The US Office of Personnel Management offers guidance on making adjustments for the new work environment.
When telework became a more frequently used tool for federal agencies during the past decade, one of the most common conversations I had with frontline supervisors was about their concern of whether their employees were actually working when teleworking. I would always ask, "Well, how do you know if an employee is performing when they are in the office?" That simple question often opened the door for a broader discussion about how to better manage performance, regardless of where an employee may be working on a given day.
It is hard to imagine those conversations since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed federal agencies to maximum telework in March 2020. In fact, government-wide, everyday telework expanded from 3 percent to 59 percent during the pandemic, and 90 percent of federal employees eligible to telework did so in 2020. Many workers and supervisors now wonder whether they ever have to go back to the office to perform their jobs.
This dramatic increase in telework and remote work gave us in the federal government the opportunity to truly see how well we can manage and evaluate the employee performance in these types of work arrangements. Moreover, we gained insights into how agencies can improve performance management practices.
With the move to maximum telework, agencies also received funding to acquire the technology necessary to set up remote work. Agency-specific funding from the CARES Act enabled agencies to invest in collaboration tools, video teleconferencing, and hardware that facilitated telework. Prior to 2020, federal agencies had limited resources to invest in expanding telework, which inhibited the desire and ability to equip employees for it.
Additionally, existing telework rules concerning dependent care and maximum number of allowable telework days had to bend to make telecommuting work in the new social distancing and local lockdown environment. Essentially, the CARES Act funding as well as expanded use of telework rules addressed many of the real logistical concerns that compounded the cultural willingness, or lack thereof, to allow telework. Because the federal government's operating status remained "open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to the direction of agency heads," for more than 20 months, we had ample time to learn how to improve performance management practices.
What we found, from a policy, technology, training, and accountability perspective, is that best practices for effectively managing performance remain true in any work environment. However, agencies must apply these lessons to be effective.
Review and update agency policy
A common comment I hear from federal supervisors is that their agency says they cannot change their performance management policy. Let me bust a big myth here for anyone who has been in the federal government for more than a year: Agencies can change their performance management program policy.
The truth is that an agency's performance management policy is not set in stone. There are vast flexibilities within 5 CFR Part 430 to build a performance management program and process that is relevant and meets an agency's needs. With the rapid changes in technology and work environments, agencies should regularly review and update performance management to reflect the work employees perform and their associated performance.
With the nearly overnight move to maximum telework in March 2020, work processes and prior performance expectations immediately shifted. For example, expectations on what is quality customer service changed when providing customer service switched from an in-person to a completely virtual activity. Customer service is a common performance element that agencies use in performance appraisals. At a minimum, expectations, benchmarks, and standards for that element should reflect the new work environment.
Changing agency policy around a core process such as performance management does take effort, but it's effort that can pay dividends, especially as work environments change. Agencies can update their policies, which can mean better performance appraisal plans for workers and management. Some of the flexibilities the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is seeing agencies consider and make wholesale changes to are the policies that govern their performance management process. Here are some examples.
Revisit summary rating patterns so they make sense for the services for which the agency is responsible for providing. For one agency, a three-level pattern works better than a five-level pattern. Most agencies have approved performance management systems for multiple rating patterns, meaning they can change the pattern an appraisal program uses without needing OPM to reapprove its appraisal system.
Create simpler rating derivation formulas that bring transparency to the overall summary rating. Weighting performance elements is a tool for demonstrating the relative importance of each performance element, and using a simple rating calculation can reinforce its importance without requiring supervisors and employees to use a calculator.
Create core critical performance elements for all employees that build a cohesive performance culture for the agency. For example, they could be standard performance elements in customer service; teamwork; and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
Write performance standards at more than just the "fully successful" level. Defining performance at the "outstanding" and "minimally successful" levels helps supervisors set expectations and rate employees, and workers understand those expectations and ratings. Similarly, some agencies have required supervisors to provide a rating narrative for each critical performance element. The practice further helps supervisors justify ratings and enables workers to understand ratings.
Add a requirement to have more than one formal performance appraisal discussion. OPM highly recommends agencies move to quarterly performance check-ins to improve the monitoring of the performance management process. Some agencies have moved further to instituting monthly performance check-ins.
Embed in the performance management policy that the agency must review its policy and plans every two years. Doing so helps ensure the policy remains relevant and aligns with the agency's performance needs.
Establish quality control processes for developing performance plans. At a minimum, OPM strongly encourages frontline employees to be engaged in the plan development process. One agency has instituted a process for more than one person to review and provide feedback on the quality and validity of any given performance appraisal's elements and standards.
