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Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home

Assess and improve remote work performance with our ready-to-use tools.

  • For many, emergency WFH comes with several new challenges such as additional childcare responsibilities, sudden changes in role expectations, and negative impacts on wellbeing. These new challenges, coupled with previously existing ones, can result in poor performance. Owing to the lack of physical presence and cues, managers may struggle to identify that an employee’s performance is suffering. Even after identifying poor performance, it can be difficult to address remotely when such conversations would ideally be held in person.

Our Advice

Critical Insight

  • Poor performance must be managed, despite the pandemic. Evaluating root causes of performance issues is more important than ever now that personal factors such as lack of childcare and eldercare for those working from home are complicating the issue.

Impact and Result

  • Organizations need to have a clear process for improving performance for employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Provide managers with resources to help them identify performance issues and uncover their root causes as part of addressing overall performance. This will allow managers to connect employees with the required support while working with them to improve performance.

Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home Research & Tools

1. Follow the remote performance improvement process

Determine how managers can identify poor performance remotely and help them navigate the performance improvement process while working from home.

2. Clarify roles and leverage resources

Clarify roles and responsibilities in the performance improvement process and tailor relevant resources.


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Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home

Assess and improve remote work performance with our ready-to-use tools.

Executive Summary

McLean & Company Insight

Poor performance must be managed, despite the pandemic. Evaluating root causes of performance issues is more important than ever now that personal factors such as lack of childcare and eldercare for those working from home are complicating the issue.

Situation

COVID-19 has led to a sudden shift to working from home (WFH), resulting in a 72% decline in in-office work (Ranosa, 2020). While these uncertain times have disrupted traditional work routines, employee performance remains critical, as it plays a role in determining how organizations recover. Managers must not turn a blind eye to performance issues but rather must act quickly to support employees who may be struggling.

Complication

For many, emergency WFH comes with several new challenges such as additional childcare responsibilities, sudden changes in role expectations, and negative impacts on wellbeing. These new challenges, coupled with previously existing ones, can result in poor performance. Owing to the lack of physical presence and cues, managers may struggle to identify that an employee’s performance is suffering. Even after identifying poor performance, it can be difficult to address remotely when such conversations would ideally be held in person.

Solution

Organizations need to have a clear process for improving performance for employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Provide managers with resources to help them identify performance issues and uncover their root causes as part of addressing overall performance. This will allow managers to connect employees with the required support while working with them to improve performance.

Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home is made up of the following resources:

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Storyboard

This storyboard is organized by the four steps of the performance improvement process: identify, initiate, deploy, and follow up/decide. These will appear on the left-hand side of the slides as a roadmap.

The focus is on how HR can design the process for managing poor performance remotely and support managers through it while emergency WFH measures are in place. Key responsibilities, email templates, and relevant resources are included at the end.

Adapt the process as necessary for your organization.

Manager Guide

The manager guide contains detailed advice for managers on navigating the process and focuses on the content of remote performance discussions.

It consists of the following sections:

  • Identifying poor performance.
  • Conducting performance improvement discussions.
  • Uncovering and addressing root causes of poor performance.
Manager Infographic

The manager infographic illustrates the high-level steps of the performance improvement process for managers in a visually appealing and easily digestible manner.

This can be used to easily outline the process, providing managers with a resource to quickly reference as they navigate the process with their direct reports.

In this blueprint, “WFH” and “remote working” are used interchangeably.

This blueprint will not cover the performance management framework; it is solely focused on managing performance issues.

For information on adjusting the regular performance management process during the pandemic, see Performance Management for Emergency Work-From-Home.

Identify how low performance is normally addressed

A process for performance improvement is not akin to outlining the steps of a performance improvement plan (PIP). The PIP is a development tool used within a larger process for performance improvement. Guidance on how to structure and use a PIP will be provided later in this blueprint.

