Hybrid work is here to stay in many industries, according to recent research and expert opinion, despite CEOs ordering employees back to the workplace full time. That means many managers will continue to struggle with the challenge of overseeing employees who may only be in the office a few days a week.
HR leaders are addressing the difficulty by deploying technologies that can help leaders with reduced visibility into employees' performance.
The use of technologies geared toward hybrid work, like next-generation performance management platforms, can help managers stay connected to their teams, enable employees to proactively request feedback and provide "nudges" that encourage leaders to set clearer performance expectations or recognize people for good work.
New Leadership Approaches for New Work Models
A 2022 study from WTW, a global research and advisory company in London, found that despite the rapid increase in hybrid and remote working models, only 16 percent of survey respondents reported having altered their performance management approach.
HR industry analysts say the use of technologies like performance management platforms, whether they be stand-alone systems or part of broader human capital management suites, can help avoid uncertainty around goals, employees feeling unseen by their managers and proximity bias, which can occur when leaders perceive those working onsite as better performers or harder workers than those working from home.
"One thing we've seen in our research is that technology providers are focusing more on connection building in their platforms," said Priyanka Mehrotra, a senior analyst with RedThread Research, an HR advisory and research firm in Woodside, Calif., that has conducted a series of studies on performance management technologies and practices. "More vendors understand that organizations struggling with hybrid work often have difficulty making good connections between managers and their employees."
A study from Gallup found only about half of workers know what's expected of them at work, a troubling statistic that experts say is likely even higher in hybrid and remote work models.
Tools built into performance management platforms can help managers provide more feedback or guidance to hybrid workers, said Amanda Myton, talent management practice lead with Lattice, a performance management platform provider in San Francisco.
"Technology gives both managers and employees the ability to see, document and engage with the same performance data," Myton said. "If managers are consistently tracking their one-on-one meetings with employees, and if employees are able to see much of that written data, it makes it easier for workers to know what's expected of them and where they need improve."
When managers aren't face-to-face with employees, feedback strategy needs to change, HR analysts say. "I think for one it puts a bigger onus on employees to seek out feedback proactively from their managers," said Brent Cassell, a vice president in advisory services with Gartner's HR group. "We're seeing more organizations set that expectation for employees in hybrid situations, letting them know it's up to them to be more assertive in seeking feedback."
Some performance management technologies have features that facilitate such employee-generated feedback requests. Employees might ask for feedback after taking on a new role, completing a project or after a big presentation, for example.
Lattice is among the platforms that allow employees to request performance feedback. "Feedback is very democratic in the system, so employees not only can request feedback from direct managers, they also can request it from anyone else across the organization at any level, including peers, other leaders and even clients," Myton said.
Myton suggests coaching employees on how to request good feedback. "When you make a good ask it usually results in better, more actionable feedback," she said.
Mitigating Proximity Bias
Another challenge for managers overseeing hybrid teams is avoiding proximity bias, an issue that occurs when managers perceive and treat employees who work in the office differently from those working from home. Gartner research found that 64 percent of executives and managers believe that in-office workers perform better than remote workers.
"Managers first need to be made aware of this bias and then work to mitigate a tendency to favor employees who come to the office more frequently," Cassell said. Such bias can result in more favorable performance reviews, or giving onsite workers a bigger say in decisions and more development opportunities, he said.
Cassell said one way to protect against proximity bias is to perform an additional round of performance calibrations—perhaps adding a round earlier in the year in addition to the traditional year-end calibration—where managers discuss proposed employee ratings among themselves to help apply a uniform standard when reviewing worker performance.
"Consider doing an extra 'health check' to ensure you're setting performance goals in ways that are consistent across both in-office and remote workers," Cassell said.
Soliciting feedback on employee performance more broadly across the organization also can help reduce proximity bias, said David Brodeur-Johnson, an analyst specializing in the employee experience with research and advisory firm Forrester.
"A manager might not think that someone on his or her team is that productive or effective, especially if they work remotely more often, but when they see feedback from other people that the individual works with on a daily basis, they might find the person is actually a high performer or even a rock star," Brodeur-Johnson said.
Beware of Productivity Tracking Tools
Some organizations believe using productivity tracking software is a good way to help managers see workers' performance in hybrid models. But HR analysts say measuring things like keystrokes, active and idle time at a computer, or time spent using certain apps or websites can backfire if not used with the right intentions.
"I urge caution around using productivity tracking tools," Cassell said. "That's because many of these productivity measures are based on an input, not an output. You want to make sure managers are distinguishing between inputs and outputs, such as finishing projects on time in a quality fashion. You don't want to miss the bigger picture of the outcomes you're seeking."
A 2022 study by Gartner of employees and leaders around the world working in hybrid models tested the varying degrees of management oversight and found the best outcomes happened at companies where leaders were most empathetic to employee needs—places where workers felt trusted and that they mattered to the enterprise.
"The worst outcomes were at organizations where managers mandate that workers be onsite so they can watch them," wrote authors of a Gartner blog about the study.
The Gartner study also found employees who are allowed to decide when they work are 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than employees without such autonomy. That autonomy also makes people twice as likely to stay with their organization, the study found.
Fostering Development Discussions and Recognition
Many performance management platforms also have tools that make it easier for managers to have career development discussions with employees and nudge leaders to recognize their people for good work—two factors that support employee retention, engagement and performance.
Mehrotra said RedThread's research found more organizations are using technology platforms to orchestrate conversations about employees' career planning and learning opportunities. The WTW study also found that more companies are strengthening the link between performance management and career development.
The strongest predictor of burnout in Forrester's employee experience index data is a lack of recognition for accomplishment and hard work, Brodeur-Johnson said. "This is when people essentially feel unseen, unappreciated or undervalued for their efforts," he said. "Recognition is tied to people's intrinsic motivation and sense of worth, and goes a long way to protecting against burnout in hybrid work models."
Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.