There is an old expression: Man Plans, God Laughs. COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the true meaning of unpredictability. While some public health experts tried to warn us, most of us did not see this coming and despite our best efforts do not really know where this is going, at least for now. One area which is directly impacted is performance management.

Frustration with the traditional approach to performance management has been percolating through companies now for several years. Our general reticence to change often keeps us pursuing a course of action well past its true utility.  Now that we have been given a pretty good jolt from our everyday reality, it is a good time to take a step back and ask: how should we value performance through both the predictable life in the office and now the uncharted world of virtual work?

There is an underlying arrogance in the design of classic approaches to performance management that presumes we can articulate a structure of cascading objectives across the corporation linking everyone. Invariably, shortly into the performance year, these objectives must be tweaked and adjusted, and in many instances, ultimately set aside as the business encounters unanticipated challenges and opportunities. 

It is the Birches Group’s view that the weakness of traditional performance management is it has always missed a fundamental truth: It is not possible to have objectives detached from the purpose of the job. With a focus on purpose, the achievements in a job become readily apparent. I may not know what will happen next, certainly very true today, but I do know the purpose of my job, and with that knowledge I should be able to perform and support the broader activities of my unit and my company. It is as simple as that.

Work planning has its value but only against clearly understood purpose.  When inevitable bumps in the road are encountered, focusing on the purpose of the job is the compass that can steer us ahead. Take the case of the HR Director who every year has a different tactical mandate and different projects to oversee. The purpose of the job of the Director is to lead the function in securing talent to the organization’s mission and to safeguard the integrity of human resource management. This focus, this purpose, remains constant.

By focusing on purpose, issues related to how and where I work begin to fade in importance. This is true for jobs across all levels and especially important for ensuring coordination within a team and integration across teams. 

Another fundamental weakness in the more conventional approaches to examining performance is poorly articulated job design. Job descriptions start as little more than blank pieces of paper and managers, with little or no guidance, are asked to set down the reason a job exists. The results are usually vague, focused on inputs rather than outputs, and do not provide a transcending view across the unit let alone the company. The fact is, most managers and staff cannot articulate what distinguishes a job at one level from another. Is there any wonder why managers struggle to assess performance consistently, let alone have a clear understanding of purpose?

In our Community™ approach, we have tried to clearly highlight the milestones of purpose across all levels found in an organization. This framework not only provides a clear foundation for establishing equivalent worth across a multi-disciplinary workforce, it also answers, as applied to a work context, the most important of all questions: Why am I here?

The COVID-19 challenge provides a true moment for reflection. We would like to believe that in a few short weeks, maybe a month or two, we will get back to the way things were.  If so, we would have missed out on a watershed moment in how we approach work and the organization of teams, and how organizations can move from what are essentially workplace and workforce practices from the last century.  Instead, we should all be focusing on how we will continue operating in a new reality, leveraging the benefits of virtual work in place of our historical habits.

The pressure to enable virtual work forces us to be clear about purpose, to free our teams from classic command structures. It forces us to become better at communications since our teams will no longer just be sitting outside our door.  And yes, it forces us to focus on outcomes over inputs since work can no longer be defined as time spent in a particular place. 

Without a crystal ball, at Birches Group, we have been preparing for the world of virtual work for some time. In fact, we had a very robust work from home policy in place covering almost all staff when the impact of the virus began.  When we decided very early on in the crisis to go fully virtual, there were few hurdles to overcome. That is not to say there hasn’t been some nervousness over what the future may hold, but this nervousness has much less to do with our ability to deliver our services but rather, whether our clients will be able to adapt to these challenges. In future blog posts we will share our understanding about this new virtual world in which we all now find ourselves. It does demand above all else a change in mindset about what we understand as value in the workplace.  The challenge we face is great, but the opportunity is even greater.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world