COVID broke my brain when it comes to employee accountability...
March 31, 2021 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I manage 9 salaried people in a small, creative, "cool," "progressive" company. It is one of those jobs people dream of having in a small-ish, creative industry. When COVID hit and we all started working from home, my bosses laid down the law that we want to be accommodating as possible to folks, especially those directly affected by COVID or dealing with childcare issues. A year later, I have likely swung the pendulum too hard in favor of my employees, and it is starting to be a real problem for me, for my higher performing employees, and for the company. But given that we're STILL in a pandemic, I'm finding it extremely hard to figure out discipline, accountability, and boundaries, and have been accused of "coddling them." They may be right, but...

In my industry, there's no way of easily monitoring workflow ala "Bob did his mandated 15 reports today," and missing deadlines are acceptable occasionally, so there's very few hard and fast rules that can be broken and result in major consequences. I consider myself a "servant" leader who is open, communicative, and collaborative. I think I have pretty good soft skills in terms of motivating and growing careers, getting the best out of folks. I am extremely good in figuring out ways to set people up for success, but will admit to generally being weaker with problematic employees who then continue to not meet my expectations. But now, during the pandemic, I literally seem to have lost my compass and resolve completely in holding people accountable, as a lot of what I'm hearing back when I inquire about the failure, is excuses (?) about admittedly terrible health and mental health situations, as well as completely untenable childcare situations with young children - - "I'm trying."

The result of this is that the work between my department is incredibly uneven. Some senior folks are working at unacceptably low levels, while some junior folks are working 110% to make up for it. I am working at 110%, creating tools, documents, retraining and more to help them track their admittedly complex jobs. I am tracking their tasks for them, and following up with them, which I should not have to do, but I don't trust things to get done anymore. I have given them carte blanche on setting their own schedules, though most of the company works a normal schedule.

None of it is working, and the folks (mainly childless folks like myself) are now extremely upset as they are burnt out, resentful, and all the while there still seems to be no bottom to the downward spiral of the problematic employees. No one is hitting deadlines. No one is doing good detail work. Major mistakes that cost real money are happening. In terms of one senior employee, my bosses have forced me to get HR involved, which may lead to the firing of a person in a very terrible life situation, who I have accommodated again and again, but nothing is working and they are taking zero accountability. I can very much see that they are, consciously or subconsciously, taking advantage of me, and that does feel terrible. FWIW, our "HR" is pretty much the kind of HR that just files paperwork and legally protects the company. Our "owners" do not share the values we have, so getting them involved is scary. There are no unions or guilds or anything like that.

I know I am failing my folks. I know a manager has to manage. I am crumbling. I'm looking at books like Crucial Accountability, but I feel like as an extremely progressive lefty part of me wants to scream NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL, WE HAVE BEEN IN A FLIPPING PANDEMIC HELLSCAPE NOT TO MENTION UNDERGOING RACIAL JUSTICE UPHEAVAL FOR A YEAR MY GOD BACK OFF. But my company is not exactly printing money, and I'm getting major pushback from my bosses about not dealing with "poorly performing folks who we could use their salaries elsewhere." My anti-capitalist self is reeling about what punishment even looks like, anymore. If I were to set up a "3 strikes and you're out" system, I would literally have to fire everyone, including myself. How do I reset, ethically? I really appreciate any perspective or advice!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (35 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have an answer, but I have a story.

I work in training delivery and our entire model has changed since the pandemic. In the last week, I've had to talk two trainers "off a ledge" because they're at their breaking point.

We also lost an employee to a possible addiction which was probably exacerbated by the pandemic.

I could tell them that this is what it is, they're working from home, they're safe, and they need to figure out how to manage. But the week before, I ALSO had to be talked "off a ledge" because I was at my own breaking point.

So instead, I'm appealing (albeit professionally) to my humanity. I've told my trainers exactly what you've said "None of this is normal. Enduring another day of these conditions IS success. Do not work overtime. Do not soften your boundaries just because you're working from home. No job is worth your mental health. We need you; but we also are here to support you if we can. We are in this together. You are not alone."

Address the performance if you have to, but address the person first: Are YOU okay? Okay, how can we help you?

Stay true to yourself. Don't add the layer of self-scrutiny or judgement to an already trying situation. That's my advice.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 4:50 AM on March 31, 2021 [31 favorites]

It sounds like you might be in the U.S. With vaccine availability growing, how long might it be in your area before all of the people at your company can be vaccinated, schools can reopen, and people can work at the office again? I know that COVID cases are growing again in the U.S. (sigh), but it also seems like we're close to turning a corner. Do you think that the employees who are struggling most will be able to get back to normal when they're no longer also trying to deal with childcare? For those who are struggling with mental health, could they conceivably take some time off instead of pretending to work now? How have you been communicating with the workers who are taking on too much now? I think it's important to acknowledge that and let them know you're figuring out how to make that change (before they burn out, or decide to quit).
posted by pinochiette at 5:26 AM on March 31, 2021

I think the main thing for me would be to have very open discussions with the people who are falling behind, asking them where they think the issues are, and what they'd want (in an ideal work environment) or need to get things to a place where they could perform better. You say you have junior employees giving 110%, so would an additional 10% of junior-level headcount actually get your department back to sustainability? Could that be done with contractors? Is the expense of bringing in extra help during this time (or even during a shortened period of time as a trial run) too much to pay to get everyone's heads back above water?

