In the world of business, the importance of improving employee performance is something that can’t be minimized. Without strong employee performance, organizations can’t hope to succeed in the ways they’d like or achieve all their goals – and that’s without factoring in the effect that employee performance has on engagement and retention rates.
But while we might all know that “employees are our most important asset”, most managers would probably agree that managing and improving employee performance isn’t always easy. And, in our digital world, when so many of us are now working remotely, things become even more challenging.
It’s also important to acknowledge that performance and productivity are two different things; you can have an employee who continually churns out decent work at a fast rate, but if they’re not engaged, they’ll still be underachieving. And on the flipside, if your most engaged employee isn’t also producing decent work, their performance will be subpar.
If you want to learn how to improve employee performance, it’s useful to know off the bat that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – and there usually isn’t a single quick-fix, either.
Instead, improving employee performance requires strategy and structure, and often, long-term support and commitment.
Dealing with employee underperformance
Before we look at different strategies to improve individual employee performance, it’s helpful to examine what actually causes underperformance – and what some of the most common signs of performance decline look like.
There are many different reasons why an employee may be underperforming, and it’s certainly not always the case that it's down to simple laziness or boredom; during the pandemic and lockdowns, for example, more employees than ever reported feeling stressed or burned out, or struggled to adapt to working from home, all of which had a palpable effect on performance.
With so many employees still working remotely, underperformance is an issue that can arise slowly and silently – but its impact can soon be felt through the whole company. And, if the issue isn’t addressed quickly, it can have a harmful effect on both profit and morale.
Below, let’s look at some of the most common reasons people might be underperforming:
Poor communication and lack of transparency
Cultural roadblocks like inefficient communication and lack of transparency are common causes of poor performance. Today’s workforce places a high value on workplace transparency, and this becomes even more vital for remote workers, who expect to be updated and kept in the loop by management, regardless of where they’re working.
If employees don’t believe they’re receiving effective communication – whether it’s about the nature of their job, company updates or their own personal development – they may begin to disengage.
Inefficient tools and processes
If tools and processes are inefficient, it can have a serious impact on an employee’s ability to get their work done to a high standard. No matter how dedicated or passionate an employee may be, if they don’t have the right tools, if they haven’t been trained properly, or if general work processes are ineffective, they won’t be able to perform at their peak.
These issues can have a knock-on effect on morale; taking time to train up employees and provide them with the right tools and resources goes a long way to showing them that they’re valued – both as individuals and for the work they do.
Lack of autonomy
Multiple studies show that when employees are free to make their own choices about how they work, they’re more committed, productive and engaged. Not giving employees the autonomy to take ownership of their own work is a quick recipe for poor performance.
The importance of autonomy can’t be understated when it comes to performance; most workers are no longer motivated mainly by pay raises and monetary rewards, but by flexibility and autonomy.
Stress and unrealistic workloads
Stress and burnout rocketed during the pandemic, but just because the worst days of COVID are (hopefully) behind us, that doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. The world of work has changed forever, and remote working is here to stay.
But not everyone is suited to this way of working, and with the barriers between work and home becoming increasingly blurred, stress and burnout remain at an all-time high. When employees are stressed, anxious, or struggling with their workload, their ability to work at their best will be compromised.
Signs of an underperforming employee
So how can we make sure we recognize underperformance when we see it? What are some of the signs of an underperforming employee?
- Increased absenteeism or regularly being late. If employee absenteeism starts to increase it’s a good indication that someone is finding it difficult to commit to their work, they’re struggling with something, or they simply don’t want to be there.
- Low motivation and energy. Employees who are underperforming lack the motivation, energy and enthusiasm to push themselves and work at their peak. They struggle to stay focused and feel disengaged and detached.
- The quality of work drops. Mistakes happen – but making repeated mistakes is a sign of carelessness, and an indication that an employee has checked out and isn’t committed. A decline in the quality of work suggests an employee is merely going through the motions.
- Drop in productivity. If targets or objectives are no longer being met, or deadlines are being missed, it’s a good sign that an employee is disengaged and underperforming. A drop in productivity can suggest that an employee is doing the bare minimum, and nothing more.
- Poor feedback from others. When employees underperform, their coworkers may start to complain. Because most people won’t complain right away, by the time coworkers start to give adverse feedback, it’s usually become an issue. An employee might become rude to their colleagues, react disproportionately, communicate poorly, or habitually miss deadlines.
Ideas to improve employee performance
Now we’re clued up on what underperformance actually looks like and what causes it, we can now look at how to actually improve employee performance. What are some of the most effective strategies to improve employee performance?
1. Set performance KPIs
Perhaps the first thing that should be addressed is the importance of setting performance KPIs – because without KPIs you can’t properly assess individual team member’s performances. While KPIs shouldn’t be used in isolation to assess performance, they work well as high-level markers to indicate overall productivity, and make it easier for managers to identify and address potential problems.
It’s important to know which are the best performance KPIs to track. Generally speaking, the best universal KPIs include revenue per employee, profit per employee, utilization rate, average task completion rate, overtime per employee, and employee capacity. For accurate measurement, you can use automatic time trackers like Timely to work out these KPIs.
To find out more, have a read of our earlier post on employee performance KPIs.
