Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Apryl Brodersen, Metropolitan State University of Denver; Sarah Layman, DCI; and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

 

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, Allen Gorman and John Meriac highlight fundamental principles and current issues in performance management within a remote/hybrid work environment. The goal is to start a conversation about areas for potential collaboration between academics and practitioners to help establish evidence-based recommendations.

Performance Management in a Virtual/Hybrid World of Work: How Can Science Inform Practice?

C. Allen Gorman
University of Alabama at Birmingham

John P. Meriac
University of Missouri-St. Louis

Throughout the COVID pandemic, the nature of work has changed. Many of the “temporary” changes that were implemented during the pandemic are likely to remain in some form. For example, remote work has increased substantially, and meetings are frequently held over Zoom or similar technology. The benefits of remote work are well recognized, and it is expected that many organizations will never go back to the traditional full-time, in-office work model (Castrillon, 2020). These changes present several challenges for researchers and practitioners of performance management—defined for the purposes of this article as the continuous process of identifying, measuring, and developing the performance of individuals and teams, and aligning performance with the strategic goals of the organization (Aguinis, 2009). We recommend that organizations prepare for a brave new world of performance management that can be flexible and adaptive to the needs of our current—and perhaps permanent—reality.

The purpose of this article is to highlight several fundamental principles and current issues in performance management within a remote/hybrid work environment. Although many issues surrounding the changing nature of work and the implications on performance management in virtual environments have been discussed by scholars (e.g., Cascio, 2000; Tippins & Coverdale, 2009), this article is timely because the pace of change has increased dramatically. Through identifying known and unknown issues, we hope to stimulate discussion about areas for potential collaboration between academics and practitioners to help establish evidence-based recommendations for the next phase in the evolution of work.

Prepandemic Fundamental Principles and Best Practices + Implications for Postpandemic World of Work

The performance management literature offers many recommendations that are important to retain, such as the use of job analysis, consideration of subgroup differences, and methods for maximizing performance. The discussion below summarizes some of those prepandemic fundamental principles and best practices while emphasizing implications for the current (and future) world of work.

Job Analysis

Decades of research has clearly suggested that job performance is fluid and dynamic (Austin & Villanova, 1992). Scholars and practitioners have underscored the importance of adaptive performance (e.g., Pulakos et al., 2000), recognizing the need for employees to respond to changes in their organizations or environments to remain successful. Such change makes job analysis critical for ensuring that performance management systems accurately reflect the current requirements of the job. One example of rapid changes during the pandemic has been the rise in telehealth services (Rendall, 2022). Prior to the pandemic, typical medical appointments involved receiving healthcare in person. However, for many appointments, telemedicine has become the safest and most effective option over the last 2 years. Similarly, virtual, rather than on-site, job interviews have been used frequently throughout the pandemic (Maurer, 2021). These changes have increased use of technology and raised new questions about privacy and compliance with regulations. These are just two examples, but they open an important question for organizations to consider about their performance management systems: What new elements of job performance should be incorporated due to the pandemic?

Subgroup Differences

Although pandemic-related research is currently underway and only just becoming available to the scientific community, scholarly discussions have recognized the differential impact of the pandemic on employee subgroups. For instance, work–family conflict issues have presented many new challenges for working parents during the pandemic (e.g., Rudolph et al., 2021). Lack of childcare and the shift to remote learning for school-age children placed tremendous time- and strain-based conflict onto parents, especially when facing pressures to adapt in response to either remote work or in-person work with an increased risk of infection. Similarly, the pandemic has created many new pressures for older workers, who are at greater risk if infected (Iles & Parker, 2021). Certainly, there are many more worker subgroups facing new pressures during the pandemic. These and other situations have created immense pressures for workers that may be reflected in job performance. Thus, it is important to consider their impact on employee performance as well as subgroup differences that may result from some employee groups being disproportionately impacted.

