Rethinking Performance Management for Post-Pandemic Success

Organizations serious about high performance must rethink performance metrics.

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Performance Management

Getting performance management right is critical to strategic execution in rapidly evolving business environments characterized by fast-moving markets, converging industries, increasing talent scarcity, and shifting labor preferences.
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Will dispersed, distributed, and remote workforces become the post-pandemic new normal? It may be too soon to say. Much clearer is how misleading and unhelpful legacy metrics are for assessing work-from-home performance. Pre-COVID-19 workplace analytics are no longer fit for purpose. They don’t capture the disjointed realities of digital workflows. Stressed, separated, and challenged to do better with less, people need greater insight into how they’re doing. Productivity now demands more aggressive and actionable measures.

Recalibrating key performance indicators (KPIs) is essential to ensuring that remote work actually works. Enterprises that want the best from their workers — and for their customers — innovatively invest in digital accountability, but these efforts must acknowledge and respect newly blurred distinctions between work and home life. Digitally colonizing people’s homes is not an option; workforce mood and morale matter. Thoughtful leaders grasp the need for a healthy coexistence.

Without trust and transparency, remote workforce monitoring appears intrusive and exploitative. With transparency and trust, tracking can authentically be branded and experienced as data-driven workforce support. Increasingly, monitoring and measuring morale — qualitatively, as well as quantitatively — matters. But soft skills deserve hard numbers, too. Emergent post-pandemic dashboards embrace affective metrics as firmly and fairly as effective ones.

That means that leading companies must renovate their data-driven dashboards to better inspire people and project teams and promote positive outcomes. They must automatically capture and analyze, and explicitly communicate, their high-performance criteria. The most important takeaway: High-performance management depends on high-performance measurement. The digital future of one depends on the digital future of the other.

Redefining and remeasuring high performance may prove to be the true disruptive opportunity for post-COVID-19 growth.

At one global professional services company, for example, top management dramatically accelerated project delivery schedules for its newly remote teams. This forcing mechanism deliberately inspired greater communication, coordination, and collaboration expectations for team members. At the same time, however, the company created a complementary buddy system to help ensure that more isolated and/or introverted employees felt connected. Tech support migrated from a back-office help-desk function to a digital project facilitator and enabler for global teams with demanding deadlines. The number of pulse surveys monitoring employee engagement and morale increased from fortnightly to every few days. Top management is tracking what‚ and who — delivers value well.

A senior global research project manager at Adobe programmed his laptop to display a personalized end-of-day dashboard visually summarizing — with pie charts and graphs — how he spent his time, whom he contacted, messages sent and received, documents exchanged, appointments scheduled, commitments made, and to-do list items accomplished, along with the top three items for the following day. He started sharing this dashboard with his team and is now wondering whether he should nudge — or require — colleagues to create comparable dashboards. “Should we be visible to each other in this way?” he asks. He says that such “dashboard transparency” has sparked cross-functional exchanges he’d never had before.

At least two global banks seek to capture remote-working lessons and best practices for internal discussion and sharing. Looking ahead, they’re rethinking whether they really need all the commercial office space they currently possess. They’re now reviewing with IT how significantly having a dispersed workforce alters their process automation road maps. Consequently, IT and its business process owner counterparts now track and map dispersed workforce workflows with a new remote automation strategy in mind.

Using Data to Better (See and Communicate) Performance

Mandatory remoteness quickly obsolesced executive truisms like “management by walking around,” and “under management’s watchful eye,” along with the concept of an “open-door policy.” Disrupted organizations soon learn just how little they know about how well — and how poorly — their people and teams work together. Virtually every serious organization now grasps that some meaningfully measurable form of real-time monitoring is essential to value orchestration and oversight.

For some, this quest for transparency translates to “Trust but verify”; for others, the mantra is “Verify but trust.” Either way, trust is core. “Do I trust my people? Yes,” says one investment banking lead. “Do I now need to be able to see how they spend their time? Yes. They need to trust me, too.”

Proactive enterprise communication is central to this cultural shift. When a Fortune/Adobe survey asked CIOs what has proved to be the biggest challenge in facilitating their companies’ remote work, only 20% said hardware, and 21% tech tools. Over half — 53% — said the hardest issue was getting employees to effectively communicate with one another. Why is that so seemingly hard? There’s certainly no shortage of smart messaging tools. As the COVID-19 crisis reveals, companies overwhelmingly depend on them.

Yet, most companies lack real-time metrics or measures assessing team and/or process communication effectiveness. Typically, those indicators are bundled into performance management reviews. That helps explain an accelerating managerial trend: greater reliance on performance management systems to better orchestrate and upgrade team performance. This emergent application of performance management systems ensures more communication and conversations about performance.

Unsurprisingly, next-generation performance management depends on digital monitoring and tracking platforms to generate real-time analytic insights. Those workflow and process insights can be prescriptive and predictive, as well as descriptive. High-performing leaders embrace this practice. Dispersed, technologically enabled enterprises seamlessly converge people, process, and technology into performance management systems.

