5 Biases That Can Affect Managing a Remote Workforce

Managing a Remote Workforce

2020 has been a watershed year on many fronts. COVID-19 has normalized what once was considered a minority practice — remote working. Companies have become FROGS (Fully Remote Organizations), which brought a steep learning curve that exacerbated previously existing management flaws, especially in performance reviews.

In a recent State of the Industry Research study conducted by hr.research and hr.com, polls confirm that yes, performance management is happening remotely, and yes, companies and managers need to adapt new skills for managing it effectively.

  • More than half (55%) of HR professionals believe more performance management discussions are happening remotely due to COVID-19.
  • More than two-fifths of employees (44%) say their managers need new skills to manage employees remotely.
  • Performance management conversations between managers and employees are expanding to include more than just traditional PM concepts. For example, two-fifths say more conversations are involving health and well-being.

A performance review is a keystone activity that can motivate talent by identifying opportunities for development, coaching excellence, and facilitating fairness in bonuses and promotions. Unfortunately, certain biases have always clouded performance reviews and performance management, and it seems as though their ramifications amplify in a remote team setting. You can’t see your employees and hence don’t have data to make an entirely objective evaluation. If you haven’t properly instilled a way to track and manage data remotely, then data is not accessible for you to make decisions in fairness. Furthermore, not addressing implicit biases (all of us have it just because we are humans!) will put a damper on the employee’s confidence in themselves, the management, and the company.

This article will look at five common performance management biases that can be amplified when managing a remote workforce and how managers can mitigate and tackle these biases before they fracture productivity and morale.

  1. Performance Management Bias #1 -Recency Bias: This is a type of cognitive bias when you easily recall and place too much emphasis on the employee’s most recent work rather than considering their performance throughout the entire year. This sets the stage for a distorted view of the employee’s actual overall performance — magnifying their strengths or shortcomings, both of which aren’t true to reality.

Recency bias leads to the employee either feeling overvalued or undervalued for their work. It’s particularly harsh for those who genuinely worked hard in the first and second quarters but faltered a little towards the end of the year due to circumstances outside their control (we are trudging through a pandemic, for example). And it will reward the employees who cleaned up their act just because they knew the performance review was coming up soon. As a manager, you don’t want to reward inconsistent bursts of effort or severely reprimand strong talent who perform well throughout the year but whose productivity suffered a little in the end.

Quick fix: Humans are forgetful. It’s natural and it’s all part of our short and long term memory! With recency bias lurking around, it’s easy for performance reviews to become nothing more than a memory game. The best way to counteract this is to keep track of staff performance through the weeks, months, and quarters with detailed journals and notes on performance. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it makes a world of difference when it comes to showing you the big picture of where your employee failed or shined.

You can also choose to enhance annual reviews with more frequent check-ins and feedback.  This way, your team will have more opportunities to reflect and discuss achievements and opportunities in the moment, instead of waiting for months and hoping everyone remembers. Remote working is new to many and getting team members to a place where they produce the same productivity output will take time, so set your expectations accordingly.

These are challenging times. Even the most resilient employees have faced moments of uncertainty and existential dread. Providing frequent feedback gives managers the opportunity to check-in on staff often, see where they’re at, and keep them focused.

  1. Performance Management Bias #2 -Primacy Bias: Primacy bias is also known as anchoring bias. It’s another cognitive bias that encourages managers to consider partial information to form an overall evaluation. In primacy bias, the managers form negative or positive opinions about an employee exclusively based on their performance on the first few projects, or most frequently, first impressions. For example, a manager just hired a new employee after an online interview. The new hire is located in a different country and can’t respond to emails immediately on their start day Monday morning. Different time zones are at play here, but the manager has already formed an employee’s opinion and labeled his late-response as procrastination.

This event is likely to tarnish all future interactions with that employee, and it will culminate in a jaded review at the end of the year. Even if the employee is one of the strongest performers throughout the company, that first impression will cloud the manager’s view of the employee. This  is another example as to why they say “first impressions matter”.

Quick fix: Just like with recency bias, the best way to rectify this is to collect various data after each project throughout the year. This way, in the end, your evaluation will be based on comprehensive facts instead of finicky perceptions or subtle manipulations in Such as the classic, “let me buy you a cup of coffee, boss!”. For many managers, this may involve scheduling dedicated time to meet with employees and ask them about their accomplishments.

  1. Performance Management Bias #3 -Distance Bias: Distance bias refers to the brain’s tendency to favor people or events that are closer to us. This is a massive problem for remote teams or hybrid teams that have remote employees peppered in. Out of sight is considered out of mind. Amidst the pandemic, with office shut-downs being implemented widely to flatten the COVID-19 curve and to keep the workers healthy, it’s near impossible to keep employees always in sight.