2. Invest in training and development
Some of the most effective ways of improving employee performance aren’t quick fixes, but require playing the long game. Investing in training your employees and developing their skills isn’t just a way to improve their performance and help them work to a higher quality, it’s also a way to foster loyalty to your organization as a whole, which can boost both retention and engagement.
Take time to implement robust training programs that will help your employees develop their skills and understand the intricacies of their role; then, once they’ve expanded their skillset, ensure they get the chance to actually apply what they’ve learned to their job.
It’s helpful to take an individual approach here, and remember that what counts as development will vary from employee to employee. Where people are in their careers can play a big part in shaping what they want, too; a junior employee may want to gain the experience necessary to be considered for a promotion, for example, while a more senior employee may be seeking a new challenge.
3. Set and measure goals
It’s much easier for employees to stay focused and engaged if they have clear goals set out for them. If expectations or objectives are unclear or unrealistic, employees won’t know how they can achieve these goals, let alone exceed them. Make sure employees are clear about exactly what’s expected of them, why each particular goal is so important, and how these ladder up to wider company objectives.
Keep goals as clearly defined as you can, and where possible, make them “SMART” goals – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Each time you give an employee a new task and goal, ask yourself if it fits these requirements.
Not only does this help employees stay goal focused, it also makes it easier to measure their ability to achieve these goals – which allows you to provide support when necessary.
4. Improve internal communication
It’s no secret that effective communication is one of the key ingredients of productivity. If employees can’t communicate openly and honestly with their managers, it’s hard to build trust, and all-too-easy for misunderstandings to occur. Managers should schedule regular check-ins with employees to ensure they feel seen, valued, and clued up.
However, it’s important not to make the mistake of thinking that improved communication means more communication. One McKinsey study found that emails take up almost 28% of an employee’s time, so if you want to improve performance, sending more emails is definitely not the answer.
Instead, turn to asynchronous communication to ensure employees are kept in the loop. Make sure managers are clear about standard communication guidelines for their teams, and employees are aware of different communication preferences for specific times or situations.
5. Encourage feedback
Feedback is essential for improving employee performance. Studies show that feedback is hugely important for millennials (who make up over half the workforce), and without it, employees can’t know where they’re excelling or where they need to improve. They also can’t understand the full effect they’re having on their organization, or how far they’re accomplishing their objectives.
But feedback has to go both ways, and employees should be encouraged to provide feedback about any inefficient workflows, processes, or tasks. Try to remove the stigma of feedback by asking for it openly and publicly; ask how you can better support your employees, and what things you can do to help them succeed.
By asking for direct, constructive feedback, you’re not only becoming aware of immediate ways you can help improve employee performance, you’re also building a culture of feedback that will allow for continued development over time.
6. Make meetings more productive
Meetings can be great ways to enable creative collaboration and get people feeling inspired. They can also be wildly unproductive, frustrating and unnecessary! Meetings take up 15% of a company’s collective time, which has a direct impact on individual employee performance – and though we may have thought the move to remote would have reduced meeting times, we now know that’s not true.
But before you look at changing your meeting culture, it’s helpful to examine just why meetings can be so harmful to performance and productivity. Being pulled into unnecessary meetings is a quick way for employees to disengage, for their focus to fragment, and for additional admin or hidden tasks to make their way onto their to-do list.
Rather than trying to eradicate meetings altogether, a better strategy to improve employee performance is simply to make meetings more productive. There are several ways you can instantly make meetings more effective, from setting a clear agenda to automating minute taking.
7. Use automation and AI
In this day and age, one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve employee performance is to use automation and AI. Automating those annoying yet necessary low-value tasks frees up more time for employees to focus on valuable work, and can have a surprisingly powerful effect on performance.
When employees no longer have to spend time on the mundane, boring tasks they resent, they’ll experience increased work satisfaction and happiness – which numerous studies suggest is vital for achieving peak performance.
More indirectly, AI tools can also be used to analyze the keywords and emojis sent on Slack, in order to assess the level of employee engagement and happiness. AI programs can also be used to recognize issues with morale, and provide managers with suggestions for improving employee satisfaction and performance.
Recommended reading: How AI is increasing employee productivity
8. Offer flexibility
We mentioned earlier that lack of autonomy is one of the most common causes of employee underperformance. There are many different ways in which employees want to feel autonomous, but one of the most crucial is feeling as though they have room to be flexible.
The incoming workforce don’t see flexibility as a perk, but a basic policy, and one of the simplest strategies to improve employee performance is to offer flexibility. This doesn’t mean you have to give all employees full flexibility to work (or not work) whenever they want, but it does mean giving them space to shape their own schedules and ways of working. It also means never trying to micromanage.
But offering flexibility isn’t as simple as relaxing working hours; it also requires changes to the ways an organization thinks and works. Introducing a flexible policy isn’t only about creating flexible rules, it’s about understanding that every employee is an individual. What flexibility looks like can vary enormously from person to person – as can their reasons for wanting it.
9. Incentivize and recognize
And finally, perhaps the simplest strategies to improve employee performance are basic incentives and recognition. Employees want and deserve recognition when they succeed, so take time to acknowledge good work and let employees know that their efforts are seen and appreciated.
While incentives are often associated with monetary rewards or gifts, they don’t have to be material. Generally, feeling valued as an individual and knowing that their contributions are meaningful are more effective motivators for employees than money, and a simple “thank you” or “well done” can go a long way to boosting morale and improving performance.