I find that, often, people are truly afraid to ask their managers for what would honestly be an accommodation that could get them through a rough spot. Employees often apologize for things like taking time off during specific days for things like physical therapy, mental health services, appointments for their kids, etc. By saying, "If I were to do anything so that we can keep you, what would that be," sometimes a solution can be hammered out.
posted by xingcat at 5:33 AM on March 31, 2021 [14 favorites]

What a tough situation. I really feel for everyone here.

My mantra would be "the collision with Covid is making this mess." Depersonalize the 'advantage of' stuff, just so it's not on your mind.

Big picture: Can you put people on part time/leave and hire freelancers, and/or just hire one additional contract person to get your team through the next 6 months?

Can your team create a childcare 'pod' with only the kids from your team and your company fund it temporarily for say 2 days a week to ensure you have some core time together? (This too is inequitable to childfree folks, not sure how to square that circle.)

Because that's kind of the middle ground at a more macro level - good people can't do their job right now, you've tried and tried and tried, it's not working, now you have to reconfigure. I do not like this solution from a human end but it might get everyone to the finish line, with some shared economic impact.

Other ideas, sorry if you have tried them:

For equity: Make everyone track their time. Creative people will not want to. But tell them you have to start managing workload differently and they have to track their time, specifically. I guarantee that some people's output will change the minute they have to do this, because they are probably burnt out on "figuring stuff out" but once they see they spent 3 hours researching, 10 minutes detail-checking, they will rejig a bit.

Once the time tracking turns things up, you deal with them case-by-case.

Another approach is to go back to having some 'core hours' every day. Start and end with a 5 minute group check-in (1 minute each) with everyone reporting their progress at, say, 9:05 am (for the progress done the rest of the day before) and 11:55 am. (For their 3 hours of focused work.)

(If your core hours were 9-12. Note that a few canny people may actually do their work at 5 am to 8 am and report it at those times, but that's still demonstrating 3 consistent hours of work per day which is the point.)
posted by warriorqueen at 5:41 AM on March 31, 2021 [12 favorites]

Man, I sure feel this.

I've been so burnt out from covid, everything going on, working from home when we used to have a huge collaborative environment. It's been so, insanely hard to focus. I'm actually looking to get ADHD meds to see if that will help.

And, everything is insane, but you can't like, write off a whole year, right? What's worked for me so far is my manager super-micromanaging me - "let's go through your work together and see your progress" etc. That's all I have. Otherwise I'd be doing nothing this whole time.

I don't think any accommodation can counteract the strong anxiety and frustration I've had with the idea of sitting at my desk and outputting work. I mean, right now, I have something due in 25 minutes, and I'm writing this answer instead of doing it. You could be my boss, for all I know!

Part of me wants to hold out hope for a return to normal. But, I know some employees have secretly moved away, to Orlando, Nashville, Dallas, without telling managers. They are hoping to WFH forever. Dang introverts. I could be to the office in under 8 minutes, just need to change my shoes.

What I'd say is: Be extra gracious to those working 110%. Be extra gracious to those working 10%. Ask those that are failing if they want more responsibility. Ask those that are succeeding if they want more responsibility. But then, when you give them the responsibility, don't stop micromanaging them to get the work done.

Another thought - something that works well for me is a check in- check out system. Regardless of what time people work, have them go on a call with their manager and talk about their tasks. If not every day, once a week. It can just be a ping. Then, check in with what they were able to get to. Don't worry about punishment, it's self-punishing to report slow progress. Even if it's hard to measure, ask for a quick screencap or something. Make sure everyone knows it's to help problemsolve and collaborate, since we can't do that so much anymore. But do make it mandatory. I think that would help me!
posted by bbqturtle at 5:42 AM on March 31, 2021 [14 favorites]

I'm not a manager but I'm wondering after reading this if there's a way to reframe this in your mind. You said you have some junior folks going above and beyond. What if, instead of framing it as something like that, you treat this as an emergency equal to the underperformance issue with your senior folks. If you don't invest in your juniors who deserve a break, they are going to leave and go elsewhere and you're going to be in an even worse spot because I wouldn't be surprised if management refused to give you replacement folks since you have these underperforming seniors.

Maybe if you can think of this as doing everything you can to protect your juniors, who need help whether or not they have kids, you can feel better about enforcing deadlines/etc on your senior people. Like, right now you might be thinking, maybe Jan Junior can pick up another couple hours on this project because Stan Senior is behind, you think, Stan really needs to step up because I can't ask Jan to do anymore than she already is.
posted by possibilityleft at 6:09 AM on March 31, 2021 [29 favorites]

Maybe using some type of agile work setup?