In each of those changes, the agencies saw increases in transparency and employee understanding of the performance management processes, regardless of the work environment. That was true whether it was a complete program overhaul or one or two major program improvements. Tackling performance management as an organization will result in better outcomes in the processes and increased satisfaction from employees.
When I became a remote worker for OPM in 2006, a printer with scanning and faxing capabilities was a standard part of the technology package that enabled me to work from home. At the time, the government work environment was form and paper driven. Until 2016, each of the signature phases of the performance management process required someone to print, sign, and scan my actual performance plan. By the end of the rating period, my original signature, as well as my supervisor's, was so faint you could hardly determine the date of signature.
Today, the automated system, USA Performance, streamlines the process and dramatically increases transparency and accountability. In 2020 and 2021, agencies seamlessly executed tens of thousands of federal workers' performance plans in a completely virtual environment through the system.
The promise and result of technology to automate performance management enables organizations to track whether supervisors are truly engaging in the best practice of regularly providing their employees performance feedback. It likewise helps ensure that workers have the correct plans and that rating calculations are accurate. Supervisors and employees can easily access the performance plan and make updates to reflect real-time performance or changes to expectations.
The system enables individual performance to be quantifiably linked to organizational performance to demonstrate directly how individual efforts contribute to agency mission outcomes. Put simply: Technology creates a more efficient process. Moreover, OPM has a growing source of data for understanding federal performance management. USA Performance has the potential to provide government-wide data for evaluating trends in performance management and helping to set policy.
Automation improves employees' perceptions of the performance culture. Specifically, two agencies that use USA Performance have seen dramatic increases in Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores during the past several years.
One midsize agency saw the largest increase in perceptions around the feedback process, the frequency of discussions (+5), the worthwhileness of those discussions (+6), and the constructive nature of the feedback (+7). And a small agency saw even higher increases with a tremendous jump (+17) in the number of workers who agree the supervisor has had a discussion with them about their performance in the past six months. Likewise, the agency had a big jump (+14) in employees agreeing they understood what they had to do to be rated at different performance levels.
Ensure supervisors receive appropriate training
The federal government cannot expect supervisors to give better feedback or set better performance standards and expectations if they are not equipped with the tools and understanding to do so. Unfortunately, training budgets are among the first to get cut when funding is reduced. However, when supervisors receive training, that has an impact on the workforce and the organization's ability to perform. With hybrid and virtual work, OPM has found the most important supervisor performance management training topics are:
How to provide performance feedback. Whether a manager is sitting across the table from an employee or communicating with them via videoconferencing, how to communicate expectations and performance feedback is critical. Simply encouraging supervisors to draft specific talking points and providing them with tips for conducting performance feedback sessions helps improve the quality of feedback.
How to write better performance standards. Measurable, results-focused performance standards give workers expectations for the year and can ease rating decisions and rating discussions for supervisors.
How to understand the difference between conduct and performance issues. Supervisors need the knowledge to discern whether an employee issue is rooted in misconduct or poor performance and the ability to take appropriate action based on the behavior or lack of performance. Providing agency trends, examples, or benchmarks of performance and conduct actions can give greater context and understanding for supervisors.
Do not just stop at the frontline supervisor level when it comes to performance management training. Require senior leadership and management at all levels of the organization to attend such training so the entire agency has a calibrated understanding and expectations.
Ensure accountability in supervisor performance plans
Good performance management starts from the top down, never from the bottom up. An organization's leadership, midlevel management, and supervisors all must embrace it. And sometimes for that to happen, all levels must be held accountable for it.
The single best way to ensure accountability is to have a mandatory critical element on all leadership performance plans. It does not need to be complicated. It need only be a clear element (or standard in a leading people element) that speaks to writing relevant, results-oriented performance standards and providing regular, meaningful feedback sessions with employees.
Numerous federal agencies have begun to do so in the past five years, and the result has been a steady increase in positive perceptions from employees on performance management, as measured by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. That practice will continue to benefit agencies as employees at all levels engage in hybrid and remote work.
Value and effectiveness
During the pandemic, the federal government has learned a lot about managing employee performance. The move to maximum telework for a large percentage of the workforce enabled us to see the effectiveness of current practices and home in on the ones that make the most difference. There is more empirical, data-driven analysis to do, but we can begin to evaluate effectiveness in the trends we see today.
I cannot imagine a supervisor again telling me that they would not know what their employee is doing while working from home. Fortunately, many of the practices in place and the technology now available to agencies mean we can move with confidence into a hybrid work environment as the pandemic fades.