As teams all around the world shift to remote work, many managers may struggle to manage underperforming employees without the benefits of in-person meetings. However, you can’t afford to ignore poor performance from your people, whether they’re temporarily at home, working in local branch offices, or half the world away. The author offers five practical suggestions to help managers support underperformers to improve while working from home: revisit your expectations, learn more about them, level with them about your specific concerns, help them learn, and stay in close contact.
Revisit your expectations. Take the opportunity to reconsider what you want most from the employee, and why you feel you’re not getting it. Start by reviewing your recent directives, and whether your communications about what’s expected have been clear and consistent from the beginning. This is something you do with underperformers in any context, but when you don’t see the employee in person, it’s even more important to ask yourself whether your statements have been ambiguous. Part of this process is separating out whether your dissatisfaction is with their work products, or with the way they deliver.
Learn more about them. Even if they’ve been on your team for a while, it’s important to ask about their goals and what they care about, as these things change as circumstances evolve. Plus, you don’t have the benefit of casual, in-person contact to pick up details about family, hobbies, or past work successes. Then, modify your management approach to match their needs. For example, you might learn that they miss working side-by-side with colleagues and would perform better if they were assigned to projects that involved more regular interaction.
Level with them and be specific. You may not be in the same room, but providing feedback is still a requirement. Many people who aren’t doing well have a vague feeling that something is wrong, but don’t really know which of their behaviors aren’t working. For example, telling a team leader that they need to “be a better listener” doesn’t help them understand specifically what they need to do differently. It’s much more helpful to explain that when they turn away during video conferences or change the subject while team members are speaking, the team loses trust and confidence in them. The feedback gives them the opportunity to actively practice modifying those behaviors.
Help them learn how to improve their own performance. As much as possible, use questions to encourage them to self-diagnose and to project into their own future: “How will this experience set you up to do better in the future?” I often ask coaching clients “Why do you think I’m asking you this?” to encourage them to reach their own conclusions, rather than telling them what I have observed, which doesn’t trigger the same kind of “aha” that self-discovery does. This will help you avoid micromanaging, which is a significant temptation when you’re trying to be extremely clear about expectations.
Stay in close enough contact. Keep in mind that a remote underperformer can’t just drop in to check on things or “take your temperature.” It’s on you as their manager to stay in regular touch and to keep them in the loop. Don’t assume that no news is good news. After you’ve given an employee candid feedback and they don’t hear from you, they can start to worry that you’re ignoring them because you’ve written them off, and their performance can deteriorate further. Schedule regular meetings to talk about their progress. When a VP learned that one of her reports thought she was “ghosting” him, we came up with a consistent schedule of one full update and two quick touch-bases each week for a few months until the relationship was on a stronger footing.
It’s not easy to work with a remote employee who isn’t performing well, particularly when you can’t sit down together and have a conversation. But using specific, road-tested techniques to help them improve will strengthen not only their performance, but their relationship with you as well.