How can HR remotely manage… underperforming employees?

People Management’s series looks at the implications of many employers now having to conduct all people processes remotely in the wake of coronavirus

As part of strict new measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus, including a ban on public gatherings of more than two people, prime minister Boris Johnson has said workers should only leave the house to travel to and from work where "absolutely necessary", meaning that even greater swathes of the British workforce will now be working from home.

Such widespread home working has raised tricky questions for some businesses though, around managing underperforming staff and potential cases of workers using this as an opportunity to put in fewer hours or less effort (without the justification of childcare or other caring responsibilities in the wake of school and nursery closures).

Andrew Macmillan, head of employment at Boyce Hatton Solicitors, said that while most employees were hard working and conscientious, spotting the “rotten apples” can be difficult  in remote working environments.

“It is pretty easy to establish which are the bad apples when you can see or smell them, but not quite so easy when you can’t,” said Macmillan. “It isn’t always easy to know if someone is slacking or not when they are working alone and/or remotely.”

Sensible monitoring

Jayne Dunn, director of HR services at Guardian Business Services, said if an employee is taking liberties with social media and doing things they shouldn’t during the working day, then HR and management were “well within their right” to consider taking it further. “But in all reality are employers going to want to consider investigations and disciplinaries when all this is going on?” she added. 

Macmillan said some “sensible monitoring” can usually give a reliable indication of whether an employee is slacking off. “For example, email traffic, number of phone calls and financial performance or output are general indicators,” he said. 

“We are aware of at least one large national human resources consultancy that has been keen, historically, to engage private investigators to monitor the activities of their remote workers,” he added. “It is certainly one approach open to employers.”

Put the onus on output

Lizzie Benton, founder of Liberty Mind, said employers without the tools to track productivity, such as call logs and emails, can opt for a “sneaky way” to get workers to report in – one that dangles the reward of more extensive home working in future ‘non-crisis’ times if this period goes well. “Come at it from an angle that puts the onus back on the employee to improve their output,” said Benton. “Suggest that there may be a business case for remote working but it must show that people are productive at home, so the responsibility is back on them to improve.

“Organisations have to be realistic, and if they still want productivity and projects completed they’ve got to hand the reins over to employees to take responsibility. It has got to be a results-only working environment.”

Dunn said having reasonable timescales for people to produce a piece of work was essential. “If people aren’t adhering to that then have a conversation to find out why – is it the internet? Are you finding things difficult? Are you distracted at home? What can we do to help avoid it?” she said. 

Avoid heavy-handedness

All the experts People Management spoke to warned of the highly damaging impact a heavy-handed, distrustful approach from HR and managers could have on staff morale and engagement.

Indeed, on the same day of Johnson’s announcement that all staff should work from home where possible (Monday 16 March), The Sun exposed a Manchester-based nursery manager for texting staff to say the pandemic was not a chance “to take a week off work just because”. The boss at Nina’s Nursery in Offerton bemoaned the absence of two members of staff and threatened disciplinary action to those suspected of “not being genuine”. 

Matthew Phelan, head of global happiness at The Happiness Index, said managers should, in such unprecedented situations, place the onus on, and trust, employees to manage their workloads. If trust couldn’t be placed in employees to be honest and productive, then the issue rested with managers, he said.

“If you don't trust your team to work productively at home you shouldn’t have employed them in the first place,” said Phelan. “HR needs to question if the problem is with management, and if they have trust issues.”

Dunn echoed this sentiment, asking why the “problem hadn’t already been dealt with”. She suggested a supportive approach should be adopted towards the majority of employees:  “It's about having a conversation to ask what can be done to help and taking a supportive viewpoint rather than an accusatory one. If managers go in hard and show they don’t trust their members of staff it's all off to a bad start.”

Check back online for more ‘How can HR remotely manage…?’ articles, exploring how to conduct onboarding, training and disciplinaries virtually during the coronavirus pandemic