With improved dashboards, leaders can see which teams best add value to what processes. They can observe which workflows invite consolidation, automation, and/or professional development. Leadership now has the data and analytics necessary to refine what high performance should mean for people and what it could mean for machines. These insights are indispensable. The more repeatable, replicable, and scalable the high-performance workflow, the better its candidacy for automation and/or machine learning. Correlating and connecting instrumented workflows with KPIs lets organizations turn the “remoteness from COVID-19”-imposed bug into a high-performance-enabling feature.

We see this in law firms, logistics providers, customer contact centers, and even health care providers. From telemedicine to texts about a customer’s arrival for curbside pickup, organizations are repurposing and instrumenting their performance management platforms in ways that measurably redefine high performance.

For example, colocated contact centers have been forced to geographically disperse. This has brutally disrupted legacy work patterns and forced a performance management reevaluation. Chatbots prioritize and route inquiries; support workers more easily message or transfer callers to colleagues; automated follow-ups with relevant links attached are readily sent. Response time, Net Promoter Score, and customer satisfaction KPIs retain pride of metrics place. But better analytics orchestration lets management track the digital blends of process and performance ingredients best correlated to desired outcomes. The resultant data highlights touch points best suited for automation and those where human contact best improves outcomes. The new constraints and opportunities imposed by remoteness and automation have transformed how the contact centers have chosen to align performance assessment, efficiency, and customer response.

Similarly, a “remote-ified” Silicon Valley law firm quickly and effectively deployed transcription-as-a-service to convert every Zoom-based client and partner meeting into editable documents. Instant transcripts dramatically changed how legal teams collaborated with each other and with clients. Measuring value-added revisions to those documents — and how those revisions were included in filings and client communications — immediately emerged as an essential workflow monitoring challenge. Version management governance became a new driver for decision-making. Partners now track their time-and-version ratios between simultaneous and asynchronous review. For some partners and associates, ROI effectively means return on iteration — in other words, which lawyers and legal teams have the biggest productive impact editing, annotating, and converting transcripts into desired client deliverables.

These examples show that successful leaders can use performance management analytics as portal and platform to convert new capabilities and constraints into new value. Data-informed performance management invites and inspires more productive workforce exchanges.

These interim COVID-19 findings represent genuine business applications of conclusions reached by our 2019 research report “Performance Management’s Digital Shift.” That report anticipated the disruptive dominance data-driven workforce communication would enjoy. “The biggest cultural and organizational impact of next-generation performance management systems,” we observed, “will be feedback time, tempo, and impact. Instead of annual, quarterly, or impromptu reviews, talent- and accountability-oriented enterprises will encourage and enable near-constant feedback.”

Feedback — actionable, constructive, trackable, and influential — is the informational and motivational coin of the digital realm in the post-pandemic distributed workforce. Feedback — data-enriched, KPI-aligned — simultaneously promotes situational awareness and self-awareness. Feedback is how people get better at getting better. High-performance systems require high-performance feedback. Better-quality feedback means better-quality outcomes. This simple management — and leadership — truth is being rediscovered and reconfigured in light of COVID-19.

To cultivate healthy returns from a healthy — if remote and distributed — workforce requires leaders to treat data and analytics as nutrients for people, not just fuel for economic growth. That means leaders need to do the following:

Commit to a continuous feedback culture. Much as individuals use Google Maps or Waze to manage expectations around travel, employees and associates need dynamic visualizations to manage their expectations around work. Performance management platforms must facilitate ongoing feedback on professional progress, growth, and development opportunities. Executives must define the feedback experience for their people. Doing so forces leaders to define and develop a shared perspective about what high performance means.

Commit to clarity between assessment and development. Managers should make clear when feedback targets performance assessment versus cultivating new capabilities and skills. Development matters. Especially for remote workers and distributed teams, human resource policies must balance assessment and the safe cultivation of new skills and capabilities.

Commit to transparency. Post-pandemic performance management credibility and trustworthiness depend on transparency. People must be able to see that their contributions to meetings are recognized and/or that their blown deadlines cost the company a big client. This requires significant shifts in data governance: Connecting and aligning feedback transparency to data collection must become a core cultural value and practice. In short, transparency is the foundation for a performance culture that can also literally be seen as a fair and equitable culture.

Commit to performance management and KPI alignment. Aspiration and expectation require quantification. There is no meaningful performance management without measurable KPIs. High-performance accountability requires clear and concise KPIs or key results. Linking performance management to KPIs or objectives and key results is the strategic duty and obligation of serious leadership. Managers, not HR, ensure that performance management activities support measurable, valuable business outcomes.

There will always be tensions — and opportunities — between managing high-performance people, high-performance machines, and high-performance systems. Innovatively confronting those challenges will be the most important leadership challenge this global pandemic creates.


Performance Management

Getting performance management right is critical to strategic execution in rapidly evolving business environments characterized by fast-moving markets, converging industries, increasing talent scarcity, and shifting labor preferences.
More in this series

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