Distance bias translates to inaccurate evaluations that differ based on locations — in-office employees are valued more than the geographically dispersed worker. Remotely, this may come into play if a manager happens to be grouped into many meetings and/or projects with some employees and not others. This also applies to events.

Quick fix: Take it upon yourself to consistently check-in with your remote employees. Create a personal connection with each of them over weekly virtual meetings and make space for informal conversation before formal meetings. When figuring out who to assign a project to, consider all of your options. Don’t just give an assignment to an employee because they’re closest to you. Also, be proactive about inviting remote workers into meetings and leverage the power of virtual whiteboards to encourage everyone to participate. Again, record information along the way, so when the annual review rolls around, you’ll have several data points to obtain a clear end-to-end view of an employee’s contribution to judge their performance. Remember, this shift to remote work means that you, along with every other manager, will have to adapt and learn new skills to effectively lead. Prioritizing time for check-ins is one of those non-negotiable adaptions.

  1. Performance Management Bias #4 -Similarity Bias: We tend to like what resembles us —  ‘mini-me’s.’ This springs our natural tendency to categorize others based on different variables. For example, if we are religious, we will look favorably upon those who are equally devout or share the same values. In the same vein, employees may be grouped based on gender, skin color, where they’re from, their likes, dislikes, working habits etc. If they don’t seem like “one of us,” their evaluation suffers.

Often managers don’t realize they’re being biased to specific traits. When a male manager pays more attention to other male employees, he might be doing it unconsciously. The “othered” group will have to work extra hard to keep the manager’s attention and not be looked upon as underperformers. Working remotely, managers may unconsciously pay favor to employees with similar remote work patterns and habits (turns camera on/off, is online early, is comfortable using technology etc.) which may cloud a manager’s gauge on productivity and performance.

Quick fix: One way to avoid unleashing similarity bias is to find at least one common ground with each employee you’re about to review. Maybe you both binge-watched the same Netflix show over the weekend or have been working out to keep the pandemic blues away. Once you find the common thread, that employee is part of your in-group. Then you can shift your focus on their achievements over the year.

Doing the “finding common-ground”  activity frequently, not just around the time of annual review, encourages the entire remote workforce to follow suit and see each other as part of the same umbrella that shares the same goals, regardless of what one might look like or where they’re located. This is critical to keep a dispersed team unified. During a time of remote work, this means that during regular check-ins you should carve-out time to check in with their team on a more personal level. It will not detract from performance-related discussions and will only help to strengthen bonds. More companies and managers are adjusting their leadership style to ensure they are monitoring not only the performance health of employees, but also their well-being.

  1. Performance Management Bias #5 – Leniency Bias: No one wants to be the cause of pain for someone else. Not managers either. This is why the leniency bias exists. When a manager is predisposed to be lenient to all employees or a specific employee during rating, it results in obscured, inflated, and incorrect feedback. There are several reasons why this occurs beyond the apparent possibility of an existing relationship between the manager and the employee.

Other reasons might arise from an internal motivation to score everyone higher because the manager wants to make it seem like they have a great team with excellent ratings. Or a manager might think that rating an under-performer higher will boost their confidence and encourage them to work harder. Or they want the team to like them and are unable to give anything other than stellar feedback. Managers may also rate higher during this time of systematic uncertainty to avoid any further stress to them and employees. COVID-19 has certainly forced companies and leaders to manage with empathy and flexibility and if unchecked, this will also result in managers rating their inaccurately.

Quick fix: Unfair ratings make top performers feel underappreciated and block underperformers from identifying areas of improvement. One way to mitigate this is to ensure you set and continually re-evaluate employees’ goals. They should be realistic and achievable and be prepared to adjust as needed. This way you will be in complete alignment with your employee as to what is expected and won’t be tempted to over-rate. It is important that managers be given enough discretion to show empathy and flexibility with their team, while also being able to balance what is needed from employees in their role and for the company. This also means that at a company-level, leadership should evaluate company goals and be prepared to adjust and cascade those updates down to managers and employees. Expecting all teams and employees to meet the goals set in 2019 is not realistic in 2020, remember to adjust accordingly.

Final Thoughts

Even post-pandemic, remote working will hold a strong presence among the workforce of most organizations. Businesses of all sizes should take the time to eliminate or at least diminish the likelihood of  bias creeping into and compromising performance reviews’ efficacy. This activity is single-handedly the best tool for personal and professional growth.

The distance can bring teams even closer. Get to know your team better one-on-one and keep tabs on their output after each accomplishment or project. Data never lies. Make that your anchor instead of first impressions or one-in-a-blue moon outstanding performance. And, provide feedback throughout the year, so you don’t burden your brain with remembering and tackling a year’s worth of insights. You also give the remote employee to look forward to evaluations — because they’re immediately useful, instead of an intimidating once-in-a-year episode.


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