kids. And then it’s intermittent. The biases that we have about that physical proximity then can carry over to what is actually happening in terms of a digital presence.

And so one of the biggest things we’ve seen people focus on instead is very explicit outcomes. And that way you can say, if, you know, no matter when this person is working, if they achieve these things, then, you know, we can say that they’re kind of meeting their goals, meeting their expectations. So that’s one of the big focuses. And of course, you know, we should have been doing this all along when we were talking about our goals and objectives. But the remote working environment is just forcing that much more in a much greater way.

I think Stacia, it’s MJ again, I think what we found a little bit is that when there were performance issues in the physical, in presence environment, those have been kind of exacerbated in remote. And so now they really have to be addressed. It’s not like you can just kind of gloss over somebody or let somebody kind of occupy space and move around to another team member to pick up the slack. It’s becoming more pronounced that this person hasn’t engaged, or this person hasn’t connected with the team or this person hasn’t done their part of a deliverable.

And so it’s almost like, while we have to be compassionate and empathy and empathetic on one side of the house, on the other side of the house, we really have to address some performance problems that maybe would have been hidden or not as pronounced before this circumstance.

How about others? What are you seeing?

I think we see managers struggling. We’ve been talking, you know, since the beginning of COVID, when people were starting to remote. The managers struggling with managing by performance and not presence. Because they were was so used to doing the walk by and, you know, peek over the shoulder, you know, to see what was going on and they don’t have that.

And I think what it really highlighted for a lot of managers and leaders is this whole concept of really having strong outcomes. What are the goals? What are we looking to achieve? And then managing to that. And so I think managers have struggled, but I also think managers have stepped up because they’ve had to make that shift to really focusing in on performance measures, opposed to presence.

I like that idea a lot Sandra. When we when we started the responsivity research or after COVID happened, we saw two things happen. The first one was just a huge uptake in spying software. And there have been a couple of horrifying articles written on it. Where people are taking screenshots every 10 minutes and checking in on the video and making sure that you’re sitting in front of your computer, doing exactly what you want, you’re supposed to be doing. And I think we saw that because of exactly what you’re talking about, a fear that people aren’t doing, what we need them to do. And that kind of goes back to this mindset set that we’ve had forever on efficiency and, you know, on task and all of these types of things.

But when I read those articles, it made me think about the amount of time I spend away from my computer thinking about my work. And how are we accommodating that? You know what I mean? So it’s only fair that if you’re going to take a screenshot of me in front of my computer, then once I leave and start thinking about it, that I also get credit for that work. And how do you do that? And the short answer is you can’t. You can’t know that I was thinking about responsivity was on a walk with my dog. And so how do we actually change that mindset in individuals and managers? And I’m really curious because this is a huge deal right now. How are your managers sort of making that leap from efficiency, you know, on task to as long as the work is done, we’re good.

My sense is that also comes to goal setting and agile goal setting, right? I think there’s a lot of when we’ve done goal setting. Goal setting is hard, right? It’s always like, how do we set the right OKR? How do we find the right measurement? Those things always come up and then you set up and you put them in a glass case. And I think that was something that like, we had to break the glass case pretty immediately. Where, you know, quotas or, you know, the goals that we’d set at the beginning of Q2 just weren’t going to be relevant. So I think it moved into like, how are we bringing goal setting into that weekly, biweekly conversation and adjusting as we’re going.

And then that way it allows us, I think, to say like, okay, well, performance is moving in the direction that we want it to. And we’re kind of capturing that, communicating that more effectively. Rather than like, we put this number or this task at the beginning when we set something. And I think that’s going to continue to be the case because, you know, whether it’s agile or responsiveness, I think organizations are realizing that planning three months out is very much a dice game right now, right? Like it’s, so I think that’s a bit of how is it that goal setting just doesn’t happen at the beginning of the quarter or at the beginning of the year and then we just march to that and measure on that performance, but it is something that’s actively happening in much shorter feedback loops or increments. So that’s another area, I think if the manager and a direct report are talking more about goal setting and remaining aligned on that, I think that’s another way that there’s a lot of benefit that can come from that.