Evaluate how low performance is usually brought to the attention of HR in a non-remote situation:
  • Do managers approach HR for an employee transfer or PIP without having prior performance conversations with the employee?
  • Do managers come to HR when they need support in developing an employee in order to meet expectations?
  • Do managers proactively reach out to HR to discuss appropriate L&D for staff who are struggling?
  • Do some departments engage with the process while others do not?
Poor performance does not signal the immediate need to terminate an employee. Instead, managers should focus on helping the struggling employee to develop so that they may succeed.
Evaluate how poor performance is determined:
  • Do managers use performance data or concrete examples?
  • Is it based on a subjective assessment by the manager?
Keep in mind that “poor performance” now might look different than it did before the pandemic. Employees must be aware of the current expectations placed on them before they can be labeled as underperforming – and the performance expectations must be assessed to ensure they are realistic.

For information on adjusting performance expectations during the pandemic, see Performance Management for Emergency Work-From-Home.

The process for non-union and union employees will likely differ. Make sure your process for unionized employees aligns with collective agreements.

Determine how managers can identify poor performance of staff working remotely

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Identify: Determine how managers can identify poor performance.
In person, it can be easy to see when an employee is struggling by glancing over at their desk and observing body language. In a remote situation, this can be more difficult, as it is easy to put on a brave face for the half-hour to one-hour check-in. Advise managers on how important frequent one-one-ones and open communication are in helping identify issues when they arise rather than when it’s too late.

Managers must clearly document and communicate instances where employees aren’t meeting role expectations or are showing other key signs that they are not performing at the level expected of them.

What to look for:
  • PM data/performance-related assessments
  • Continual absences
  • Decreased quality or quantity of output
  • Frequent excuses (e.g. repeated internet outages)
  • Lack of effort or follow-through
  • Missed deadlines
  • Poor communication or lack of responsiveness
  • Failure to improve
It’s crucial to acknowledge an employee might have an “off week” or need time to adjust to working from home, which can be addressed with performance management techniques. Managers should move into the process for performance improvement when:
  • Performance fluctuates frequently or significantly.
  • Performance has dropped for an extended period of time.
  • Expectations are consistently not being met.

While it’s important for managers to keep an eye out for decreased performance, discourage them from over-monitoring employees, as this can lead to a damaging environment of distrust.

Support managers in initiating performance conversations and uncovering root causes

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Initiate: Require that managers have several conversations about low performance with the employee.
Before using more formal measures, ensure managers take responsibility for connecting with the employee to have an initial performance conversation where they will make the performance issue known and try to diagnose the root cause of the issue.

Coach managers to recognize behaviors associated with the following performance inhibitors:

Personal Factors

Personal factors, usually outside the workplace, can affect an employee’s performance.

Lack of clarity

Employees must be clear on performance expectations before they can be labeled as a poor performer.

Low motivation

Lack of motivation to complete work can impact the quality of output and/or amount of work an employee is completing.

Inability

Resourcing, technology, organizational change, or lack of skills to do the job can all result in the inability of an employee to perform at their best.

Poor people skills

Problematic people skills, externally with clients or internally with colleagues, can affect an employee’s performance or the team’s engagement.

Personal factors are a common performance inhibitor due to emergency WFH measures. The decreased divide between work and home life and the additional stresses of the pandemic can bring up new cases of poor performance or exacerbate existing ones. Remind managers that all potential root causes should still be investigated rather than assuming personal factors are the problem and emphasize that there can be more than one cause.

Ensure managers continue to conduct frequent performance conversations

Once an informal conversation has been initiated, the manager should schedule frequent one-on-one performance conversations (above and beyond performance management check-ins).

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Explain to managers the purpose of these discussions is to:
  • Continue to probe for root causes.
  • Reinforce role expectations and performance targets.
  • Follow up on any improvements.
  • Address the performance issue and share relevant resources (e.g. HR or employee assistance program [EAP]).
Given these conversations will be remote, require managers to:
  • Use video whenever possible to read physical cues and body language.
  • Bookend the conversation. Starting each meeting by setting the context for the discussion and finishing with the employee reiterating the key takeaways back will ensure there are no misunderstandings.
  • Document the conversation and share with HR. This provides evidence of the conversations and helps hold managers accountable.
What is HR’s role? HR should ensure that the manager has had multiple conversations with the employee before moving to the next step. Furthermore, HR is responsible for ensuring manages are equipped to have the conversations through coaching, role-playing, etc.