Measurement Issues

Classic perspectives on imperfect performance measures recognize the impact of both contamination and deficiency (Murphy et al., 2019). More specifically, information that is unrelated to performance may influence the ratings that an employee receives (contamination), or performance ratings may fail to capture all relevant aspects of job performance (deficiency). Due to the pandemic and the shift to remote work, there are potential new problems that may arise with both contamination and deficiency. For example, managers may be more attuned to employee behaviors that were not previously defined as important aspects of performance (e.g., being on camera for meetings). Additionally, reduced opportunity to observe key behaviors may lead to performance judgments that fail to capture the key aspects of job performance or focus more on aspects of the job that used to be important but are no longer relevant. These issues could potentially lead to situations where managers automatically perceive in-office workers more favorably than remote workers. Both researchers and practitioners should focus their attention on the nuances of measurement issues due to the pandemic.

Contextual Performance

Citizenship behavior has been conceptualized in many different ways (Hanson & Borman, 2006), but most sources agree that it (a) is not formally required and (b) has a positive impact on the organization and/or its members. Williams and Anderson’s (1991) model delineates behaviors directed to individuals (OCB-I) and toward the organization (OCB-O), which are distinct from task performance. Within remote or hybrid roles, citizenship behavior may take different forms such as supporting coworkers with new technology, arranging virtual team-building meetings and other types of social support, or exerting extra effort to meet customer needs through different modalities. It is important to ask, though: To what extent are managers aware of such behavior, and do they have the opportunity to observe it?

At the same time, new challenges have emerged regarding forms of workplace deviance, or counterproductive behavior. Employees are facing new environmental stressors and uncertainties, which may in turn foster negative emotions and ultimately manifest themselves in counterproductive behavior (Fox et al., 2001).  Many organizations are seeing increased levels of employee stress and burnout, with some sectors such as the hospitality industry facing much higher emotional-labor burdens (e.g., Tunguz, 2021). For instance, adherence to safety precautions has created frustrations for employees (Smith, 2021), whereas other employees feel unsafe if coworkers or customers choose not to take the same precautions (e.g., Morgan, 2020). To further complicate the issue, increased stressors can vary across regions or times as infection rates climb. Such issues may result in increased levels of disengagement or other forms of counterproductive behavior, particularly in remote or hybrid environments.

Performance Management Motivation

There are powerful forces that impact the motivation of managers to provide feedback, and there are individual differences in the ability to provide feedback. For example, giving meaningful feedback is rarely rewarded in organizations, and the performance management process is frequently fraught with political motivations (Murphy & Cleveland, 1995). Moreover, some managers are more comfortable than others when it comes to giving feedback (Villanova et al., 1993), and some managers are more motivated than others to provide meaningful feedback (Speer et al., 2020). One could argue that motivation to provide feedback and manage the performance of remote employees might be even lower than what would be expected in a face-to-face environment. For example, managers may lack the motivation to provide feedback to employees whom they do not see on a regular basis or for whom they have had little opportunity to observe their day-to-day work behaviors. Additionally, researchers have postulated that consequences of ratings serve as an antecedent of raters’ motivation to provide accurate ratings and feedback (e.g., Decotiis & Petit, 1978; Harris, 1994). With employee satisfaction and retention being key concerns in the current labor market, what consequences may result from negative feedback and ratings? Are managers confident about the information they have available to make accurate judgments, especially in virtual environments? With many organizations currently not providing raises or bonuses contingent on ratings, does this reduce rater motivation? We recommend that researchers and practitioners investigate the effectiveness of simple mechanisms, or “nudges,” that might improve motivation, such as regular feedback meetings with all employees regardless of location or regular but brief reports sent by remote employees to their managers on their daily activities and progress.     

Giving and Receiving Feedback

Research suggests that job performance feedback should be frequent and timely for it to be effective (London, 2003). It is clear that the once-a-year performance review has many limitations from a developmental perspective. Every few years, a discussion emerges on whether performance appraisals should be eliminated due to their shortcomings, and a major point within this debate has centered on the need for more frequent but relevant feedback (e.g., Pulakos et al., 2015).