Comparing employees vs measuring improvement (42:12)

I have one more question. I think that was really insightful. I have one more question and I don’t know if I’m going to get any takers on it, but one of the things that we started hearing during the performance management stuff was, we’re not comparing people to each other anymore, we’re comparing people to themselves. Is that playing out at all in, in the performance discussions that you’re having now, because it’s harder now to compare people to each other. And so it’s much more about, I mean, the idea would be that it would be much more about improvement of the individual than it would be about meeting some arbitrary goal for everybody.

Yeah. I didn’t think I’d get any takers. Well, I’ll jump in, because usually no takers means that it’s going to go to Stacia. So I had a conversation with someone yesterday about this. And I think the crux of it is coming down to the extent to which the organization has connected performance scores to compensation. Because ultimately if we step back, the reason we were comparing people to each other ultimately, is to decide, you know, do we give Dani a 10% increase or bonus and Stacia only a 5% or vice versa or whatever.

And so what I have been hearing is that in the organizations that have reduced the tightness of the connection between the two that they are much more open to that idea of comparing people to kind of their growth and the extent to which they’ve, they’ve met their growth and yes, their goals, but, but you know, much more about them as individuals versus the comparison to others.

And those who really still have this tight connection to compensation, they characterize it as, you know super focused on fairness, et cetera, et cetera. And I’m not saying it’s wrong, that’s just how they see it. I think there is a reluctance to move away from that, because if they do that, the whole rest of the system starts to come crashing down. I think you have to take, you have to have someone in an organization like what Cisco did, which is, they just said, “Stop, we’re going to completely stop this and then redesign the entire system.” And that takes a lot of guts to do.

So that’s been, my observation Is just that when there’s the looser connection, yes, focus on growth. When there’s that super tight connection it still seems to be the focus on comparing against each other.

I think for, I completely agree, but I think the when there’s a super tight connection, there are also much better metrics to determine whether or not somebody is hitting that line. You know what I mean? So I think what we’ve tried to do is take Taylorism and apply it to thinking work instead of doing work. And it’s caused all kinds of trouble because it’s really hard to get those metrics for desk workers versus somebody that works on a line. It’s crazy. I don’t know that we have all figured out how to do that yet.

Changes to management approaches during COVID-19 (45:08)

I want to get to the last question that we’ll discuss today, which is: What conscious decisions or changes are managers taking to their management approaches during COVID-19?

And I think we’ve touched on this a little bit. This question was actually written initially more in kind of the first person. So like, what are people, even people here, doing in terms of changing your approaches to managing others during COVID-19? We broadened it, but initially the question was like trying to generate some ideas on what individuals here are doing or are seeing.

I thought I was empathetic. I am. But I just realized how more empathetic that I have become. And also I think trust. I don’t know, I came in late, so I don’t know if we talked about trust. As I think as we, you know, work in this remote environment and we talk about performance versus presence. I think that a lot of managers are learning that they have to build that trust muscle that they may not have had before.

I like that Sandra. And I think it’s actually even broader than just the manager. I think it’s the organization has to figure out how to build trust and how to put the systems in place so that managers can actually do that building of trust. It’s a sort of systemic thing and an individual thing. Other thoughts on this question?

I’m going to jump in with a super tactical one. And that is some of the tools, and this may not be managers themselves, but the organization broadly. I have heard in our interviews so far, a lot of people talking about the greatness that is moving to Microsoft teams or Slack. And not that there’s anything not great about that, for sure there is. But what I have been struck by is some of them who’ve actually focused on, “well, we just do a lot more email.” And those organizations have been also those organizations who have said, “we haven’t really talked much about the changing role of the manager.”

And so I think there’s a discussion around the tools that we use and Slack is a good one. I think, you know, the project management tools. So there’s less back and forth or less scattered back and forth around particular projects. But kind of thinking about how do you actually enable people to work remotely on certain things together, even when they’re physically apart.

You know, we, we had RedThread, we’ve been well again Dani and I have worked remote for like 10 years. So we have we have a ridiculous range of tools for the size of our team. But they’re all designed around kind of this collaboration idea when we’re physically apart. And so that’s something I’ve heard in some of the more forward thinking organizations.

Stacia, this is Dan. So I definitely agree with you guys on the on the tactical side of things. My team has essentially moved more to email communication that we then link back more so to project management documents that have, you know, what I would have considered 6 months ago, you know, too much detail. But as you know, it’s just more task line items with the expectation of dates and times. And then the communication and comments sections are just, you know, much more robust than they ever have been before.