I am learning about this right now, so others may be better able to talk about it. The basic idea from what I understand, is you get everyone on your team together and plan specific work tasks for the next two weeks, based on the time they have available, and you have short daily check-ins (5-10 minutes) to discuss progress and blockers. Everyone can then collaborate to see who takes what, who needs some slack, etc. That way, you are doing less of the balancing, and each member of the team can clearly see how they are impacting others by not getting their work done.
posted by chiefthe at 6:11 AM on March 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is a really hard situation and you are already ahead by being a manager that recognizes the looming burnout. Microsoft just put out a good study on how the pandemic has impacted work. Junior people burning out is a looming, large-scale problem.

Part of what sounds super frustrating in your situation is that you don't know what to expect from some of your employees, so they are constantly disappointing you in a way that creates more work for everyone else. Similarly, your employees don't know what to expect from their coworkers. I wonder if it would be helpful to have everyone commit to getting a reasonable amount of work done in a short time period (aka Agile). And, also in an Agile way, to have a visual representation somewhere of what people are working on. There are a ton of low cost Kanban-board style tools out there to choose from like Trello.

I'd also think as a manager about how much work really needs to get done. Can you identify what's essential and push out the rest for a bit so that your team has some time to recover? This might be a discussion that needs to happen with high-level management. Can the company give some extra days off so that everyone has some time to decompress? The pandemic on top of a stressful work situation is a lot and you can sell it to your upper management as an opportunity to build employee loyalty. If things stay the way they are, I would expect you to see some significant attrition once people have their vaccines and feel less stressed about switching jobs.
posted by JuliaKM at 7:08 AM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Caveat: I'm not a manager.

If the entire team dynamic is off, perhaps consider a public task tracking measure such as Asana or Trello. Everyone has to use it. Everyone has to adjust it at the end of their work day to reflect what they did. If everyone sees what everyone else is working on and their pace of work, it may help balance things out rather automatically. It seems one of the hardest things about telework is the change in accountability. More structures for accountability can help to the extent that this is part of your issue.

Maybe do this after asking the underperforming staff what could help them be more successful, as part of a general 1:1 "how are you doing, how can I help, by the way starting x date I'm implementing a new system so that it's easier for all of us to know what's happening with these projects."
posted by crunchy potato at 7:14 AM on March 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

You say your company isn't printing money, and sometimes just adding more people doesn't help. But could your company afford to grow your team at all? And would that help?

Because you can look at it as those employees taking advantage of you, but you can also look at it as your company taking advantage of all of you, squeezing the absolute maximum out of you because providing you with some slack would cut into profits. So if it's at all a viable option, I would push as hard as possible for an expansion of your team.

[on a personal level - it's very human to think about the underperforming employees as taking advantage of your consideration, but they're trying to survive in a system with no slack (not just your company, but also a society that makes them keep paying for the roof over their head in a pandemic, and doesn't provide childcare, and so on). So maybe they're taking advantage of the slack you give them, but they don't really have much choice, and probably feel awful about it.]
posted by trig at 7:16 AM on March 31, 2021 [15 favorites]

Personally, I need to have quantifiable and measurable goals or I just sit around like Jabba the Hutt. I know you say you don't have an easy way of monitoring workflow, and I know that's true in many workplaces, but there must be something you could set as a goal for people that would start to turn things around. Doesn't have to be the same goal for everyone. Ditto to what people said about regular check-ins - daily if that's what your team needs.

I understand what you're saying about being empathic and being understanding during this incredibly stressful situation. But the fact of the matter is, work is work. HR is there to protect the company. If people continue to lose money, there won't BE a company. So you need to think of it in terms of protecting everyone's way of earning a living. Certainly be sympathetic and helpful. Find out what support your employees need and provide it, but also give them the feedback and accountability they need to move everyone forward.

Could you frame the discussion around "people are starting to get vaccinated, what will/should things look like going forward"? You don't need to overly think the reset, just....reset.
posted by lyssabee at 7:30 AM on March 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

The underperformers - are they people with kids or other household needs that affect performance? To that I'd say This is acceptable; they must care for kids/ family and if they're only at 75%, that's what we get. For now. If it's people who aren't coping because, Pandemic, use any EAP (Employee Assistance Plan) resources you might have. If you don't have an EAP, talk to staff as a whole, and underperformers individually. What resources would help you with work right now. I can't guarantee access to them, but I want to work with all staff members on what they need to get work done in a really difficult time. Some people need therapists, maybe a job or life coach, maybe just a long listen or an improved work setup. Some staff just need more active supervision to work independently.

There may be funding for some of this in the new bill; I have no idea, but I'd check.

Definitely work with all staff to support vaccination for them and ideally their households. Keeping in mind that there are no vaccines yet for children, and that's going to be an issue. But the US Gov't. is doing vastly batter, so I'm a lot less pessimistic. Be super encouraging/ supportive of the performers, but squash the resentment; this has been a genuine global emergency in which many people are still dying or facing great difficulties. Compassion and understanding are the rule of the day.

