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How to remotely manage an underperforming employee

Sep 4, 2020 Eric Titner

How to remotely manage an underperforming employee

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re living through an era of rapid and unprecedented change in the work world. These massive shifts are the result of a number of forces, including a global pandemic and breakneck innovations in cloud computing and work technology, which are allowing workers to uncouple from a centralized location and empowering them to stay connected and productive from home or wherever they choose to work.

No one can accurately predict whether the shift from physical offices to the digital cloud will be a temporary or long-term change for many businesses, but for now, many of us are figuring out how to work remotely, today and into the near future—and this includes figuring out how to deal with classic work challenges in new ways.

Among these challenges is how to deal with an underperforming employee. If you’re in charge of direct reports, you've likely have had some first-hand experience with this issue at some point in your career. In the past, it was typically a good strategy to meet with an underperforming employee face-to-face, work closely with them to address the underlying root causes and symptoms at the core of the issue, and watch the situation carefully. But with the transition to working remotely, how does that affect those well-worn strategies? Keep reading to discover effective approaches to managing an underperforming employee.

Diagnose the issue

The truth is, transitioning to working remotely can be difficult for many folks. The added isolation and lack of in-person contact with colleagues, on top of getting used to using new remote work technology, pose different levels of challenge for different people. The pandemic is also forcing many of us to confront new health issues and concerns—both mental and physical—that could take a toll on our productivity. Also, some of us have more distractions at home than others—things like family members or a noisy neighborhood that generate a lot of background noise can have a real impact on employee focus and performance. The variables at play that might be affecting employee performance are a little different when working remotely; the key is to work with the underperformer to diagnose the issue(s) that are causing the problems, so you can address them effectively.

Stay connected

The classic approach for managing an underperforming employee is to work closely alongside them and provide extra guidance and support to help implement lasting fixes. Sure, that’s a little trickier in the current era of remote work, but certainly not impossible. Innovations in video conferencing and communication technology have really helped all of us stay more connected while working from home—although for many it’s no substitute for meeting in person, it can really go a long way to help you closely manage your direct reports.

If you notice someone is underperforming, be sure to schedule regular check-ins using your preferred method of contact. These can take on any format you feel is effective, from free-form discussions or check-ins to a review of daily tasks, or a mix of approaches. Also, make sure your direct reports, even the ones who seem to be doing well, know that you're approachable and available to talk when needed. This can go a long way toward ensuring that they feel supported and connected when things are difficult.

Set realistic performance targets

Even though we’re working remotely and aren’t spending our days under the direct watchful eyes of managers and colleagues, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be held accountable for remaining productive, keeping important projects on track, and adding to the machine that keeps business as a whole viable. When dealing with an underperforming employee, work with them carefully to set realistic, measurable, and achievable goals. These can be daily, weekly, or project-based performance targets that will help your direct report stay on track to clearly see areas of strength and weakness—and make adjustments accordingly.

One important thing to note is that during the current pandemic and transition to remote work, many of us are experiencing sporadic dips in productivity at times. Keep this in mind as you work with your direct report on setting targets, and make sure that you don’t set overly ambitious goals that might lead to failure and discouragement. A good management strategy after working with your employee to set performance targets is to make a review of progress towards these goals a regular part of your remote interactions—and along the way, be sure to remain encouraging and supportive, and provide plenty of positive feedback and helpful guidance.

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