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Tips for Handling an Underperforming Teleworker

by Keith Fentress / August 4, 2022

I have been a manager of teleworkers for over 30 years. As a gross generalization, here is what I have observed: 50% of the employees do just as well teleworking as they would in an office environment. 25% of the employees excel – something about the autonomy of telework and their ability to organize their time enables them to thrive while teleworking. The remaining 25% struggle with the freedom and lack of structure inherent in telework. This blog is about how to approach the latter 25% percent.

When I think of underperforming teleworkers, one particular employee comes to mind. He was not producing at an acceptable level and he was not responding to emails and calls in a timely manner. I called him to discuss his performance, and he indicated that he was doing the work and would try to speed up his production and communicate more. We set a date for a follow-up discussion two weeks later.

The week after our conversation, I saw an improvement – he was more responsive, and his work pace quickened. But by week two, the pace slowed, and he started back into the same lackluster patterns. When the time for our follow-up discussion arrived, I shared my observations with him. He then admitted that he had a lot of home repairs that had been distracting him, and that he had been working on his graduate degree during work hours.

It became clear that the situation was not going to work, so I decided to let him go. He thanked me for the opportunity to work from home and said, “If I saved a dime for every time I told myself I wanted to work from home, I would not have to work at all. But working from home is actually more difficult than I imagined.”

This conversation occurred in 1999. The advancement of technology and the COVID pandemic have made telework more prevalent nowadays, and even mandatory in many cases. But based on my observations, the same generalization applies – approximately 25% of teleworkers struggle to focus and to meet their respective work goals.

Signs of a Struggling Teleworker

Here are some of the observations I have had over the past three decades regarding teleworkers who struggle to make the home office work. Struggling teleworkers may exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Not responsive to calls, emails, instant messages, and other forms of communication
  • Not present at their computers as indicated by apps like Slack, which has an indicator to show whether someone is engaging in the app
  • Work assignments that are late
  • Work pace that is slow compared to others
  • Work that lacks quality in terms of level of effort or attention to detail
  • Time-tracking hours that do not align with work output
  • Tendency to “fly under the radar” with respect to work – not as communicative as others
  • Rarely volunteering their time to support others
  • Not fully engaged in videoconferences – do not contribute much to meetings, only speak when asked direct questions, and frequently look distracted while on screen (or keep their cameras off)
  • Videoconferences and calls frequently interrupted by roommates, family members, pets, and/or children, indicating that they may not have a productive work environment

While there are certainly times when employees have to attend to interruptions or personal emergencies, these should be the exception rather than the rule. I look for patterns that indicate ongoing time management concerns or underperformance issues.

Other Factors Affecting Performance

Before taking action, it is important to consider whether there are systemic organizational issues that could be contributing to the problems. For example, a lackadaisical management process could contribute to an employee flying under radar for months or years. Such a structure may also affect the culture of the organization – not only with employees not performing satisfactorily, but the ripple effect of decreased morale when other employees notice that someone is not pulling their weight.

I recently spoke with someone who teleworks as part of a large firm. She indicated that she is at her desk all day but does not have enough work to keep her busy. She often fills her day with research and small assignments that come her way. But, overall, she just feels forgotten. She said, “I wish my manager would create some structure and let me know what is expected of me and what my deadlines are.”

So, before you assume that the problem lies squarely on the employee’s shoulders, consider whether there is a breakdown within the organizational structure itself, or within the systems that are in place. It may be that there is some tweaking needed by both the employee AND the organization.

Addressing the Performance Concerns

Once you are sure that there is a pattern of unacceptable performance and that the organization is doing what can be done to communicate clearly and effectively, it is time to act. I offer the following suggestions as steps you can follow once you begin to notice performance issues with one of your remote workers.

Document the Concerns

As soon as you recognize a performance problem, start documentation immediately. The documentation will help clarify the performance issues, provide concrete examples, and support your decision in case termination must occur.

Ask Yourself Key Questions

Here are three questions I have learned to ask myself before I talk to a struggling teleworker about their performance:

  1. What are my direct observations about the employee that indicate that there is a concern with work performance?
  2. What do I want the employee to do to improve?
  3. How will I know that the employee’s performance has improved?

Answering these questions in advance helps me prepare for the conversation, and may help you as well. During the conversation itself, I always leave room for negotiation and compromise. But I find that considering these questions ahead of time helps me stay focused on the mission: providing the employee with the feedback needed to improve, or gathering enough information to conclude that employment should be terminated with fair cause.

Arrange a Meeting

If I have concerns about an employee’s performance, I will typically write an employee an instant message (this could also be done via email) and request to jump on a videoconference to discuss some observations about their work. I like to give employees a heads-up on the topic so that they are not caught off guard. We then set up a time to talk.

When the call takes place, it is important to remain professional and compassionate without beating around the bush. You could open with something like, “There are a few concerns I have about your work. I would like to discuss these issues and hear your perspective as well as any questions you may have.” Make sure to take the lead in the conversation so that you communicate your issues and observations. However, it is equally important to listen to the employee’s feedback and input. Be sure to take notes on key points from the discussion.

