As America's Covid-19 epidemic has driven many businesses to shift to remote work, leaders can find it particularly difficult to effectively manage remote employees whose performance is struggling. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner of Navalent, offers four tips on how to manage employees who are struggling to work remotely.
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Why managing employees remotely is difficult
It can be difficult for managers to hold struggling employees accountable in normal situations, Carucci writes, noting one study that found 18% of top executives said holding others accountable was their biggest weakness. Working remotely during these stressful times can exacerbate that difficulty, Carucci writes.
Regardless, struggling employees can't simply be ignored, Carucci writes. He notes that research has found dealing with poor performance can take up as much as 17% of a leader's job. And given the country's current economic situation, the financial costs of poor employee performance "are intensified," Carucci writes.
4 tips to help struggling remote employees
Addressing struggling remote employees and helping them improve while also remaining sensitive to their current situation "requires a broader approach and different skills than many leaders are used to," Carucci writes. Here are four tips to help.
1. Think holistically about the problem
Carucci writes that it's important to focus "on the underperformance vs. the underperformer," and to think about what factors may be contributing to their underachievement.
For example, Carucci writes, leaders should try to determine what's different about the employee's current situation, what new variables have entered the employee's life, and what's more difficult for the employee. Carucci notes that, for many employees right now, working from home can result in a number of technical and self-management problems.
However, working remotely isn't necessarily the only problem employees might be facing. Leaders also should determine what broader organizational problems could be contributing to their employee's struggles, Carucci writes. For instance, an employee's struggles may be related to something the leader is doing, Carucci writes, and leaders should acknowledge that possibility.
During this process, it's important that leaders try to separate emotion from fact, according to Carucci. He writes that it may be frustrating to have an underperforming employee, but leaders should "acknowledge the presence of these emotions, and honor them," and then "set them aside." He notes, "Once you do, you will be more equipped to discuss what is factually true" with an underperforming employee.
2. Be empathetic—but don't lower the bar
Leaders should be empathetic to the hardships their employees are facing and be committed to helping them succeed in their roles, Carucci writes.
Currently, the best avenue for holding tough conversations with employees is through a video call "so [leaders and employees] are able to read one another's tone and expressions," Carucci writes. When the conversation starts, leaders should remember to "'[c]heck in' before [they] 'check on'" an employee, Carucci writes, such as by asking the employee how they're doing to determine their well-being.
Leaders should then discuss the performance issues with the employee and "demonstrate … care … by both acknowledging their hardship and redoubling efforts to help them succeed," Carucci writes. He adds that leaders should ask employees questions like, "Why do you feel this is happening," and carefully listen to how they respond.
Ultimately, though, leaders should be sure to make it clear that their "goal for the conversation is to help resolve the problem at hand," Carucci writes.
3. Figure out a solution that engages the employee
Once the problem driving an employee's underperformance has been identified, leaders should ask their employee questions like, "What would you change if you could?" or "What can we all learn from this?" Carucci writes. This will engage the worker's imagination and help to show that leaders trust them.
Leaders should try not to tell the employee what to do or be too prescriptive "about how" to implement the solution, Carucci writes. Instead, they should reassure the employee that they're fine with mistakes happening—as long as those mistakes get corrected and lessons are learned that can help the employee address problems on their own.
However, leaders also should be available for guidance if needed. "This may require instituting more frequent check-ins to compensate for the changing conditions," Carucci writes.
Further, Carucci notes that, "[i]n some cases, it may be more compassionate to loosen expectations, so long as [leaders] make that decision with people and not for them."
4. Bolster team accountability
It's also important for leaders to remind their teams that "their collective success belongs to one another—not just to you, the boss," Carucci writes.
To amplify that message, leaders at the start of a meeting could ask each person to talk about how they rely on other members of the team. That could help team members to make "explicit commitments … to one another, in which [leaders] remain uninvolved," Carucci writes.
But overall, leaders should keep in mind that, when their employees struggle, their "greatest show of compassion, especially right now, is to help them figure out whatever it takes to get back on track," Carucci writes (Carucci, Harvard Business Review, 5/19).