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Adapting for success: Updating employee KPIs in times of change


Change is a constant in business – growth and innovation are goals, after all. But abrupt change, especially rapid large-scale change, can pose challenges to any organization.

One of those challenges is figuring out how to set employee goals and assess their performance after a major disruption, whether it’s a large business transition, a natural disaster or a shift in markets. The goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) that worked before may no longer apply.

So, as companies change their products, services and markets in response to sudden shifts, managers may need to also adjust their expectations and the way they provide feedback. More resilience and adaptability are required from managers and employees alike.

This need to adapt can be the catalyst for creating a new and more effective performance culture, one that focuses on:

  • Holistic evaluations of employee performance
  • Collaborative goal setting
  • Future-facing goals and reviews
  • Coaching as one of the manager’s primary functions

To update your employee KPI and review process, you’ll need to start by sorting the employee KPIs from before the change that are still valid from those that no longer work.

Which KPIs can you retain, and which ones need to change?

After a major disruption, the way your employees work will probably have to change.

For example, if there’s a natural disaster in your area, your sales team might not be able to continue making calls and close sales. If your manufacturing plant temporarily closes because of supply chain issues, your production team won’t be able to make quotas.

In these kinds of situations, evaluating your people on their ability to attain the old goals wouldn’t be helpful. And if the team is hard at work on the goals they can achieve during the disruption, measuring them by the old metrics will also fail to reflect their contributions to the company.

So, if your employee KPIs are based on tasks or goals that are impossible, either temporarily or for the long term, it’s time to set those aside. If they’re still relevant, you can hold on to them.

What new KPIs should you use?

After you identify and shelve the KPIs that aren’t useful, you may face another challenge. How can you create new KPIs when your business situation may be uncertain or changing rapidly?

Rather than invest time in KPIs for short-term metrics that may soon change, you can adopt goals and metrics that focus on your employees’ ability to adapt to the situation at hand. For example, you might consider your employees’:

  • Adaptability to changing work conditions, like a willingness to learn remote work tools
  • Efforts that maintain long-term relationships, like reaching out to clients to see what they need
  • Innovation, like suggesting new products and services to meet changing customer needs

These kinds of KPIs are less numbers-focused than traditional employee performance metrics. Does this mean numeric KPIs are out? Not necessarily.

You may be able to build a rubric that allows for a numeric rating based on the actions your employees take against the new goals. For example, you might have sales team members log the number of clients they check in with, or employees’ progress through videoconferencing app training.

This kind of new KPI also focuses less on past performance than on dealing with present conditions and laying the groundwork for future success. As a manager, using these KPIs may require a shift in mindset as you think about your employees’ accomplishments and your company’s goals.

A different way to think about KPIs and employee performance

During times of change, it can be helpful to set aside hard metrics and focus more on your connections with your employees to find out what they need and how they can adapt. This is where a more person-centered, forward-looking mindset is valuable.

1. Take a holistic approach

Big disruptions don’t only affect your team at work. Everyone in your organization is dealing with the change on a personal level as well. They may be dealing with something like:

As a manager, you can acknowledge your own struggles, too. For example, you may be dealing with your work responsibilities while also coping with the fact that your parents or adult children (or both) have moved in with you. Letting your team know that you have issues to cope with makes you more relatable and easier to approach when they need help.

It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know what everyone on our team is dealing with. Everyone has a different set of changes to adapt to at work and at home. And everyone’s ability to cope with an onslaught of stressors is different.

For all of these reasons, it’s a good idea to shelve the one-size-fits all approach to measuring goals and giving feedback during bigger shifts. Instead, you can tailor them to each team member’s situation. To do that, you’ll need to collaborate.

2. Adopt a collaborative goal-setting process

Updated employee KPIs and goals should support the organization, of course, but now it’s particularly important that they also reflect what employees are capable of. For example, an employee who’s working from home while also managing his children’s remote schooling is not going to be able to give 110% during that time.

Rather than hand down a set of goals, a better way would be to discuss realistic goals for each person on your team and paint a clear picture of why those goals matter. That can help people stay motivated under stress.

Support is another motivator. Feel free to ask your team what you can do differently to help them meet their new goals and find ways to clear roadblocks as they work.

3. Future-facing goals

One the biggest problems with the traditional, number-based annual performance review is that it really doesn’t leave much room for developmental goal setting. Often, we spend an enormous amount of time talking about what somebody did last year.

After a big change, last year’s performance may not have any bearing on the future. Instead, employee KPIs and feedback need to focus on what’s coming next. For example, will the employee need to:

Again, offering support and resources can help your people pursue these new, forward-looking goals.

4. Coaching based feedback

With personalized, future-oriented goals and support from you, your employees will be in the best possible position to adapt to whatever major changes your organization faces.

And with that foundation in place, you can step into the role that great managers play – that of a coach who helps the team achieve their potential even under tough circumstances.

What does coaching-based feedback look like?

  • It’s conversational and celebrates accomplishments as they happen: “Hey, you handled that project really well. These three things came out of you handling that project.”
  • It identifies areas for growth: “These are some areas that I think that you could continue to improve upon. And this is kind of launching you into this new area. Let’s see what else we can do with it.”
  • It seeks ways to provide support: “By the way, I’m still struggling with your reports not coming in on time. How can I help with that?”
  • It’s relatable: “I understand about trying to deliver reports while you’re also managing your kids’ remote schooling. I have an issue getting mine done while coordinating my parents’ eldercare now.”

Setting a review schedule for your updated employee KPIs

After you have your new performance metrics in place, it’s a good idea to check in frequently with your employees to see how they’re doing. In uncertain conditions, leaving reviews for once a year leaves employees without the feedback they need to know if they’re adapting well.

More than that, employees benefit from frequent feedback even under the most stable and predictable circumstances. It’s human nature to want to know how we’re doing.

It’s also been shown that younger workers in particular want and need performance feedback. Without it, they (and workers of any generation) can feel adrift – especially when they’re working remotely and don’t get immediate feedback and support from colleagues in the office.

Frequent feedback also helps overcome another issue we often see with once-a-year reviews. If a manager brings up an issue from February in November, that’s a good chance the employee won’t remember it clearly, if at all. In the meantime, months have gone by when they could be putting that feedback to good use.

Effective employee review conversations

Updating employee KPIs, mindset and review frequency are some of the adjustments that managers may need to make during times of change. Another is how they deliver feedback, especially if your organization is working remotely.

It’s easy to give in to videoconferencing fatigue and just make a voice call or send an email. But those channels don’t allow you to see how your employee is reacting to the information you share.

So even if everyone in your office is tired of video calls, it’s a good idea to use them for feedback. By reading the other person’s responses in real time, you can adjust the conversation so that it’s as productive and supportive as possible.

If you’re interested in more ideas for coaching your team through uncertainty – similar to updating employee KPIs – download our free magazine: the Insperity guide to managing change.