You seem to have internalized a lot of this. Global Emergency. Massive. Pandemic. Millions have died. It's not all on you, hardly any of it is on you. Mere survival and coping is a lot.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on March 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

This is a tough situation to be in. It sounds like you have been an empathetic people-first manager. The reframe might be, recognizing why your team exists for the company, and if you're not helping your team meet those core expectations, your job and the jobs of all those who report to you are at risk. If your manager is getting involved, you yourself may be closer to hot water than you realize. It is, of course, truly tough to set expectations in this god awful capitalistic pandemic times and tell people that if they continue to not meet those expectations, their continued employment is at risk. But, if you are not the one to have these tough conversations, you may be asked to leave, and an even less accommodating/sypathetic/inspiring manager may step in and take stronger corrective action.

I don't say this in order to convince you to save your own hide, but sometimes, being the manager is recognizing that *you* are the most compassionate person who can deliver a truly tough message, b/c anyone else doing the same would likely do more harm. You're in the position to do less harm.

A last reframe to consider. There likely are people who are struggling severely, but do not feel comfortable telling you. These may very well be your current high performers. It is tough to not try to compare/assume personal situations, but I try to keep in mind, that holding some bar of fairness in work/deilverables from your team, actually helps those who do not feel safe telling you they actually need a break.
posted by ellerhodes at 7:38 AM on March 31, 2021 [18 favorites]

You know the saying about how the best time to plant trees is yesterday? Pretty much what's going on here. The best time to set the expectations about workload, WFH, and productivity was when you first started WFH. But of course there's a follow-up to the saying, which is that the second-best time is today.

I could be wrong, but it doesn't sound like you're holding regular one-on-ones with your employees. (Or at least, if you are, there doesn't seem to be much to them.) That's where to start. Make sure you're talking to your employees once a week, no cancellations or reschedulings. And then tell them what you just told us: you're trying to be sympathetic, but it's starting to feel like some people (don't single someone out) are taking advantage of this. Blame the shit rolling downhill and say you're getting pressure to increase productivity. (That's true, but it also makes you look more sympathetic.) And then suggest accommodations. I'm not a manager or an HR person, so I don't know how this stuff works, but if someone's mental health is interfering with their job, there are things that can be done. For other health issues, or non-health issues, suggest taking short term disability or unpaid leave.

For me as a parent, one of the best things to happen this past year is the recognition that having children is hard and unpredictable. That said, this has been going on for over a year. That's more than enough time to either find alternative childcare arrangements or to establish a routine that works. Maybe that's harsh, but I've had to be on conference calls while Frozen plays in the background, and I've had to drop my train of thought to change diapers, too. Many times, I've had my toddler on my lap for hours at a time. I still get my work done. I've had to spend a lot of time figuring out how to balance, but my point is that it's possible. There are edge cases, as always, but if someone has had a year to figure out childcare and they're still having these "emergencies" on a regular basis? They're either taking advantage of you, or they're having pretty serious issues (which might still be an issue even if there weren't a pandemic - e.g., my daughter has an issue that causes her to have to stay home from daycare and/or see a doctor on a pretty regular basis, but that was the case before lockdown too, and it was a lot more disruptive when I'd have to leave the office to handle it).

Personally, I hate time tracking and I wish my company didn't do it, but I have to admit that it is motivating. It's something to consider. I've logged time as "pretending to think about ____ while putting [my son] down for a nap" before, and my boss is OK with that. But like, if someone logs three hours to write a single email, that's a red flag you can follow up on.

It's admirable that you're trying to be such a thoughtful, caring supervisor. But it's like being a parent: being caring and thoughtful doesn't mean letting them do whatever they want. Kids need to eat vegetables and brush their teeth and go to sleep before 3am, and sometimes they need their parents to force them to do that. Sometimes that means being firm, sometimes that means marshalling other resources. Your job as a manager is to help your employees succeed. You've realized that being a dick and ignoring their outside circumstances won't do that, but what you still need to realize is that making excuses won't help them succeed, either.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:47 AM on March 31, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think setting up a Scrum situation would be really helpful and work well with your management style. For me, the most important parts of the process are the regular retrospective meetings where you talk, as a group, about what went well and what needs improvement. For my team, this happens every two weeks. You keep the focus on the work that got done or needs to be done and the daily check-ins work well for accountability. Sometimes I feel horrible if I'm on the third day of saying "I'm going to finish X today" and work a bit late to get it done just so I can say I did the next morning. But sometimes it's more like, "I still haven't been able to finish X and it's because these 3 new things were dropped in my lap last minute".

This book is great at explaining how it works. It's not just for software developers.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:53 AM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's unclear from your post how you set expectations in the first place. What sort of communication requirements do you have? What are your existing ways of holding team members accountable? Do you have core hours? Do you have daily or weekly team meetings? What I like about the scrum idea is the idea of everybody being in one place for a quick "this is what I accomplished yesterday, this is what I'm doing today, these are the blockers." Scrums aren't for solving problems, they're purely about status. If you get into the weeds of solving a particular problem during the standup, you're doing the standup wrong. Simply having a team status rundown every day can be an accountability nudge, though, and if Alice has a blocker that Bob can fix those two can arrange a time in the scrum to meet and resolve it later.

