Performance Management for a Hybrid Workforce: Insights & Takeaways

October 5th, 2021

As part of our research on modern performance management, we invited leaders to participate in a roundtable discussion on performance management (PM) for a hybrid workforce. The conversation focused on 4 main topics:

  • Goals and assessments. How should orgs amend their goal-setting and assessment processes to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce?
  • Capability of managers. How can managers be supported in enabling performance for a hybrid workforce?
  • Feedback. How should orgs rethink their feedback approach to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce?
  • Technology. How can tech be used differently to support the measurement and enablement of employee performance for a hybrid workforce?

Grounding Our Conversation: Our Previous PM Research

To start the conversation, we shared our previous research on the topic that consisted of findings from our Fall 2019 study, Modern Performance Management, in which we identified the “3 Cs” that drive performance—culture, capability of managers, and clarity. But PM needs to change for the hybrid world. Our 3 Cs model can be leveraged and applied to managing a hybrid workforce, as shown in Figure 1.

We also shared our findings from a recent extensive literature review based on more than 60 articles, blogs, and academic papers. Some of the key themes and hidden gems shared include:

  • Orgs need to rethink bias and culture
  • Managers tackle PM with empathy
  • Recognition and rewards matter in hybrid work
  • PM tracking needs to meet the ethical needs of hybrid work
  • A more strategic role for HR

Key Takeaways from the Discussion

The roundtable discussion resulted in rich insights. The overall discussion focused on how current PM processes and systems can be redesigned to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce. Leaders shared their challenges and ideas around how they’re approaching the changing needs of their orgs. Some of our key takeaways from the discussion are:

  • Orgs need to rethink differentiated rewards moving forward
  • Leaders and managers should check for bias and intentionality when it comes to feedback
  • Senior leaders and managers need to upskill to enable performance in a hybrid environment
  • PM tech matters, but only if it enables those involved in performance processes

Orgs need to rethink differentiated rewards moving forward

2020 was the year during which empathy resurfaced as a crucial capability for managers and senior leaders. Some orgs put ratings on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic (to be resumed later) or completely eliminated them, as employees struggled to adapt and perform in a changed environment.

However, when talking about the future, leaders emphasized the need to adapt ratings for a hybrid workforce—and design a differentiated rewards system for high and low performers. As one leader explained:

“2020 was all hands-on deck, but at the end of the day we know some were pulling harder than others. If we do not find a way in this environment to account for that and reward people, we will run into problems, especially for high performers.”

Leaders acknowledged experiencing this challenge as they think through questions of whether to:

  • Stay in this environment and enable performance to the best extent possible, or
  • Go back to where they were before the pandemic and be mindful of the differential levels of performance

At the end of the discussion for this topic, leaders agreed—what’s important is that leaders strike the balance on what is good for the org.

Leaders & managers should check for bias & intentionality when it comes to feedback

Biases—such as recency (favoring those with whom recent conversations were held or work done) and proximity (favoring those working from the office or closer to the evaluator)—are likely to surface more in a virtual environment since managers can no longer rely on perceptions of who’s working the hardest based on physical presence.

This will increasingly become a bigger issue as some employees return to the office while others don’t. This is why assessments and feedback conversations should be reviewed carefully for such biases.

A few leaders shared specific examples of how they approach it:

  1. Leverage tech that nudges leaders to give real-time and nonbiased feedback to employees
  2. Plan to calibrate goals at the beginning of the year—and ensure people get the support and feedback they need throughout the year
  3. Conduct a combination of training and performance audits to mitigate bias in performance processes—which include incorporating multisource feedback into the assessment process—so it’s not reliant on one evaluator’s appraisal

Intentionality of feedback was also highlighted as a crucial factor that needs to be assessed for a hybrid workforce. As one leader pointed out:

“People assume they know how to give feedback, but in a hybrid environment we don’t have as many opportunities to give feedback. There are fewer nonverbal signals, which is why we need to be more intentional about it and set up time to see where feedback landed.”

It’s extremely important for managers and leaders to be clear about their intent while giving feedback—and check how their feedback is landing in a virtual environment. At the same time, orgs should be mindful of how feedback is being received by employees.

Senior leaders & managers need to upskill to enable performance in a hybrid environment

The ability and need for senior leaders and managers to give feedback, conduct assessments, and work with employees to develop their goals was a theme repeatedly heard during the discussions. Several leaders mentioned that their orgs are actively working to provide managers with programs to help and empower them to have performance conversations and navigate the complexities of hybrid work.

As one of the leaders put it:

“Leaders have learnt it’s more work to manage a team that is completely remote. We have been working on helping leaders understand that and coach them in what they need—which is empathy and the understanding that knowledge workers have to balance work and personal life.”

Leaders shared some of the specific ways to help improve these capabilities, including:

  • Providing structure to performance conversations and standard phrases to use
  • Addressing how to open a performance conversation virtually versus face to face
  • Providing access to collaboration tools to facilitate interaction
  • Coaching and feedback to help managers lead a virtual team
  • Training to help managers understand the different needs of employees working from home versus from the office

An example of how orgs are approaching this was mentioned by one leader as they shared how their Inclusion team set up virtual 1:1 training with leaders to help them have difficult performance conversations with avatars. The purpose is to train and prepare leaders for end-of-year performance sessions and guide them through challenging scenarios.

PM tech matters, but only if it enables those involved in performance processes

We heard some insightful remarks during the discussion around how tech can and should be leveraged for PM. Tech should enable managers and leaders to have better conversations and provide timely feedback instead of turning these into tasks for managers to check off their lists. One leader highlighted how tech can allow managers to think their job is done once they’ve entered something into the system:

“If managers don’t understand it is their responsibility to drive performance, conversations, and give feedback, no amount or kind of tech is going to matter.”

Another challenge associated with tech is the amount of friction created due to the increasing number of tools that orgs are using, which require managers and employees to input information in multiple platforms—resulting in a poor experience. As one leader put it:

“When it comes to tech, it’s so easy to add on. Sometimes less can be more.”

When it comes to enabling performance in hybrid work, leaders shared that tech can help by enabling teams to understand what everyone’s working on and how that work is progressing in a virtual environment.

Overall, leaders agreed that tech needs to be an enabler instead of just a record-keeping or documentation tool.

A Special Thanks

We enjoyed a highly engaging discussion full of interesting insights. Thanks again to those who attended and made it such an enriching conversation. If you missed out on the chance to attend the roundtable, you can still participate in the study by reaching out to us at [email protected]. If you’re looking for more resources on this topic, please check out our research.

As always, we welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

Priyanka photo
Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead at RedThread Research