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One fine spring morning, as the world obliviously continued on its pursuit of progress, the coronavirus got all our lives to a screeching halt. For many, the day before more than a billion people of the country were forced into a lockdown, was just another normal day at work. Little did they know, it was the end of the world as they knew it. Many didn’t suspect that they would not to see their workplace ever again. Whether it was due to organizations giving up offices or the consequent layoffs as business realities became more and more blurred, few of us realized that our lives and careers are going to be turned upside down.

Today, almost three months later, this strange phase is starting to feel like normal. Even as coronavirus cases keep increasing in the country with each passing day, we seem to be getting lesser fearful of the virus that has practically changed our life. We’ve settled into our routines that juggle household chores and work meetings and for now, we seem to have made peace with lighter wallets and a dimmer future.

But as we head cautiously towards this new future, although we might not have a lot of answers, there are a few things that many organizations have articulated clearly. It’s the age of the remote workforce. From multinationals to start-ups, many companies have vowed to remain virtual for the foreseeable future. While this saves them from high costs and health hazards to employees, they are slowly getting aware of the challenges of managing critical factors like productivity, performance management and employee engagement in a remote setup.

Building a high performance culture has always been the true north for many organizations. In times like these, it becomes more relevant than it has ever been. But it can also seem more overwhelming to achieve.  Some of the questions baffling organizations while managing employee performance in a work-from-home setup are:

  1. How can managers drive a high performance culture in their dispersed and virtual teams?
  2. Can performance management of the remote workforce lead to better engagement, retention and organizational performance?
  3. How can you create employee buy in for consistent performance assessment?

Many organizations did not have the requisite tools required to make the work-from-home model a success. While employees reported higher productivity while working from home, managers were found to be wary of their team’s performance. The root cause of this gap was poor performance management systems and processes. And worst of all, poor behaviours of both employees and managers towards performance management.

The onus of productivity and engagement falls almost entirely on the shoulders of managers in a virtual work environment. But it will be an understatement to say that the best of leaders and managers were not prepared to handle the performance of their virtual teams. This lack of preparedness has exposed some glaring gaps of trust and training in not just employees, but leaders as well.

Performance management when done correctly can pave the way to a high performance culture in the organization. Driving this culture in virtual teams begins with changing the attitudes of managers and employees towards continuous performance management. Unfortunately, in many organizations, performance management has been reduced to an administrative task that enables appraisal decisions, spotlights poor performers and safeguards the organization’s legal interests.  But in order for it to drive high performance in virtual employees, managers will have to make it a continuous process that is done in a more personalized and transparent way.

In a remote setup that is disconnected from colleagues, employees will have to see their role in the bigger picture in order to feel like a part of the organization. Leaders who reinforce the larger organizational goals often, even if they might have evolved in the current situation, will be able to drive the common sense of purpose in employees. Managers play a crucial part in making employees see the part they are playing towards attaining the bigger goals. Those who succeed in doing this will find it much easier to empower their team members to achieve their goals.

It is worthwhile to normalize continuous performance management for employees by having regular, informal talks about it. Performance management can be an important way for employees to achieve their career goals and understand what is expected out of them.

While monitoring the performance, managers must also remember the importance of rewarding the right behaviours, other than results and targets. Recognizing effort plays a big part in making the virtual team feel like an important piece of the organizational puzzle.

Driving a culture of high performance can get easier if everyone is ultimately aiming towards a common goalpost. That common goal can be the customer. The Dale Carnegie Whitepaper on Agility finds that a customer centric attitude can be a unifying factor in more ways than one. It can give employees a sense of purpose, it is a philosophy that can easily trickle down to the last employee and an attitude that not just makes organizations agile but also makes the workforce more performance-oriented.

Pushing for high performance can get too aggressive and un-empathetic in some situations. But if done right, it can also become a big boost for employee engagement, retention and organizational performance.

How can we do it right?

  • Articulate goals and expectations clearly. And often.

Managers who are successful in articulating expectations and goals to their team members are often the ones who are also successful in increasing the performance of their teams. Dramatic changes like the COVID19 pandemic have changed many short term goals for organizations. It is important that managers communicate the new goals to their team members and explain them their role in achieving them. Setting SMART, transparent and achievable goals is a prerequisite to having a high performance culture.

  • Set high benchmarks. But enable team members to succeed

A high performance culture begins with having high standards not just for team members but yourself too. Leaders who are consistently setting high benchmarks for their own performance drive the culture of high performance in their team members. But it doesn’t just end at that. Leaders also need to play the part of enabling success for their employees. That could mean providing them with the right tools and resources, and upskilling them for their role. When managers work alongside their team members to achieve goals, it drives engagement and productivity in the workforce.

  • Make leadership accessible, vocal and visible

In order to encourage a culture of high performance, leaders of the organization must come across as trustworthy and transparent. Especially in a virtual setup, it is important for the leaders to be perceived as accessible and reliable. Frequent leadership connects, informal catch-ups and information sharing helps employees feel secure and important. It’s simple ; employees are more likely to give their best if they think it is a cause worth fighting for.

  • Trust, but verify. Influence but empower

Continuous performance reviews that are designed to be like progressive mentoring sessions help to drive high performance in the organization. When employees are empowered and given authority to contribute, it is found that they respond to changes in marketplace more effectively and act more innovatively to respond to the demands of the customers. Trust and accountability need to be built in order for empowerment to have the intended results.

  • Work on getting communication and collaboration right:

Driving a culture of high performance in a virtual setup requires a commitment to get communication and collaboration right. Starting from providing the right tools to getting the right talent mix for cross functional projects, leaders must ensure an uninterrupted flow of information and provide ample opportunities to collaborate, even in a remote work space.

  • Aspire to have a learning culture first

A learning culture is the beginning towards a high performance culture. In a world where most of the workforce would be remote, it is important that not just employees but even managers are trained and equipped to deal with the new requirements of the market and workplace. Continuous improvement and growth are vital factors in the pursuit of high performance. Training that is aligned with the organization’s vision and goals will put the workforce in the desired direction, giving employees a clear pathway.  Learning and development also ensures greater mobility in the organization for high performers, opening up new opportunities for them.

Average performance can become a vicious circle and stick like a bad habit in organizations. To overcome the inertia that sets in during any phase of change, there needs to be a combined focus on a few critical things like training, transparent communication and trust. Leaders must begin by assessing where they stand and simplifying archaic processes. The kind of behaviours they expect from the workforce will have to be emulated at their own level first. Effective performance management requires a change in behaviour on the part of both employees and managers.  A high performance culture is desirable for more than just organizational growth- it can be a critical way to provide an engaging and stimulating employee experience.