Your juniors probably need some help setting work life boundaries. One thing I always had to say was "the work will still be here tomorrow." It's way too easy to panic about stuff that's not getting done, but that's not for any one contributor to solve. The people who don't have kids can be more productive during work hours but make sure they understand they shouldn't be extending their own work days. Limits are good.

I'd have an all hands meeting where you can set some expectations for the team as a whole, and then have one-on-ones with individual contributors where you can go over what they've been doing and what they can do going forward. In the all hands meeting, focus more on communication than performance ("if X is going to slip, communicate that early so we can deal with it before it's a crisis"). Then in the individual meetings, if there are certain people who have been bigger sources of problems, you can stress that they really need to step up their communication about work slipping. Give them an opportunity to fix their own behavior, and give them a framework that will help. Maybe they need to take some time off, just to reset. Has anybody taken vacation time in the past year? Probably not, because there hasn't been anywhere for them to go. That doesn't mean they shouldn't have taken some time off anyway.
posted by fedward at 8:51 AM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

The thing about thinking about work as longitudinally equitable - I work long hours this time, and you will work long hours next time - is that it doesn't happen in a pandemic. Your childless employees are working long hours picking up the slack of your employees with children (and aging parents, and other pandemic-related squeezes on their attention) and it will never be "made up for" in any way we understand it. Creating new project management systems also takes effort and time for people to learn and use. You can't solve a systemic problem with a new tool.

The fact is that many of your employees aren't performing at the level they were, and as a result, some of your other employees are working harder to make up for the loss. The only real solution is to simply agree at a company-wide level that your productivity is expected to be between 80-90% of average for EVERYONE, which means your production also needs to go down. Time projects take must be padded with extra time to account for this. It needs to apply across the board. Until there is an expectation from the very top that we expect employees to be X% productive in order to produce a lower quantity of work, you will never stop feeling taken advantage of.
posted by juniperesque at 9:07 AM on March 31, 2021 [12 favorites]

I’m sorry, but I’m going to be very candid here and take a position contrary to most of the thread.

You aren’t coddling the team. You’re coddling the people with “unacceptably low” performance and abusing the rest of the team.

I’m sure you’re doing the right things with giving feedback on expectations, coaching, and creating plans on how to improve; it’s clear that you’re a lovely, caring person, and that you’re not being overly harsh. But you need to protect the rest of your team; they deserve colleagues who perform at acceptable levels, and who share the pain.

I think that for the low performers you need to come up with a defined plan that is reasonable, achievable, and represents acceptable performance; and that they either need to meet that plan or be let go with a (hopefully generous) severance. The rest of your team deserves this from you.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 10:01 AM on March 31, 2021 [24 favorites]

Can you pair or trio them up to help each other be accountable to each other, but in an informal (but scheduled) way? If they are feeling stuck in problem town, maybe they can help each other.

I know some creatives are actually paying for "accountability" sessions where they just hang out and talk through what they're working on, just make themselves more motivated to get things done. If they're stuck for some reason, they can talk through approaches to solving problems.

I get that what your people are handling might be tougher than this can affect, but it seems like an easy way to do _something_ that might help: just get them to talk to each other for 10 minutes _supportively_ for a few minutes a day. Praise each other for what gets done.
posted by amtho at 10:09 AM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I like ideas above better than this one, and also maybe you've already done this. If not, my process would start with these steps:

1. Get the particulars for each underperformer. It can happen in a phone call that also shows some sympathy and concern for them personally -- starts out there, but by the end also reveals how many hours a week they each think they're working right now, what the different personal-life responsibilities cutting into their work time are, whether each of those responsibilities is daily or weekly or ad hoc or what ... by the end, you would have a semi-detailed look at a generic week for them, and an idea of how much time they think they are spending or can spend working. I'd frame this like 'I'm not looking for an answer of "40" so much as for an honest answer with a target you think you are or can reliably meet.'

2. Offer them some strategies for this situation; there have been libraries written on this, probably just in the Washington Post alone -- one Google search should yield enough to aggregate into a potentially helpful list.

3. Differentiate, probably in the phone call, between work that doesn't get done on time and work that's wrong. Not to settle without exceptions for the former, but what does get done needs to be right.

4. Assess, however you gather it (e.g., tracking it yourself, asking them for weekly emails, scheduling weekly calls), what each actually accomplished each week, going forward. Estimate how much actual work time that should have taken. If that doesn't come close to matching up with how much time they seem to actually have to work, check back in with them and discuss it. If there are three such weeks in the first say couple of months, schedule another call, ask them whether they anticipate meeting the number they volunteered, or does that number need to be revised downward.

Lot of directions you can go at this point, depending, but maybe just seeing their workload written out each week, in an email to you, will prod at least one of them to make changes.
posted by troywestfield at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2021

As a "start today" tactic, I would suggest having a team meeting first to set the stage for what needs to happen. Acknowledge that we are all suffering broken brains BUT we've got a performance problem and accountability problem which of course are tied into a tracking-and-metrics problem. Acknowledge that we are all teetering on ledges but we need to be pulling it together at least enough to be visible as improvement ASAP or the situation is going to get worse for all of us.

