Managing performance in a pandemic

Sonya Boyce, Director of HR Consulting, spoke with the Sunday Business Post about why Diversity, Inclusion and Performance Management are key to a successful workplace.

The idea that diversity and inclusion (D&I), are now more important than ever and should be a continued focus for all organisations was recently reported in the McKinsey Diversity and Inclusion 2020 report, but it doesn’t come as a massive surprise to many.

We all know that there is a clear business case for D&I and that diverse and inclusive human resource practices results in teams that are enabled to perform better which has a positive impact on business performance and outcomes.

However, given our current circumstances in these unprecedented, challenging times, where there is no rulebook or manual to follow, many businesses have asked should D&I continue to be a focus and how do you give it the requisite attention where the performance of individuals and teams has been challenged, and teams are working remotely at a physical distance from each other?

The rationale for keeping D&I on the agenda is to ensure that we are enabling our teams to perform to the best of their abilities, notwithstanding the fact we know many peoples own individual circumstances have proven extremely challenging in recent months.

The pandemic has impacted everyone, yet we have not all been impacted equally by this pandemic. Certain groups within our workforces and businesses have witnessed or felt a disproportionate impact, for example, younger employees at the outset of their careers, with limited work experience who may have lost jobs or maybe struggling to get to grips with the demands of remote working.

Employees who have struggled to reconcile caring for children or elderly relatives with the requirements of their jobs, or indeed older employees, perhaps approaching retirement age who have lost jobs or who face uncertainty and job insecurity at the latter end of their career cycle. Some employees have not endured the hardship of losing a job, a salary cut or reconciling work and family commitments but may have found themselves lonely, isolated and this may have been a time of worry, concern and anxiety.

All this unrest, worry and anxiety is placing people under a different set of pressures and challenging circumstances. For many, it is the uncertainty around ‘when will this all be over’ that makes day to day life more difficult. All these factors will have an inevitable impact on job performance. Thus, organisations need to take extra steps to support their people where possible and ensure that your employees are supported and enabled to perform to the best of their abilities, and this is where an effective performance management cycle comes to the fore. 

HR practitioners have grappled with questions around performance management cycles and systems over the years, and there has been a renewed consideration now around in performance management development systems (PMDS) in the COVID-world we find ourselves in. The question is being asked as to whether traditional performance management systems used by many companies are ‘fit for purpose’ in these times or whether performance management should be reconsidered considering our new normal? Does performance management still have a role to play, and can it be used as a useful tool to ensure D&I remains at the heart of all our day to day work activities?

Mazars advice is that performance management remains an essential HR activity and an important communication tool to facilitate meaningful conversation between manager and employee – it has an important role in embedding D&I within an organisation.

However, owing to the level of disruption, businesses and employees have faced, organisations must re-evaluate aspects of their performance management system to reflect their current context better. If you were to carry on with your existing PMDS process without any amendments, this is likely to lend itself to a negative experience that could well be associated with biased information and decisions made. For example, ‘recency bias is where an employee’s performance is adjudged solely based on work that was completed for a manager in the recent past.

Similarly, ‘proximity biases’ involve someone placing a higher value on work that they see or experience, and this needs to be considered in the context of so many people working remotely. In our new virtual working environment, it may be possible that much work remains unseen and thus is not considered by a manager. 

The approach an organisation takes to performance management sets the tone for what you value as an organisation and hence who feels valued and respected as an individual. Your approach to PMDS should embrace diversity and create an inclusive environment and useful steps to consider include: 

  1. Setting objectives that base performance on fact and metrics, as opposed to opinions 
  2. The use of inclusive language as part of all reviews and conversations 
  3. Obtaining feedback from a mix of sources to limit biases – i.e. garner input from a blend of colleagues, direct reports, clients, and other stakeholders as appropriate
  4. Taking the time to ask the employee how they feel about their performance and to provide some self- analysis

Depending on your business context and performance management process maturity, we recommend that you consider adapting your performance management processes to reflect the significant changes in the working environment. Adjusting performance management processes can have an impact on how employees view their workplaces as well as their roles in it. It is critical to ensure that your employees feel equipped to adapt both their daily work and their goals to the new situation, as well as a shared goal and mission to work towards. Furthermore, providing employees with the opportunity for bonuses (if applicable) and learning and development opportunities throughout times of uncertainty will help alleviate their stress, keep them motivated, and allow them to learn faster through feedback. By putting your people first, helping them learn and develop through feedback, and treating everyone fairly, you will likely emerge stronger from the pandemic and help set up your organisation to be more successful in the future.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post July 2020.