Forget the demeaning tug-of-war over toilet rolls. When the tragedy of Coronavirus passes it will be the loss of good people and memories of the 8:00 pm clapping sessions for NHS workers and carers in the UK that will echo long into the future. COVID-19 has reduced us to the essence of what it means to be human, and in the process we have rediscovered that we’re still good people; good family members, good colleagues, good neighbours and good associates.

As we try to hold the economy together while treating the sick and protecting the vulnerable, I think we are also discovering that we’re good organisations; good groups of people collaborating to get things done. As someone who works in performance management and employee engagement this strikes me as a timely realisation. For some time now forward-thinking businesses, government agencies and non-profits have been edging towards a new way of managing performance that recognises this ‘goodness’. Moving beyond bell curves, forced rankings and annual check-ins, these organisations have started to engage employees on the basis that they are valuable and, as a consequence, valued.

Many of us have long suspected that something is amiss with performance management processes that draw conclusions from scant data and make judgements based on sporadic and occasional human interaction. Perhaps this could be overlooked if the results were there to justify the means. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. Such approaches often end up demoralising rather than inspiring; inciting defensiveness rather than encouraging growth; and leading to turnover rather than retention.

Now, with the rethink of values accompanying our grappling with COVID-19, we believe there is even more impetus for change and more need than ever before for a paradigm shift in performance management.

The Case for Change

It is widely recognised that a performance management approach based on half-yearly assessments, bell curves and forced rankings no longer gels with the times. This approach is not only more biased and opinion-based than it recognises, it is ironically also a soft touch. Far from its reputation of being ‘tough but fair’, by engaging employees only periodically this method disengages for most of the year, resulting in an impoverished and unreliable data set.

To be sure, some organisations have had a measure of success with traditional performance management approaches. However, such programs are famed for launching with good intentions only to succumb to the allure of check-boxing and opinion. Consequently, employees have been pushed away at a time when it is increasingly expensive to attract and retain talent.

The good news amidst the gloom is that the underlying logic of performance management has never been clearer. Combine this with a compelling case for change and idle time due to the current economic downturn, and the moment is right for implementing a new approach to performance management. To press the case further, here are five reasons for implementing a new performance management program right now:

1. Impact

The basic need for performance management has never been in question given that people are the beating heart of organisations. However, research has now shown that “…when managers provide meaningful feedback to employees, those employees are 3.5x more likely to be engaged”. We live in an economy which encourages career change and a society that values proactive self-development; in this context, performance can only be seriously managed through engagement and responsive relationships with employees.

2. Cost

The basic principles of good financial management are unlikely to change anytime soon. Investment in performance management needs a return, and this means the process needs to be reasonable, effective and productive. Again, this can only be achieved through responsive engagement.

3. Relevance

The lag between the ‘doing’ of performance management and the receiving of performance management signals is critical. Not only does outdated information result in irrelevant and ineffective action, but in the worst cases it can result in destructive action. Furthermore, responses to outdated information signal a lack of care and interest — the last message an organisation wants to send to its human capital.

4. Due Process

Little good can come from performance management that is carried out haphazardly or without due care, regardless of good intentions. We have all heard horror stories of infuriatingly unfair or comically irrational assessments and evaluations. Getting performance management wrong can be thoroughly destabilising and disengaging, undermining the very thing it was intended to improve. Add the time lag mentioned above to this problem, and workplace carnage can take place before anyone even notices it.

5. Due Care

Beyond getting the process right, there is now an imperative to do more than conduct remote surveys or touch base with employees periodically. We are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that mental health and employee wellbeing have on employee performance and the bottom line. To reiterate the numbers, 1 in 5 employees in the US suffer from mental health issues, with this number rising to 1 in 4 in the UK. These are staggering statistics, the reality of which is only now starting to dawn on HR departments.

Fortunately, ‘wellbeing’ has grown into a social catchcry, and major initiatives have arisen to help address mental health problems. In the UK, for example, MIND conducts major wellbeing surveys, as does the mental health charity Heads Together, run by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Similar bodies can now be found across the world, some led by famous benefactors and others driven by grassroots support.

The more we know about mental wellbeing the more we realise it affects us all, whether through our own struggles — episodic or ongoing — or through the difficulties of family, friends and colleagues. Performance management that does not take this human reality into account is unrealistic and untenable. It is also increasingly being viewed as unethical. Beyond these human and moral imperatives, the legal implications of neglecting employee mental health and wellbeing are growing by the day.

What Does Serious Engagement Look Like?

Our research has shown that performance management has an overwhelming need for what we call ‘intelligent conversations’. These conversations are not just about performance; they are also about how engaged someone is and how they are feeling about themselves and their lives generally. The challenge is to get to know employees far better than we have in the past without imposing on their privacy.

We believe this can be done through the smart use of performance management software. In our own model, we consider employees from three different perspectives: performance, engagement and wellbeing. We believe that a consideration of these three areas enables organisations to have intelligent conversations with their employees, placing employee signals into context where they can then be interpreted intelligently.

By breaking down the barriers that accompany traditional performance appraisal processes, we can create workplaces based on understanding, engagement and wellbeing. This not only makes for a more pleasant and productive work environment, but it encourages the sharing of better information, the very thing that performance managers need in order to carry out their roles fairly, professionally and effectively.

Performance Management in Practice

It is unrealistic to expect people to be other than human at work. Relationships at work and their attendant feelings and emotions should be considered, documented and discussed. These signals should then be aligned with the performance expectations of the individual employee. With the right data embedded in the right relationship an organisation can then help employees meet their own expectations, resulting in a far more enjoyable, fulfilling and thriving workplace.

This goes well beyond what some people disparage as the ‘touchy-feely’ side of HR. On the contrary; emotional signals are hard data, and this data constitutes a far more rational basis for performance management than canned information collected remotely once or twice a year.

A Call to Action

As co-founders of Yoomiapp, Claire and I have researched performance, engagement, wellbeing, neuroscience, software and user experience. Add that to a combined four-plus decades of front-line HR experience and countless hours of conversation with HR thought leaders, and the conclusion we have reached is this: performance management is broken, and it can only be fixed through intelligent, contextual, informed and conscious conversations.

There is nothing good about Coronavirus and its impact. The loss of life and economic damage has been monumental, and we still don’t know how much longer the present situation will endure. But we can try to make good of this downtime by implementing serious change in our organisations in preparation for better days ahead. Transformation implemented today is likely to prove one of the best ways of recouping losses as we move beyond the crisis.

Performance management offers enormous scope for organisational gains, and we would encourage you to leverage these insights to your advantage by visiting the Yoomiapp stand on HR Tech 247.

This post was written by Prue Armstrong and Claire Owen, Co-founders of Yoomiapp, an exhibitor on the HRTech247 Employee Engagement floor.