A question for you to consider ahead of this meeting: when you reference employees who are "taking zero accountability", what does that mean? Is it a situation where they're not getting things done and not raising the flag until it's panic-late, in which case a junior is having to scramble it?

I think you should brain-map a couple of potential solutions to that kind of problem and mention them in this team meeting, but don't open the floor for discussion yet.

Have this precursor discussion and explain you'll be having 1:1s to discuss details and then a follow-up meeting to discuss solutions together. Ask everyone to put together some notes in advance of their 1:1s with personal and team solution suggestions.

Best case scenario, you will imply doom just enough to scare your low performers out of their complacency and everyone getting on board with better accountability tracking (never a bad thing, regardless of the state of the planet) will create momentum and you will only have to have medium-hard conversations with those people.

Definitely listen to what everyone on your team has to suggest about improving tracking-to-deadline, accountability, focus on detail etc. People may have past experience or fresh ideas or know of new tools that would be helpful. This does mean you're going to have to sit on everybody as part of your job, which would be lovely if that wasn't necessary but honestly it always is just because stuff happens. I really like backing up the accountability system with stand-ups several times a week, because it creates a little pressure (and encourages collaboration and sets up a culture of reaching out if someone has a blocker) AND deals with one of the biggest problem I'm finding people are having right now: time no longer makes any sense. A week blips by except Thursday is days long, it's entirely nonsense, it is helpful to put something on the calendar that helps chunk up time into measurable components.

You may need to have a couple of frank conversations in a couple of those 1:1s, that yes this sucks and you'd rather not be pushing people like this right now, but their performance is getting noticed by other entities and we need to find ways to stop that happening.

It may mean talking about some strategic leave (you may have to speak to your management about this before broaching with your team) to try to get some rest and refresh, like every other Friday or Wednesday afternoons or just take a week off

Like...this sucks, it just does. In a just world all employers would ratchet their expectations way down. That's not really happening much, and you don't have much control over what your company does overall.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:22 AM on March 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

Don't be so hard on yourself - you are not solely capable of your company's success or failure. Your situation is so common right now. I'm a middle manager of a small team in a similarly hard to track role and I've struggled with these issues as well. I've also been watching my boss vacillate between excessive permissiveness and sudden panic over lack of output from the whole department, and it took me a long time to admit that, despite our great relationship and her best intentions, a lot of the issue is coming from her and the rest of our leadership struggling to adapt. I can only do so much if I'm getting messages to be accommodating and not worry about x, y or z for weeks only to suddenly have x, y and z become urgent much later. That's a management failure, and it sets everyone up to underdeliver because now everything that was previously ok to slack on is a scary, unnecessarily stressful emergency.

Therefore, I started to ignore my boss a bit and instead focused my team on items that make the biggest impact. In addition, we don't strive for perfect, we strive for done enough. Do the minimum requirements to meet the bar on tasks accurately, and that's it. You're done. I also carved out time to check in and prioritize work every week as a group and have one on ones weekly with my direct reports, not so I could ride their asses about what was due, but to give use that time to identify barriers and give clear permission to ignore or escalate items that aren't worth the energy. It's amazing how much time people spend on things that aren't necessary because they don't know what they are allowed to ignore.

Functional things we did:

- Created a shared task space that we track core and minor tasks in. We went through a few types of systems and ended up liking microsoft planner the most because it was very simple, which works well for the nebulous, abstract nature of our tasks. We don't put ever item in, but if it's a big enough item that its requiring some investigation or back and forth with a team for more than a few emails, we make a card for it, and can add a few high level bullet points for steps. This is only accessible to our immediate group, so it stays clean.

- We check in 2x a week for 30 mins (Tuesdays and Friday mornings for us, though a different cadence might be right for you) to discuss the task list as a group. Its ok if things aren't updated perfectly by the meeting - we use this moment to check in, adjust items that are out of date, and reprioritize/shift tasks around as needed.

There is no way to fully articulate how much this helped me and my immediate team. Our company does not have shared planning systems and most teams that aren't tech or PMO don't use them (and they are different systems in those groups too!), so in that way we are lone wolves around in my department. However, we are also running circles around other groups because we now have shared visibility and can prioritize. It makes everything feel less overwhelming, and it keeps us from getting buried in dumb stuff that doesn't matter, which is really the key. Now management is happy, and while we aren't feeling 100%, we aren't falling apart. I'll take it.

Best of luck - you can get this under control!!
posted by amycup at 12:45 PM on March 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

One of the things that's so hard about this is that your underperformers might truly be doing their best, but their best isn't good enough. I would like to live in a society where those folks would be supported through their hard times, so there wasn't so much pressure to work when you just can't. We don't live in that society, so the job becomes more important than it should be. You sound like a wonderful manager who is beating yourself up because you can't find a solution to an unsolvable problem that is bigger than yourself and your company.

I'm not saying to give up. This is also me: Personally, I need to have quantifiable and measurable goals or I just sit around like Jabba the Hutt. I'm a pandemic underperformer, and some of the suggestions here to help focus and structure time would help me a lot. For example, I've found that I got a lot more done if I pushed myself to work for 3 hours and then considered the rest of the day a wash. Seven unstructured hours of "work" was death to my productivity. I would spend entire days floating around in that mass of open time, accomplishing nothing.

