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How do you handle performance managent for remote employees?
A manager’s work is primarily focused on three major tasks:
setting goals to help employees succeed and grow in their roles;
providing coaching, mentorship (advice on how to improve) and sponsorship (access and advocating for opportunities for them); and
giving corrective feedback when something needs to change.
All of this happens in the context of setting goals with an employee. Without clear objectives and expectations for a role, it’s hard to give meaningful coaching on how to meet those goals, and even harder to be objective and helpful when an employee falls short.
In a remote team, you cannot use presence as a proxy for contributions—this is a good thing. Not having a physical office to go to in order to prove you are “at work” means that a remote workplace skews itself to being outcomes-based: is someone regularly producing high quality work in reasonable time constraints? Here, you’ll benefit from having clear job descriptions and levels or an outline for what’s expected at each level of performance.
When setting expectations with an employee, it pays to be explicit about the reason behind your expectations, to share the overall outcome, and to describe how you’ll be holding teammates accountable.
For example, a request from a manager can best be made up of three distinct elements:
Specific expectation. “I’ll need this research drafted with 1–3 key takeaways and a few ways to visualize the data by 4pm Eastern time tomorrow…”
Reason for the expectation. “…so that I can add your angle into the presentation for the next day…”
Wider context. “…Getting this client to renew their contract is on my mind, so I want the presentation to be top-notch.”
importantThis is generally good management practice; and in a remote team, this level of clarity is not just preferred, but essential—it’s much more difficult to fall back onto micro-managing to fill communication and expectation gaps. If someone is in a different timezone, there simply might not be a chance to keep following up or going back and forth on a task if the outcome wasn’t what was needed. (See Align Goals for more on company-wide goal setting as a way of aligning remote teammates for effective collaboration.)
With all of this in mind, remote managers can focus on helping their direct reports improve and grow in their careers. Being the kind of manager that helps employees with career growth isn’t a checklist of discrete actions, but a holistic approach to work that improves the output and well-being of individuals and teams. Tying individual successes into part of an overall pattern of being more effective in general helps people understand what their strengths are and whether they’re improving. More importantly for remote workers, it shows that you, as the manager, see and recognize these achievements; and it helps distributed teammates feel visible and valued.
Giving Feedback Remotely
Rewards and Recognition
For a remote worker who’s performing well, the risk can be that they are not getting enough visibility from their manager or the team. Feeling overlooked and underappreciated, they’re at risk for disengagement and attrition. Research shows that the worry about being “out of sight, out of mind” or of having fear of missing out (FOMO) can lead to loneliness and isolation in remote workers. It is therefore critical for managers to increase high-performing team members’ social visibility with public recognition, and to reward good work.
A second benefit of recognition being given publicly is that it makes clear what types of behavior your company rewards. This helps to build the type of culture that you want. It’s more effective to show people exactly what success looks like, than to criticize what they do wrong. Public recognition is also an excellent tool for improving the performance of those who aren’t high achievers yet. In a remote team, there are many fewer opportunities to directly observe co-workers’ work, and so drawing specific attention to excellent work gives everyone a chance to learn and improve.
cautionIt may be the case that an employee is not comfortable with public praise, so if you plan to call them out in a team meeting, ask first. If they would prefer you not mention them specifically, you have the option of rewarding the team publicly and that individual privately, which still allows you to bring recognition of good work into the public sphere.
As a remote manager, you have a number of options for recognizing remote employees:
Company email threads to appreciate good work.
Sharing messages in public chat rooms. One specific idea is a “High Five” channel in Slack, where anyone can give someone else a remote high five—an emoji, GIF, or written comment—for something great or noteworthy that they did.
Having a dedicated written space for recognition or gratitude.
Use software services similar to performance review software for ongoing, positive praise.
Create regular time for celebrating ‘wins’ in team or all-hands meetings.