For more information on the content of these conversations or for material to leverage for training purposes, see Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home: Manager Guide.

McLean & Company Insight

Managers are there to be coaches, not therapists. Uncovering the root cause of poor performance will allow managers to pinpoint supports needed, either within their expertise (e.g. coaching, training, providing flexible hours) or by directing the employee to proper external resources such as an EAP.

Help managers use formal performance improvement tools with remote workers

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Deploy: Use performance improvement tools.
If initial performance conversations were unsuccessful and performance does not improve, refer managers to performance improvement tools:
  • Suggest any other available support and resources they have not yet recommended (e.g. EAP).
  • Explore options for co-creation of a development plan to increase employee buy-in. If the manager has been diligent about clarifying role expectations, invite the employee to put together their own action plan for meeting performance goals. This can then be reviewed and finalized with the manager.
  • Have the manager use a formal PIP for development and to get the employee back on track. Review the development plan or PIP with the manager before they share it with the employee to ensure it is clear and has time bound, realistic goals for improvement.
Using a PIP solely to avoid legal trouble and terminate employees isn’t true to its intended purpose. This is what progressive discipline is for.In the case of significant behavior problems, like breaking company rules or safety violations, the manager will likely need to move to progressive discipline. HR should advise managers on the appropriate process.

When does the issue warrant progressive discipline? If the action needs to stop immediately, (e.g. threatening or inappropriate behavior) and/or as outlined in the collective agreement.

Clarify remote PIP stages and best practices

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide
Sample Stages:
1. Written PIP
  • HR reviews and signs off on PIP
  • Manager holds meeting to provide employee with PIP
  • Employee reviews the PIP
  • Manager and employee provide e-signatures
  • Signed PIP is given to HR
2. Possible Extension
3. Final Notice
  • Manager provides employee with final notice if there has been no improvement in agreed time frame
  • Copy of signed final notice letter given to HR

Who is involved?

The manager runs the meeting with the employee. HR should act as a support by:

  • Ensuring the PIP is clear, aligned with the performance issue, and focused on development, prior to the meeting.
  • Pointing to resources and making themselves available prior to, during, and after the meeting.
    • When should HR be involved? HR should be present in the meeting if the manager has requested it or if the employee has approached HR beforehand with concerns about the manager. Keep in mind that if the employee sees HR has been unexpectedly invited to the video call, it could add extra stress for them.
  • Reviewing documentation and ensuring expectations and the action plan are reasonable and realistic.

Determine the length of the PIP

  • The length of the initial PIP will often depend on the complexity of the employee’s role and how long it will reasonably take to see improvements. The minimum (before a potential extension) should be 30-60 days.
  • Ensure the action plan takes sustainment into account. Employees must be able to demonstrate improvement and sustain improved performance in order to successfully complete a PIP.

Timing of delivery

Help the manager determine when the PIP meeting will occur (what day, time of day). Take into account the schedule of the employee they will be meeting with (e.g. avoid scheduling right before an important client call).

1

Identify

2

Initiate

3

Deploy

4

a) Follow Up
b) Decide

Follow up: If the process escalated to step 3 and is successful.

What does success look like? Performance improvement must be sustained after the PIP is completed. It’s not enough to simply meet performance improvement goals and expectations; the employee must continue to perform.

Have the manager schedule a final PIP review with the employee. Use video, as this enables the employee and manager to read body language and minimize miscommunication/misinterpretation.

  • If performance expectations have been met, instruct managers to document this in the PIP, inform the employee they are off the PIP, and provide it to HR.

The manager should also continue check-ins with the employee to ensure sustainment and as part of continued performance management.

