Some companies are starting to bring underperforming employees back into the office to improve their performance. Unfortunately, the challenge is much more complex.
The last few years businesses that had previously scorned the idea of employees working from home quickly changed their tune once the pandemic hit. It’s been shown that employees can in fact work from home (at least some of the time) and unless there’s a major downturn in the labor market in the next two years or so, it’s likely a permanent change. The question now is not if a company can do hybrid, but how to make it work.
One challenge has been what to do with underperforming employees. The thinking is that underperforming employees need to be in the office to be more closely supervised. This may work when you’re trying to make sure your twelve-year-old finishes his homework, but it’s not as simple when it comes to your employees.
It starts by putting a scarlet letter on the underperformers. Normally the performance of employees is between them and their manager. But if everyone is in the office three days a week but a few are in five days, it's sending a signal. You can’t hide the fact that these employees are in the office unless you’re doing no camera meetings. Even then, the fact that two people are co-located together while everyone else is only with their pets will eventually slip out in email or conversation and people will know who has to be in the office those other days.
Also, some managers may not like it. Truth be told teachers didn’t really like sitting in detention after school either, but someone had to sit with the students. While managers may prefer that all employees are in the office most of the time (see Why Your Boss Is Less Excited about Remote Work Than You Are), if those employees are not going to be, the manager certainty isn’t excited to be in the office, especially if she’s there because only one or two people on her team of fifteen need to be. She doesn’t like that morning commute any more than you do.
It's not clear that proximity solves performance problems.
But most importantly, it's not clear that proximity solves performance problems. If the employee is slacking off, will being in the office help? Again, it helps about as much as a parent supervising homework. It may work, but it comes at a high cost to the parent, or in this case manager. Better is to have a child or employee who is intrinsically motivated to do the work. It’s not clear that physical proximity changes the inherent motivation of the employee, and it might even be demotivating.
If it's not a motivational problem, then it’s a performance problem. Here the solution is training. If it’s formal training, like knowing how to use a tool or functional knowledge, send them to a training program to get it. Sitting in the office doing work doesn’t do this efficiently. If it's informal training, like knowing the ropes around the company, or learning how to efficiently get things done, the employee will learn by working with others. Having the employee by herself with only other underperformers isn’t the exposure she needs.
This is the same issue companies have when junior employees want to be in the office, but the senior employees don’t. In both cases you miss the subtle learning-by-osmosis because it works best when people are co-located. While it can work to some degree with remote teams, putting one in the office while the other is remote is no different than having both remote.
It’s laudable that a company wants to improve underperforming employees instead of summarily firing them. Unfortunately, simply making them spend more time in the office isn’t a guaranteed fix; it may even do more harm than good. Management of employees is challenging because there’s no one size fits all approach, and you often need to customize it to the specific challenges of specific people. In this case, I suspect the one size of bringing underperformers into the office more often fits very few at all.
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