Finally, if you have people who are at risk of being fired, don't protect them from that. Tell them. It may be what they need to do better and it may not. But they deserve the heads up and the chance.
posted by Mavri at 4:06 PM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

One of my employer's had a poster on the wall that simply said "When you're not here, we miss you." Corny as it seems that used to help with coin tosses when I wasn't feeling well, but was feeling just barely well enough to come to work.

Perhaps a variation on that theme, along the lines of "When you're not able to be signed-on, we miss you...but in these unprecedented times we realize you may need to deal with urgent issues. Please know that we appreciate any and all the contributions you make to our organization."
posted by forthright at 4:21 PM on March 31, 2021

Have you had conversations with your staff about their particular strengths/ weaknesses, likes & dislikes about various tasks specifically in these covid times? Perhaps you can shift around some of the assignments.
posted by oceano at 7:10 PM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve been working a lot of overtime during the pandemic and if my manager held a meeting tomorrow to tell us that we had to do better and more detailed time tracking it would push me right over the edge.
posted by Kriesa at 7:24 PM on March 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I’m doing this too a bit with my team so I’m glad you asked this. It’s okay to adjust expectations—it’s impossible to expect normal functioning during abnormal times. But I’ve discovered what you have: if some are doing less, others have to scramble to make up for it. That’s fine short-term; we’re a team, we help each other, some people are just higher producers. Long term, though, it’s unsustainable and unfair.

And this is now a long-term situation. Frame it like that! Gather your people, or tell them one on one: now that this hellworld is our new reality, we need to change our strategy in order to function effectively. Some things I’m doing:

-Promoted someone who’s gone above & beyond—and made sure everyone on the team knew it. The whole team should be aware of and appreciate those who have been keeping them afloat. We have an extremely tight budget too, but I decided to expend a lot of my capital with the execs to insist upon this.

-I care and I understand, but I do not distinguish parents from non-parents. Single people/non-parents have important obligations, demands on their time, mental health too! It’s not my job to rank who has it “harder” even if I did have all the info on what’s going on in everyone’s lives or their heads—which I don’t. (For example, a woman of color said she’d be watching the Chauvin trial all day—that’s not work or childcare but it sure ain’t slacking!) Point being, the grace you extend to one category of people should be extended equitably. If I can’t cope this week, you cover for me, and when you can’t cope next week, I’ll cover for you should be the goal. Spread it around, don’t just allow one category of people to give and another to receive.

-1:1 meetings where I straight up ask them what they’re working on. I was BEYOND HESITANT to do this, but actually they seem to find it grounding and motivating.

-I don’t know what kind of work you do, but we log our work with key dates using a shared spreadsheet. There’s got to be some way to quantify the work. There are projects, tasks, ideas, responses, something quantifiable (otherwise your junior people would have no slack to pick up: what are they doing that the senior people aren’t?) What are the projects, who’s working on them, when did they start, when did they complete?

-I keep an eye on that and redistribute/assign work so it’s shared more equitably. Previously, I’d have considered it insane micromanagement, but if I don’t intervene nothing changes. If someone’s taken too much I take something away. If someone hasn’t taken enough I give it to them, unless they’re overwhelmed. Which brings me to:

-I can’t make them work. But if they are behind, they know they have to tell me; and they have to tell me how they plan to catch up, and what they need from me to do it. Again, a year ago I’d rather have died than have conversations like this but the tone can be light, empathetic, positive.
posted by kapers at 7:41 PM on March 31, 2021 [10 favorites]

I'm a manager.
In terms of one senior employee..... who I have accommodated again and again, but nothing is working and they are taking zero accountability.... they are, consciously or subconsciously, taking advantage of me...
Yeah, this one's got to go.
posted by soakimbo at 9:11 PM on March 31, 2021

if my manager held a meeting tomorrow to tell us that we had to do better and more detailed time tracking it would push me right over the edge

For this reason I think it's important in these meetings to talk about how work is getting unevenly distributed and the point of this is to fix that problem. In the 1:1 with the over-resourced people you can say it explicitly: you are ending up with too much to do, and I appreciate how much slack you've taken up but it's too much and I want to fix that.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:51 AM on April 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Tough spot. A lot of solid advice here.

I'd start with short one-on-one meetings. Explaining the individual's situation. Brief.

Then a group meeting. Explaining to the whole group what is going on: performance of the team is down. Acknowledge the challenges that they face. Acknowledge your own challenges. This is tough. However, steps *must* be taken to correct the course you are on. That you are getting pressure and receiving a critical eye. If we cannot resolve these issues in our shop, more oversight is coming and the measurement tools that they will use are blunt. We can be active in solving this issue and control our own destiny. It is a strong position, in my opinion, to have everyone hear the same message. Each of them understands what they are doing relative to their skill and relative to their bandwidth to achieve project goals.

A follow up one-on-one. This is where performance plans are implemented for underperforming staff. Clearly written. This may be one that your HR department has to work with you on. It is challenging...but...if they are a part of the process, they can start to right the ship.