  • Set a specific timeline, e.g. every two weeks or every month. Choose a cadence that works best for the manager and employee.

OR

Decide: Determine action steps if the process is unsuccessful.

If at the end of step 3 performance has not sufficiently improved, the organization (HR and the manager) should either determine if the employee could/should be temporarily redeployed while the emergency WFH is still in place, if a permanent transfer to a role that is a better fit is an option, or if the employee should be let go.

See the Complete Manual for COVID-19 Layoffs blueprint for information on layoffs in remote environments.

Managers, HR, and employees all have a role to play in performance improvement

Managers
  • Identify the outcomes the organization is looking for and clearly outline and communicate the expectations for the employee’s performance.
  • Diagnose root cause(s) of the performance issue.
  • Support employee through frequent conversations and feedback.
  • Coach for improved performance.
  • Visibly recognize and broadcast employee achievements.
Employees
  • Have open and honest conversations with their manager, acknowledge their accountability, and be receptive to feedback.
  • Set performance goals to meet expectations of the role.
  • Prepare for frequent check-ins regarding improvement.
  • Seek support from HR as required.
HR
  • Provide managers with a process, training, and support to improve employee performance.
  • Coach managers to ensure employees have been made aware of their role expectations and current performance and given specific recommendations on how to improve.
  • Reinforce the process for improving employee performance to ensure that adequate coaching conversations have taken place before the formal PIP.
  • Coach employees on how to approach their manager to discuss challenges in meeting expectations.

HR should conduct checkpoints with both managers and employees in cases where a formal PIP was initiated to ensure the process for performance improvement is being followed and to support both parties in improving performance.

Email templates

Use the templates found on the next slides to draft communications to employees who are underperforming while working from home.

Customize all templates with relevant information and use them as a guide to further tailor your communication to a specific employee.

Customization Recommendations

Review all slides and adjust the language or content as needed to suit the needs of the employee, the complexity of their role, and the performance issue.

  • The pencil icon to the left denotes slides requiring customization of the text. Customize text in grey font and be sure to convert all font to black when you are done.

Included Templates

  1. Performance Discussion Follow-Up
  2. PIP Cover Letter

This template is not a substitute for legal advice. Ensure you consult with your legal counsel, labor relations representative, and union representative to align with collective agreements and relevant legislation.

Sample Performance Discussion Follow-Up

Hello [name],

Thank you for the commitment and eagerness in our meeting yesterday.

I wanted to recap the conversation and expectations for the month of [insert month].

As discussed, you have been advised about your recent [behavior, performance, attendance, policy, etc.] where you have demonstrated [state specific issue with detail of behavior/performance of concern]. As per our conversation, we’ll be working on improvement in this area in order to meet expectations set out for our employees.

It is expected that employees [state expectations]. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if there is further clarification needed or you if you have any questions or concerns. The management team and I are committed to helping you achieve these goals.

We will do a formal check-in on your progress every [insert day] from [insert time] to review your progress. I will also be available for daily check-ins to support you on the right track. Additionally, you can book me in for desk-side coaching outside of my regular desk-side check-ins. If there is anything else I can do to help support you in hitting these goals, please let me know. Other resources we discussed that may be helpful in meeting these objectives are [summarize available support and resources]. By working together through this process, I have no doubt that you can be successful. I am here to provide support and assist you through this.

If you’re unable to show improvements set out in our discussion by [date], we will proceed to a formal performance measure that will include a performance improvement plan. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns; I am here to help.

Please acknowledge this email and let me know if you have any questions.

Thank you,

PIP Cover Letter

Hello [name] ,

This is to confirm our meeting on [date] in which we discussed your performance to date and areas that need improvement. Please find the attached performance improvement plan, which contains a detailed action plan that we have agreed upon to help you meet role expectations over the next [XX days]. The aim of this plan is to provide you with a detailed outline of our performance expectations and provide you the opportunity to improve your performance, with our support.