These issues will likely remain, or could even become more, important with the lack of role clarity within remote or hybrid roles. However, what is the optimal timing and method for feedback for a remote/hybrid workforce? Should the feedback be provided in writing, on a phone call, on a video call, or perhaps in person depending on the criticality of the feedback? Many sales teams operate remotely with employees on the road for extended periods, yet they convene in person regularly to maintain a sense of connection and purpose. Perhaps there is utility in gathering remote/hybrid employees together in person from time to time (with appropriate safety precautions) to share feedback and set goals for the future. From a manager’s perspective, the inability to observe daily performance makes it difficult to provide feedback on specific behaviors. From an employee perspective, a lack of regular in-person communication could impact the employee’s willingness to accept feedback, especially if it is negative.

The social context of performance management has been recognized for many years by scholars and practitioners, with a key focus on the feedback climate (Levy & Williams, 2004). A prominent area within this domain has been the feedback environment (Katz et al., 2021; Steelman et al., 2004). Coupled with the changing nature of work and many jobs shifting to remote or hybrid roles, considering the climate surrounding performance management is critical. However, with team members having fewer or different forms of interactions, how does a climate take form or change? Employees differ quite a bit in their propensity to seek feedback and their motives for doing so (Dahling et al., 2015), and such differences may be exacerbated in remote settings. As an example, an employee that has already formed a close working relationship with his or her supervisor may already have an ongoing dialog to seek informal feedback, but a remote newcomer in the organization may face greater obstacles in developing a relationship where he or she feels comfortable asking for feedback in the same way. Such differences may translate into actual performance differences or perhaps different performance judgments that are reflected in ratings.

Practical Recommendations and Avenues for Future Research

As we continue to navigate the many changes brought about by the pandemic, we must confront the fact that remote work may become a permanent reality for many organizations, perhaps much more so than previously imagined. As I-O psychologists, this presents us with a unique opportunity to reevaluate many of our preexisting conclusions regarding effective performance management, especially considering that the literature base is almost exclusively built around processes developed and examined in traditional face-to-face work environments. Given the literature and implications reviewed above, we offer the following practical recommendations for performance management systems and encourage additional research on each as relevant to a postpandemic world of remote/hybrid work.

  1. Flexibility and agility are key for the dynamic workforce of today. Goals and targets will undoubtedly change based on changing conditions in the work environment. Managers and employees will need to adjust expectations collaboratively, and managers should help to prepare employees to be able to handle a fluid and dynamic work environment. 
  2. Core HR functions like job analysis are essential tools to help ensure that relevant behaviors are captured within performance management systems. With the rapid shifts we have observed within many organizational roles, ensuring that job analysis information is up to date and accordingly reflected in performance appraisals is important.
  3. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that we are all human, and we bring our human lives with us to the workplace (whether at home, in the office, or somewhere in between) every day. The line between work and life has blurred even more, but work performance has always been dynamic and fluid. Managers should take this opportunity to talk with their employees about optimal work schedules, and managers should help employees to feel comfortable discussing life circumstances that may impact their work performance.
  4. Frequent feedback is critical to engage remote workers. Feedback should focus on goals and behaviors that have been developed collaboratively between the manager and the employee.
  5. The social context of performance management is critical to consider as we move forward. Utilizing appropriate technology and ensuring an open dialogue for feedback is at least as important now as it was before the pandemic—perhaps even more so because of the ambiguity and new demands placed on employees.

In closing, we would like to underscore that these are just a few key issues that are likely to impact performance management in the present and future due to the pandemic. Many more challenges are likely to emerge for practitioners, and at this point there are more questions than answers. Nonetheless, many lessons from the scholarly literature can inform decisions in the short term, and the new landscape also provides many new opportunities for partnerships with researchers to answer these (and other) questions facing organizations.

References

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