Unless the employee is argumentative, quits, or otherwise acts in an unprofessional manner, this first call is not likely to end in termination. The goal of the call is to state the issues, listen to the feedback, set clear and measurable expectations, and lay out a clear path forward.

It is important to keep an open mind throughout the conversation. There could be something going on in the employee’s personal life, or something about the remote work structure, that is having a negative impact on the employee’s performance. The employee may raise these issues during the discussion. For example, in a remote setting, employees may struggle with the lack of structure and regular communication. They may get easily distracted with things going on at home, or they may feel undervalued. Be sure to listen to what the employee says as it could be an opportunity to gain a better understanding and to help the employee become more aware of your expectations.

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Video Meeting to Discuss Employee Performance

Generate a Performance Improvement Plan

A Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) should be created to provide a struggling employee with the opportunity to improve. It is important that you, as the manager, develop the plan in coordination with the Human Resources (HR) Department. There are many templates available online, but here are some of the key elements of a PIP:

  • State the purpose of the plan, which is to define areas of performance-related concern, reiterate expectations, and provide the employee with the opportunity to improve.
  • Add notes from the initial meeting that highlight what was discussed, including your concerns and the employee’s feedback.
  • Define the goals that the employee should strive towards - for each goal, list the activities that the employee should take to achieve the goal, including a start and end date for each activity.
  • Identify the resources that the employee will have available to help them achieve the goals.
  • State your expectations for employee performance - i.e., what you expect the employee to accomplish and how you will know whether a goal has been completed.
  • Set up check-ins with the employee and document the accomplishments, or lack thereof, at each check-in. What goals are they working on? What activities have been completed? Is work being turned in on time and at an acceptable level of quality? Has the employee’s overall progress met with your expectations?
  • Set up a time to discuss progress at 30, 60, and 90 days.
  • Sign and date the plan (employee, manager, and HR representative).

It is important to be clear that you expect the employee to follow the improvement plan, and that failure to do so could result in further action, potentially termination. The plan does not preclude the employee from being terminated prior to 90 days if they are not meeting the expectations and goals. Also, the plan does not alter the at-will employment between the employee and the organization. Note also that the contents of the plan must be kept confidential. Finally, the employee should direct any questions to you as the manager.

If the employee is successful in completing the PIP, then you may be on your way to having a more committed and reliable team member. However, if the employee does not perform to expectations, it may be time for the final step.

Terminating an Employee

I find that terminating an employee is a stressful experience for both the employee and me. I understand that employees essentially fire themselves by not completing goals and meeting expectations. But I have felt a great deal of anxiety every time I have had to let someone go. I am envious of the ease other managers seem to have with firing underperforming employees – they really have the mindset that the organization comes first. As for me, I struggle with the human side – I’m terminating a person’s employment, and this is going to affect their life. We all hope this impact will be for the better – that they will find a job where they can flourish and where they will be happier. But, being fired is still a humiliating process, and it is not one I relish being a part of.

That said, when it comes time to do the deed, here is some advice:

  • Be clear and concise, but do not say, “You’re fired” (this is not The Apprentice). Try something like, “I am letting you go because you did not meet the goals and expectations in the Performance Improvement Plan.” You could also be more direct and say something along the lines of “I am terminating your employment effective [date] due to the ongoing performance concerns.” Try not to say something that is open-ended, such as “Are you happy here?” or “You should consider looking for a career transition.” This is passive-aggressive and is not clear as to whether you are asking them to leave or to consider other opportunities in your organization. Also, make sure you do not say anything that is insulting, such as “You are not a valuable employee” or “I no longer want you here.”
  • Be professional, but kind. Being fired is difficult and, though this person may have been a problem employee, you want to usher them out with dignity. Let them know whether they have any severance or similar benefits. Keep the meeting factual and brief – no one wants to be fired over an hour-long conversation.
  • Make sure your termination plans are legal by checking with HR or your organization’s attorney. There are many things to consider such as an employment contract, employee handbook requirements, etc. Make sure that the process cannot be viewed as some form of discrimination or a violation of rights. It is a good idea to have an HR person in the termination meeting as a witness in case there are any future accusations. In some organizations, the HR representative will conduct the termination meeting, and the manager is there to help provide context or to answer any questions.
  • Though it is best to conduct this final meeting in person, the reality of telework is that many of these meetings will take place over videoconference. It is important to make sure that the employee is in a quiet place where others cannot overhear, and that their internet connection is stable. If these two conditions do not exist, the meeting should be rescheduled or an in-person meeting should be arranged.
Moving Forward Without the Employee

Remote employees are part of our modern world, and it is to be expected that issues with underperforming employees will arise - just as they do in the traditional office arrangement. In the end, you want to be satisfied that you have done what’s right for the organization while giving the employee the opportunity to improve. If the employee is not able to meet expectations, you are doing everyone a favor by addressing the situation instead of allowing it to languish. The employee can be set free to find a position in which they can thrive, and the organization can be free to find the next rockstar. By following the process in a way that is above board, respectful, and within policy, you can do wonders for the morale of all employees, as well as for the success of your organization and even the employee walking out the door. Good luck!

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.