Welcome to the final part of this blog series. So far we have discussed manager self-care and being emotionally aware with employees. Now, let’s delve into managing performance expectations. On the face of it, this would appear to be the easiest of the three since it is what you are used to doing every day. But, as with all things COVID-19, what used to be straightforward is now more complex.

Allow me to state the obvious for a moment: Every employee is paid to do a job. That job has requirements that were outlined when the employee was hired, and performance is evaluated based on how well those duties are completed. If one cannot complete those duties, the employee is likely put on a performance improvement plan. Should that plan not lead to an improvement in job performance, the job is not a good fit.

Simple, right? Well, maybe not.

Managing Effectively During a Pandemic

Let me ask you this: Have you ever had a serious family problem or other unexpected stressors that led you to physically go to work but ultimately not get much done? Maybe you attended meetings, completed the most basic of tasks, but did not get much meaningful work completed. This is called presenteeism. The employee is physically present, but mentally absent. Maybe you have not done this more than one to two times in your career, but it has happened to us all, including those that work for us. Except now, during COVID-19, everyone has some element of personal distraction. The entire workforce (managers included) is balancing competing demands. Yet, the demands outlined in job descriptions remain unchanged. For many, they have become even more complex as the virus is changing how work is being done in ways that are more labor intensive. In short order, both work and personal lives have become more complex, at the same time.

For most of us, it is more critical than ever to get it right, get things done, and do it in a timely manner. As a manager, you are probably seeing many of your employees meet this challenge. Congratulations! These people are easy to manage. But what about those who are really struggling to get the work done? How do we address the performance issues in a way that also acknowledges the inherent difficulty of the current situation?

First, be clear that the expectation exists. If an employee needs to complete eight tasks per hour, and they are completing five, let it be known that the expectation has not changed. The key to this conversation is in the delivery. Consider the two examples below and think about which is more likely to be productive.

  • “Why are you not meeting the eight calls per hour standard? This has always been the goal and it has not changed. You need to do better.”
  • “I’ve noticed that you used to be hitting eight calls per hour, but recently have struggled to hit that goal. Many of us are struggling with the changes going on right now. I’m wondering if there is anything I can do to support you so that you can meet the eight calls per hour.”

What’s the Expectation?

Following this, ask what barriers exist in terms of the employee meeting the expectation. We need to understand what is getting in the way in order to help the employee make changes. Do they have four young kids at home and are struggling with interruptions? Is it that they are distracted by excessive worry about getting sick? Do they have an ill relative? All these things would have an understandable impact on work production. That is notto say these things excuse poor performance, but knowing about them allows for a conversation to take place about how to best achieve performance goals in the context of such issues. Having this conversation with the employee shows understanding of the challenges and that you are not solely focused on performance metrics. Creativity helps here. There may be things you would not normally consider, but now is not a normal time.

With employees who are struggling, focus on the most important tasks and think flexibly. It may not be reasonable to expect everything to be done the same way now. For example, it may have been expected for employees to punch in at 8 a.m. and punch out at 4:30 p.m. Now, this schedule is made impossible by having school-aged children that need help completing schoolwork each day. By allowing employees to extend work hours to account for family needs, the daily work gets done at a time when they can focus. Does it matter that some work occurred “after hours”? It depends on the nature of the job. In most instances, getting the work done is what matters more than the exact time the work was completed. Similarly, if you have an employee who struggles with anxiety due to dealing with the public, out of fear of exposure to COVID-19 (despite all reasonable protective measures), allowing for more frequent, brief breaks may help the employee and have a positive impact on their work productivity. Instead of fighting through anxiety (and having productivity decrease as a result of the mental distraction), they can use the time to manage the anxiousness and return to work refreshed and more productive.

With all that said, there are going to be employees who are not good performers. They probably struggled before, and still are now. They may not have the ability, desire or motivation to do the work. Maybe you tried the above suggestions, but even then, work is still not getting done. This is an arena that is not new for most of us, and the steps required to deal with these employees are largely the same as they always were. However, it never hurts to consult with human resources if you need to go down the road of more significant action. It is possible alternative steps may be now required secondary to changes in the work environment or changes in policy/regulation related to COVID-19.


As you evaluate employee performance in this constantly evolving landscape, it is perfectly fine to hold firm on performance expectations. As a leader, however, do all you can to investigate, support, and problem solve with your employees during this pandemic. You are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the capacity, dedication, and work ethic you uncover in the process.

This blog post concludes the three-part series on managing employees during COVID-19. I hope you found useful bits of information that will help in managing and supporting your employees during this pandemic.

In closing, I sincerely hope you, your employees, and your families, are safe, productive, and happy.

Tyler is Associate Medical Director of R3 Continuum (R3c), a global leader in protecting and cultivating workplace wellbeing in a complex world. He has over 13 years of domestic and international experience in behavioral health workplace absence—including disability and worker’s compensation assessment, consultation with employers and insurers on complex claims, effective return to work strategies, program development and improvement, and training and supervision of industry professionals. He’s a sought-after speaker, writer and contributor in the field of workplace behavioral health. You can reach him at [email protected]