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Performance management in 2021 and what we learnt in 2020

Shandel McAuliffe, Head of Content - Cezanne HR

Performance management is probably the most interpersonal of all the HR processes. While a great deal of the administration behind performance management can be looked after via HR software, at its core, performance management relies on a conversation between a manager and an employee.

With COVID-19 driving many people to work from home, or businesses to adopt hybrid working models with staff both on and off site, some organisations may have been tempted to forgo performance management this year. But those that pushed ahead, finding online solutions to facilitate a COVID-19-safe process will have forged the way for a new approach to performance management – one not dependent on two people being sat across from each other in an office meeting room.

Continuous performance management’s heyday
For some time now, performance management hasn’t been restricted to an end-of-year formal review – a lot of organisations embrace continuous performance management, with ongoing conversations throughout the year.

These less formal conversations will have taken centre stage in managing performance over the last nine months as everyone adjusted to new ways of working and sought to stay in touch. It has been imperative that organisations maintain these lines of communication to keep both productivity and morale as high as possible.

Closer alignment of engagement and performance management
In a recent performance management report, the question is posited: ‘What if performance management was seen as an essential tool for employee engagement? A shift to this mindset would change both the overall performance management process and how performance conversations are approached.’

Organisations may have inadvertently taken a leap forward in using performance management as an engagement tool this year. As employers looked for ways to connect with their home/remote working employees, some organised more check-in calls. Replacing the ‘water cooler’ moments and simply seeing an employee at their desk, a lot of these calls have been more work focused (calls are generally scheduled with a purpose), so performance management and employee engagement has become more intertwined.

These calls haven’t all been one-on-ones, either. Some teams have had more check ins together than they would have in an on-site environment, to ensure everyone stays connected and on the same page. For example, starting the day with a team call, whereby everyone provides an update on their work the day before and for the day to come, makes team members more accountable to each other – and offers the opportunity for them to learn more from each other. This team approach helps avoid the ‘Big Brother’ feel this sort of frequent check in would have if it were to be a daily call with a manager.

Digital tools now a must have
The increased adoption of digital tools for performance conversations gives businesses an opportunity to reach more of their workforce. In the past, employees who worked from home or remotely may have not received the same level of attention that on-site employees had. But as processes have been adapted so people can connect digitally, workforces can expect a more comprehensive approach from now on. Gone will be the days where the remote worker is forgotten until formal-review time – managers and teams will be far more used to connecting with everyone more regularly in 2021.

2020 has no doubt cemented how crucial HR software is in enabling the smooth running of HR processes – no matter where staff work from. Performance management tools that look after process workflows (both formal appraisals and informal conversations), as well as recording all the necessary ‘paperwork’ behind and generated by that workflow, have been a critical HR and business tool. For example, an HR professional working from home could use a good Cloud-based performance management system to push out performance processes to the business as needed. Line managers, working on or off site could access those processes, and work through them, uploading records of conversations and agreed goals in a central HR system that HR, line managers and staff can access as needed.

2021 will see further reliance on HR tech for performance management. Business leaders, working in an extremely volatile marketplace, will demand up-to-the-minute intel on their workforce’s performance and productivity. HR professionals with their digital finger on the pulse (and the cooperation of line managers – this will be crucial) will be able to evidence all facets of performance management. Out-of-sight workers will most definitely not be out of mind. If anything, HR will need to ensure that the digital tools at a business’ disposal aren’t used to micromanage and therefore disengage employees.

Higher performance expectations
For those businesses who could afford it, 2020 may have seen a relaxation in performance expectations with an understanding that people were often working under atypical levels of stress, and in less-than-ideal locations (as was the case with a lot of homeworkers). 2021’s performance expectations might be vastly different.

With the economy suffering from COVID-19, businesses across the board may need to drive for higher levels of performance in future, regardless of an individual’s circumstances. HR’s guidance is going to be critical as this evolves, walking the tightrope of meeting their business’ demands as well as retaining and engaging their workforce.

A potential shift in motivations
Alongside increased employer demands, 2020 and 2021 might also see new employee motivators for performance emerging. The report referenced above highlights how important it is for businesses to understand what motivates staff, noting that:

‘A bespoke approach to motivating each and every staff member might not be possible, but a nuanced process that can flex according to an employee’s broad general motivations is a great first step.’

There has already been talk about people’s desire to retain some of the flexibility that COVID-19 has imposed on the workforce. But flexibility might not be the only motivator.

HR needs to think about what else might now be important to their staff – for instance, a business’ ethics and how this is/was reflected in their approach to staff welfare throughout COVID-19 might be a strong motivator for or against an employee’s level of performance down the track. Businesses pushing for increased performance in 2021 might see their chickens come home to roost if they’ve not treated their employees well in 2020!

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