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Mark Seemann



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Linking learning with performance and culture in a remote workforce

Now is not the time to neglect learning – it’s more important than ever before.

At the beginning of this year the vast majority of businesses were still reliant on face-to-face interaction to optimise employee experience, establish and reinforce corporate values and motivate and incentivise staff. From recruitment to onboarding, learning to performance management, most touchpoints across the employee lifecycle were based on managers and staff being in the workplace together. In many cases, processes were still entirely paper-based.

In response to the pandemic, business leaders have made huge strides in delivering the digital transformation that businesses have needed to accelerate in order to meet customer needs and maintain their operations. This has been the difference between survival and extinction.

The annual review still has its place (whether that’s in person or remote), but staff become far more engaged when they are getting real-time feedback and support.

As we head into what the prime minister has said will be a very tough winter, however, employers need to implement digital processes and platforms that can help to ensure their staff feel engaged, supported and motivated over the coming months. Crucial to this is ensuring that learning is not put on hold during this time – it needs to become and remain a critical element of their culture.

Digitising culture and performance

The last seven months have seen a huge surge in organisations adopting online communications platforms such as Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams to facilitate working from home and enable contact and collaboration between their teams. With so much ongoing change and uncertainty in our lives, both inside and outside of work, these platforms have provided consistency and continuity to users, and therefore become familiar and reassuring.

Despite this, what many business and HR leaders are now recognising that these platforms on their own are simply not enough. Levels of engagement are slipping and performance management is being overlooked. Speaking to business leaders, I’m hearing many of them express concern that their previously strong workforce cultures, founded on corporate values and competency frameworks are fading away.

A survey that we recently conducted amongst UK employees found that only half have had any form of performance review since the beginning of lockdown – that means millions of people haven’t had an opportunity to discuss their own performance and development with their manager over the last seven months, during what will have been the most challenging period of most people’s careers.

Linked to this, our research found that 47% of people reported that their employer still uses paper-based processes for performance management. Businesses know that they urgently need to digitise their processes for employee engagement, performance and learning to reflect this new world of work.

As they do so, however, they should look to ensure they take an integrated, holistic approach, linking learning and performance to their corporate values and behaviours. This is absolutely critical to maintaining culture and engagement amongst workers who are operating remotely, growing numbers of whom may never have even met their colleagues in person before.

Performance management and learning in the flow of work

For some time, there has been a shift within L&D towards more micro learning, with people learning new skills and competencies on demand, to carry out the work that they have in front of them. This has largely been delivered online through LXP or LMS platforms.

I believe this same approach should be applied to performance management, particularly when managers and employees are working remotely and relying on digital channels. Rather than basing performance management around an annual appraisal, performance management needs to become more bite-size and frequent, with continual feedback loops and constant tracking.

Most importantly – and particularly so at the moment – there needs to be opportunities for managers to praise, reward and incentivise members of their team in real time, through virtual pats on the back or thumbs up. It is these small things that make a massive difference to levels of personal engagement and productivity. These marginal gains combine to drive organisational performance and bottom-line growth.

The annual review still has its place (whether that’s in person or remote), but staff become far more engaged when they are getting real-time feedback and support, rather than storing everything up for a one-hour conversation ever year, by which time a lot of things are forgotten or not covered.

Where this approach to performance management becomes really powerful is when it is then linked to learning and development, so staff are getting regular feedback on performance and are then able to get immediate and relevant training and develop new skills in response.  

Crucially, when performance management and learning are joined up, employees are more likely to address learning needs focused on the softer skills and behavioural competencies such as leadership and problem solving, which are so needed by businesses, particularly at the moment.

In this way, continuous performance management and learning programmes are largely decentralised – the L&D or HR department creates the platforms and sets out the parameters for learning through digital channels, and then the individual employee and line manager is empowered to develop development plans, set objectives and build learning journeys which are most appropriate to the individuals’ needs, interests and aspirations.

Importantly, everything is ultimately pointed towards and linked to cultural pillars of values and behaviours.

Culture must start at the top

In order for such a culture of learning and continuous feedback to be embedded in the mindset of the workforce, it must be defined and promoted at the executive level. Senior leaders must continually highlight and reward top learners and position learning as a core element of organisational strategy.

Returning to the idea of the digital platform as the one constant within the remote employee experience during a period of dramatic turbulence, business leaders should look to ensure that performance management, learning and engagement is delivered through clear and consistent communications through channels with which employees are most familiar and comfortable.

Ultimately, by connecting performance management and learning, and making both constant and important elements of the employee lifecycle, employers will maintain and enhance culture and improve business performance and productivity, whether their staff are in the office or at home.

Interested in this topic? Read Rebuilding your learning strategy in uncertain times.

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