In this article I will focus on aspects of performance management that are especially important when managing and leading remote, or location-independent workers. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive treatise on management and leadership.
The goal of Performance Management is to maximize an individual’s contribution to the desired outcomes of an organization through execution of the role(s) to which they are assigned. Good Performance Management, whether location-dependent or -independent requires three ingredients:
An understanding of how each role contributes to organizational objectives;
A plan for evaluating this contribution, including measures, methods of capture, and targets; and
Contribution of a role to organizational objectives
Every role within an organization should contribute in some way to the objectives of that organization. If your company uses formal strategic planning, this linkage from roles to goals will be made explicit through some form of business architecture models. Otherwise it may be helpful to consider what the impact to your organization would be if all workers in a role suddenly left the company – would it be business as usual, or would things slowly (or quickly) start to fall apart?
Evaluating the contribution
There are two types of measures – direct and indirect. Direct measures, also referred to as ‘results’ or ‘what’ measures, are direct indicators of outcomes (e.g. sales revenue closed, widgets produced). Indirect measures, sometimes known as ‘process’ or ‘how’ measures, are meant to be indicators of the process leading to outcomes (e.g. sales calls attended, courses attended). The premise of indirect measures is the hypothesis that if the measured behaviour is increased (attending more sales calls) then the outcome (sales revenue closed) will follow. Indirect measures can be useful predictors of outcomes but are subject to underlying assumptions which may not prove to be correct, and therefore if used, should be combined with direct measures.
Managers in some companies are accustomed to seeing their reports at their desks and typing on their keyboards. This is an example of an indirect measure, the hypothesis being that if people are at their desks typing, they are producing valuable outcomes for the organization. Although effective for certain roles, and more so when combined with direct measures, there are potential drawbacks – more on this later.
In location-independent work situations, ‘management by walking around’ is not possible. One of the techniques some companies are utilizing in lieu of MBWA is keystroke monitoring. The underlying assumption is that by capturing the quantity and quality of what workers are typing, then we can infer the level of their contribution to company objectives. Putting both security concerns and privacy issues aside, this is a tenuous assumption.
The preferred approach is direct measurement of the outcomes that contribute to company objectives. This is often not an easy task, but once the expected outcomes of a role have been made explicit, either quantitative or qualitative measures can nearly always be identified.
The inherent flaw in assumptions underlying indirect performance measures
Indirect performance measures such as attendance assume a correlation between that which is measured and the desired outcome (such as widgets produced). In this example, productivity is the name for that correlation, and it is affected by numerous factors. If we only measure attendance then we miss opportunities to improve employee engagement, flexible work arrangements, the work environment, and training – all of which have been shown to have a significant impact on productivity. In fact, the act of measuring itself can negatively impact productivity.
By far the biggest driver of productivity is leadership. A strongly led team will operate at peak productivity, whereas even the best performance measures will not get a poorly led team there. What then is good leadership, specifically in the context of location-independent work?
The most important attribute of strong leadership is mutual trust between the leader and their team. Trust comes from a combination of common purpose, competence, and motive.
Good leadership is not just directing people to do something, rather it is having a vision and communicating it to one’s team, inspiring them to a common purpose. Good leaders recognize that each team member has intrinsic value – a set of competencies they possess. Good leaders are transparent about their motives for the team and expect the same from team members.
Establishing trust with location-independent workers calls for heightened attention to communications, additional caution in selecting measurement strategies, and more focus on establishing a personal connection.
When people are given accountability for an outcome, they generally work harder to achieve that outcome than those instructed to perform a specific task and then monitored. Good leaders clearly communicate and hold team members accountable for expected outcomes. Conversely, good leaders make themselves accountable to the team for enabling their success.
Coaching and Feedback
Location-independent workers commonly report that they feel disconnected and unsure of what is expected of them. An effective strategy for combating these effects is to increase the frequency and quality of coaching and feedback. Of course, increasing the frequency of contact is only helpful if there is clear purpose to each conversation.
Location independence opens the door to geographically dispersed teams. Leaders must be flexible with time zone and other considerations. If you require team members to be available at specific times, make sure these expectations and the reasons for them are clearly communicated and agreed to. If their tasks can be completed asynchronously then make it known that you don’t need them to be available for an eight-hour contiguous block from 9am to 5pm. The work will still get done, and probably the quality and quantity will increase.
The ability to work from anywhere at any time is a ‘double-edged sword’. Disconnecting from work can be very difficult for location-independent workers; in fact, studies consistently name this as either the most or the second-most reported challenge with remote work.
Leaders should be clear about expectations and boundaries. Team members should not feel they need to be ‘always on’ so they can succeed, nor should they expect this of their leader.
Effective Performance Management of location-independent workers means raising the bar on strategic planning (aligning roles to goals), evaluation (identification of both direct and indirect measures), and especially strong leadership. Reducing the dependence on indirect measures such as attendance and keystroke monitoring and instead focusing on outcomes will make it easier for leaders to establish trust with their teams and improve employee engagement, increasing productivity. Investing in a strong leadership culture that embraces location-independence will provide a better return than investing in additional monitoring tools.
Smeltz Consulting Group specializes in helping clients to incorporate location-independent work into their operating model. To do so we examine your organization from seven different perspectives, including Performance Management. Contact us to see the business benefits we can deliver.