Understand that you cannot control the pandemic, the people affected by the pandemic, the government's approach to helping (or not helping) in the pandemic. You are not responsible to answer for those things. It is great to be thoughtful and accommodating where you can, but, those things are secondary. Capitalism makes it so. You don't. Be kind to yourself here.

Those that have not been helping you move forward may hear the clarion call. Maybe this is the moment that can help them perform or move on. You are only responsible to manage this department not their lives. Again, this is tough.

Good luck.
posted by zerobyproxy at 2:01 PM on April 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

First up; what are the expectations from above? Are you allowed to have the team working at 80%? If not, what's their expectations on attrition and long term costs of that decision?

Very ground stakes, being the company doesn't share your culture; you should be able to offer at will reduced expectations for reduced pay, *especially* an unpaid leave of absence for people who aren't carrying the work but used to be solid employees. The cost to the company of letting someone sit awhile is almost zero. The cost of having to replace them, or to counting on them while others around them burn out, that's non-zero.

And wow, that's painfully American and capitalist, but unpaid leave (with some advance notice) is enormously better than what you described here.

Aside from that, it may continue to be your job to prune off the lowest performers so that *all* of your team doesn't melt, yourself included.

That said, it doesn't sound like you can easily *see* the lowest performers; you need to get people accountable to say "I will do X" and then they do X. We've been at this long enough they need to manage their own time; they now understand, a year in, what they *can* do, so make them communicate that.

If you can, temporarily lower pay on people who can't meet 50% expectations. Use the money to *bonus* anyone covering substantially over 100%. And if someone's substantially over 100% and can do that *sustainably*, promote them. Promote them yesterday. This sucks for people who can't meet expectations because , but what you're doing here feels a worse path, unfortunately.
posted by talldean at 6:28 AM on April 4, 2021

In terms of personal resets, rather than structures for team success, I'd recommend taking a look at Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. It's probably most famous for the saying "clear is kind (unclear is unkind)" and I think that fits your situation very well.

Dare to Lead is focused on what Brown calls "empathy, connection, and courage" and I think that would fit you and your leadership style a lot better than Crucial Conversations (which is uh, a bit cold in that regard). There's also about 8 million ways to consume the ideas if you're overwhelmed a the thought of a book right now.

The other one, less warm than Dare to Lead, is Radical Candor (it's subtitled "Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity"). You sound like you're in the quadrant of leadership that Radical Candor calls "ruinous empathy, " what happens when you care about someone personally but fail to challenge them directly, as Scott puts it.

In other words, as a fellow manager, I think you're confusing the difference between kindness and generosity - and the difference between the two is where your leadership is falling short.
posted by librarylis at 10:08 AM on April 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Going to join whisk(e)y neat and say: coddling some people is functionally equivalent to abusing the others. We all learn it as managers at some point. The person getting away with coming in 15 minutes late all the time (which inevitably turns into 30, then 60) isn't just late. They're making the people who are doing the right thing angry. This is unsustainable. You will lose good people and keep struggling ones. Win? (No.)

Which is not to say don't cut someone some slack sometimes. Just, accommodations come with end dates. A year is enough time to get your shit together AND make some changes in your life to adapt to the new environment (as much as any of us can). These people have been playing you for how long, and how much more time do they need? Indefinite? Sorry.

It sounds hard-hearted, but you've got to have some backbone and bring standards back. Don't look at it as being mean to some. You're being kind to the others, and getting what you pay for.

Some will even recover because of the structure. After all, it's harder to do an un-appealing task if you know nothing will happen if you don't.
posted by ctmf at 6:10 PM on April 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

And don't fall into the trap of doing everyone's work for them. It's so easy to get sucked into. They're really having a hard time right now, you don't want the team to fail, subconsciously you think you won't have to have the unpleasant conversation if the thing gets done somehow...

Be kind to yourself too. You hired those people for a reason, not so you could give them money for work you did.
posted by ctmf at 6:17 PM on April 5, 2021

First I want to say that what’s happening at your work is happening literally everywhere. I work with a lot of agencies right now and they are all a complete shitshow. The work I’m getting from them is absolute trash. Like, unimaginably bad and full of mistakes and late late late. Hilariously awful.

It’s frustrating, but OTOH I can see how messed up everyone is. Two people I know have gone into rehab over the last few months. Half the couples I know have broken up. In meetings I can hear babies fussing just off-camera, kids melting down, all kinds of stuff. Everyone is exhausted. It’s a mess. When we thought the pandemic was a sprint things were okay (and also we had adrenaline/energy because of fear): now that it’s a marathon it is much harder. Also we are processing the events of the last few years and that is hard too.

Idk. Be compassionate. The junior people and high performers working 110%: praise them and thank them and try to get them to feel some compassion too. I’m not a parent but it’s easy for me to imagine how hard it is for people who are. Imagining the mental health impacts of all of this: also very easy. Be kind. There is no way to magic people into performing better right now. They are very likely all doing the best they can.
posted by Susan PG at 5:55 PM on December 24, 2021

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