We will check in every [XX days] to review your progress. At the end of the [XX]-day period, we will review your performance against the role expectations set out in this performance improvement plan. If you don’t meet the performance requirements in the time allotted, further action and consequences will follow.

Should you have any questions about the performance improvement plan or the process outlined in this document, please do not hesitate to discuss them with me.

[Employee name], it is my personal objective to help you be a fully productive member of our team. By working together through this performance improvement plan, I have no doubt that you can be successful. I am here to provide support and assist you through the process. At this time, I would also like to remind you about the [additional resources available at your organization, for example, employee assistance program or HR].

Please acknowledge this email and let me know if you have any questions.

Thank you,

Prepare and customize manager guide and resources

Sample of Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home: Manager Guide. Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home: Manager Guide

This tool for managers provides advice on navigating the process and focuses on the content of remote performance discussions.

Sample of Set Meaningful Employee Performance Measures. Set Meaningful Employee Performance Measures

See this blueprint for information on setting holistic measures to inspire employee performance.

Sample of Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home: Infographic. Manage Poor Performance While Working From Home: Infographic

This tool illustrates the high-level steps of the performance improvement process.

Sample of Wellness and Working From Home: Infographic. Wellness and Working From Home: Infographic

This tool highlights tips to manage physical and mental health while working from home.

Sample of Build a Better Manager: Team Essentials. Build a Better Manager: Team Essentials

See this solution set for more information on kick-starting the effectiveness of first-time IT managers with essential management skills.

Sample of Leverage Agile Goal Setting for Improved Employee Engagement & Performance. Leverage Agile Goal Setting for Improved Employee Engagement & Performance

See this blueprint for information on dodging the micromanaging foul and scoring with agile short-term goal setting.

Bibliography

Arringdale, Chris. “6 Tips For Managers Trying to Overcome Performance Appraisal Anxiety.” TLNT. 18 September 2015. Accessed 2018.

Borysenko, Karlyn. “What Was Management Thinking? The High Cost of Employee Turnover.” Talent Management and HR. 22 April 2015. Accessed 2018.

Cook, Ian. “Curbing Employee Turnover Contagion in the Workplace.” Visier. 20 February 2018. Accessed 2018.

Cornerstone OnDemand. Toxic Employees in the Workplace. Santa Monica, California: Cornerstone OnDemand, 2015. Web.

Dewar, Carolyn and Reed Doucette. “6 elements to create a high-performing culture.” McKinsey & Company. 9 April 2018. Accessed 2018.

Eagle Hill. Eagle Hill National Attrition Survey. Washington, D.C.: Eagle Hill, 2015. Web.

ERC. “Performance Improvement Plan Checklist.” ERC. 21 June 2017. Accessed 2018.

Foster, James. “The Impact of Managers on Workplace Engagement and Productivity.” Interact. 16 March 2017. Accessed 2018.

Godwins Solicitors LLP. “Employment Tribunal Statistics for 2015/2016.” Godwins Solicitors LLP. 8 February 2017. Accessed 2018.

Mankins, Michael. “How to Manage a Team of All-Stars.” Harvard Business Review. 6 June 2017. Accessed 2018.

Maxfield, David, et al. The Value of Stress-Free Productivity. Provo, Utah: VitalSmarts, 2017. Web.

Murphy, Mark. “Skip Your Low Performers When Starting Performance Appraisals.” Forbes. 21 January 2015. Accessed 2018.

Quint. “Transforming into a High Performance Organization.” Quint Wellington Redwood. 16 November 2017. Accessed 2018.

Ranosa, Rachel. "COVID -19: Canadian Productivity Booms Despite Social Distancing." Human Resources Director, 14 April 2020. Accessed 2020.

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  • Call 1: Assess how changes to goals and expectations during emergency WFH will impact the performance improvement process.
  • Call 2: Review current performance improvement practices to adjust and integrate into the remote performance improvement practice.
  • Call 3: Discuss communication of and training on the remote performance improvement process.

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Agatha Kennedy

Talia Speigel

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