So instead of being in the office having those conversations live, it’s all done over email. Because what we’re trying to do is limit the number of meetings in a length so that, you know, essentially there’s no need for anything over a 30 minute meeting. Because if you haven’t done or haven’t kind of sent forward your comments or your feedback on certain items, then we need to postpone the meeting until you have. And you know, we try to keep the meetings much more succinct now, just simply because we know that these things, meaning online, gets old, it gets tough. And, you know, sometimes we just, we need to be being more succinct with that.

That said we do also take time once every other week to kind of just catch up on completely, whatever else is out there. So if it’s stuff that I’ve researched or something you saw, or if you want to comment on kids’ sports teams or something like that, that’s all that’s all on there. And so the biggest shift that I’ve seen is us managing the work much more closely in these project management tools and then having people much more prepared for the meetings. No one walks into meetings with so give me the update. Like you walk in, everyone knows the update. There’s been a paragraph written about it. You’re expected to read it and then go from there.

Yeah. I love that. I love that. I think we’ve also seen we have a policy that we don’t jump on the phone unless there’s a video. And that is probably because of the 10 years that we’ve worked remotely. We understand how important that that connection is. But we’ve seen an uptake in video used outside of the organizations as well. Just wondering if you guys have seen that. I think it’s a really small decision, but I think it makes a difference when you’re talking face to face with somebody, especially when you’re trying to communicate.

So sorry, I just, I have a good one on this cause my wife and I have talked about this a lot. Cause her team has pretty much moved from all video in the very beginning to sporadic video. And they’ve gotten used to the fact that they can still be on the video and whoever wants to be on there. But they’ve kind of gotten past this policy of majority of the people now are either working out in the middle of the day or, you know, they’re not as business professional during the day. And so they they’re cognizant that, Hey, if I’m not on video, it’s usually because I’ve been doing something else. There’s no need for you to look at me and my, you know, quickly post-workout face or something or, you know, just didn’t have the time to kind of do the whole shower thing in the morning. But I’ve seen it kind of go back and forth. The, the tool, the video usage is up, but the, you know, there’s not a push to, you must be on video, ready to go kind of thing. So that’s just the slight nuance that I’ve seen.

We skip the, you must be ready to go part. It’s basically only when we’re recording that I look like this. You don’t know what the bottom half of me looks like.

You know, I think initially everything was zoom zoom, or we use teams and we found a document. I can’t remember it’s Deloitte or McKinsey. And what it does is help you to focus on how you’re going to communicate. So for meetings, maybe it’s video conferencing. For just a quick question it might be chat within teams. And then for other things, it might be email. So as a team, you sit down and you come up with how you gonna going to communicate. And I think that has helped people as well.

Yeah, I think that’s a great point around communication norms. So Chelsea who’s on our team and who’s actually helping with this research. She just joined and one of the first things I said was, okay, here’s how we communicate about different things and on what urgency scale and like, this is what we do. Cause you’re right. That’s one of the hardest things is knowing. And you know, if it’s a team where like unimportant things should not go on chat, you know, then like, and you’re chatting about stuff that, that person’s like, “why are you interrupting my day?” You know, that creates that dissonance. So I think that’s a wonderful point.

Wrap up (53:21)

I think we’re at time. So we’re gonna go and end the call, but we want to thank you all for your insights and for the questions that were submitted. They have helped this conversation to be pretty rich. And we’re pretty excited about some of the things that we’ve learned here. We will be posting this video as well as the transcript online within a week. So look for that and we’ll send you a link to that as well. And please join us for our next one, which will be on mobility and how you move people around the organization.

And then I want to give a plug. We did a more robust roundtable on this topic that was sponsored by CultureAmp. But that was 80 minutes. We started with an overview as we did today on responsivity, but then we broke up into 4 subgroups and had really rich conversations within those groups. Then we came back together, shared what we learned, did this really cool voting exercise on what people thought was most interesting, and then came out of it with a set of actions that people can go in and do an implement. So if you want to dig in further, please click here for those notes and mindmap.

Thank you so much, everybody. We’ll talk to you next time. Okay. Thanks. Bye.


Stacia Garr

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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