Giving feedback knocks down two of the biggest barriers preventing your reports from doing great work—unclear expectations and inadequate skills—so that they know exactly where to aim and how to hit the target.Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design, Facebook*
Corrective feedback should be given privately. There’s nothing to be gained from public humiliation—it will only cause the manager to lose the trust of the team, and can create intense feelings of discomfort and isolation in everyone present.
importantThe exception here is correcting harmful public behavior, like a racist slur or other violation of a code of conduct. This is not performance feedback; this is maintaining an inclusive culture. If the harm occurred in a public space (for example, a team meeting or company chat), the priority is to show the rest of the team that such actions are not acceptable and won’t go unchallenged. This means immediately and publicly correcting the harm, saying, “We don’t use that kind of language here,” or, “You need to take a break for the rest of this meeting, you’re not being respectful,” then following up privately to go deeper and make sure the offending party understands what was wrong with their language or action.
When delivering private feedback, it’s best to frame performance conversations in terms of objective, documented career and role expectations, and be clear with examples of work that have failed to meet those standards. In a remote setting, you’re lacking personal context, and so it’s important to give feedback in a way that is both clear, but also genuinely opens the conversation for your direct report to share their perspectives. As a manager, you could quite simply be wrong, or there could be a very good reason for what looks like under-performance from the outside.
In these cases, knowing someone’s feedback preferences ahead of time is very useful. That understanding allows you to deliver the feedback in the format that works best, and is most likely to be received. Some people prefer a video call to discuss the issue at hand. Others prefer a detailed, written email from their manager, with time to reflect and respond in writing. Still others prefer shorter chat messages because they prefer to know right away if something isn’t right; or a hybrid written note plus follow-up call approach. It’s wise to try to use the approach that works best for your direct report.
When helping your direct report to think in a different way, you can use coaching questions—that is, ‘What’ questions over ‘Why’ questions. Instead of “Why did you do that?” you can ask “What were you hoping for here?” Instead of “Why did you think this was a good idea?” you can ask “What made you choose this course of action?”
In serious cases of performance feedback, where there may be an overall mismatch between role contributions and expectations, it becomes important to document this both for the company and with your direct report to make sure they understand the seriousness of the situation. Here, sending follow-up ‘recap’ emails after feedback discussions can be helpful, so that the feedback, the discussion, and agreed upon plans to improve, are in writing and shared between the employee and manager. It also gives the employee a chance to respond if they feel differently about the situation, if they feel the conversation mischaracterized them, or if they felt their comments were taken out of context.
This can be done over email or chat message, as long as it’s in writing in a more official place where both people can see it. Doing this creates documentation that could be needed if the situation continues to worsen; and also creates a clear, explicit message for the employee. In addition to emails or similar, it’s best to keep meeting notes, summaries of plans, and other relevant feedback in a folder online where it can be accessed by HR or another manager if needed. Wrongful dismissal is always a concern, so keeping a paper trail is particularly important.
importantIn a remote setting where context is easily lost, the employee might literally not understand that there is a problem and that their job is at risk. If you talk often about “building a feedback culture” and “healthy conflict” (which are generally good things!), your team might actually confuse serious performance feedback with a cultural norm, and think that nothing is specifically wrong. Anything less than perfect clarity around performance in a remote setting essentially sabotages a remote worker’s chances of turning a situation around.
In a distributed team, it’s much harder for a manager to get an informal pulse for morale and mental health. You can’t manage by walking around; you don’t see who’s staying late or leaving early, who eats lunch alone at their desk, or who seems unusually withdrawn or dejected.
The very nature of remote work can also contribute to an environment where morale and mental health issues develop more easily and go unnoticed. Studies show that social isolation is correlated with mental health problems.* Loneliness, also associated with social isolation, both predicts depression and is a symptom of depression.* Loneliness and depression drive people to withdraw, often avoiding taking steps that could help them recover or manage. Loneliness also lowers a person’s ability to recognize social cues,* which isolates them further. This emotional disconnection is in turn highly linked to clinical anxiety and depression.* Anxiety and depression can change people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them*—it is more likely that someone suffering from anxiety or depression will interpret an interaction as negative.
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