Growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, one quickly learnt that individualistic thinking in any setting was not just a no-no but something close to an abomination. As such, my success was always our success, wrongdoing was hardly ever my own fault but that of my older siblings’ too. Oftentimes they were questioned as to how they could stand by and watch their “spoilt brat” little brother do something they knew was wrong.

Then I entered the world of work; I was introduced to a number of methodologies and approaches to working together, one of which was key performance indicators (“KPIs”) and their first cousin performance review meetings.

Oh dear!

The first thing I noticed was how these meetings were always with me, myself and I alone, rather than with others. There also seemed to be little consideration of other business areas which had a direct impact on my and my teams’ ability to execute and therefore our performance. Besides having to deal with no longer having my bulky brothers around to protect me, speak for me and give my manager context which he inevitably did not fully have, I had to deal with the singular language of I and you.

Many businesses use KPIs to track each employee’s performance and contribution to meeting corporate goals. In a work-from-home world, KPIs assume even more importance in monitoring and improving performance. One useful benefit is that they empower employees to assess whether they are meeting expectations without needing micromanagement.

The sudden shift to remote working in the first quarter of 2020 caught organisations off-guard. As we embrace the fact that we are unlikely to ‘go back’ to pre-pandemic normalcy, many businesses want to make remote work a part of their permanent operating model, allowing more people to work from home, more of the time. Even those that wish to return to the old normal are grudgingly accepting that the pandemic and remote work will be a part of our lives for a while yet. In the rush to enable remote working processes and technologies, some companies neglected the more human side of the equation.

As such, it’s time to set aside the fire-drill thinking of the early months of the pandemic and decide what remote work will look like over the longer term. Creating appropriate KPIs for remote workers is an important part of this discussion. As is the case with office workers, KPIs can play a valuable part in motivating remote employees and ensuring accountability, provided they are executed correctly.

Before we delve into the specifics of KPIs for remote work, let’s look at what KPIs are.

It is said that the concept of appraisal likely originated with the emperors of the Wei Dynasty seeking to appraise the performance of their family members as far back as the third century. Over the centuries, the execution of performance measurement has been tweaked to suit various contexts and goals. Models such as SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and tied to a timeframe – have enhanced the use of KPIs. There is no doubt many companies have well structured and well implemented KPIs, unfortunately, there are equally as many where KPIs are used as a yardstick, thereafter a stick.

blog post from Australian workplace relations consulting firm, Employsure, defines KPIs as tools for:

“…tracking the ability for your employees to meet their expectations and their impact on the business more broadly. Well-drafted KPIs are more than just goals, they are a means to assess and manage employee performance, a tool to meet business outcomes, review business health and growth, a way of identifying new opportunities for the business.”

This definition underscores the one-sided focus of KPI’s as they are largely practiced: task execution is more important than the person or team executing and the final deliverable outweighs the process and journey to the outcome. It is a view truly borne out of shareholder supremacy.

As important and integral a practice monitoring and evaluation is, recent times have highlighted the need to rethink practices we have glibly inherited. One of these is the full range of performance measurement from individual to team to corporate-wide performance management.

Where to from here? 

In the wake of COVID-19, the qualities of a useful KPI have not really changed that much. As was the case before the pandemic, KPIs form part of a set of tools companies can use to measure individual, team and organisational performance in an objective way. Implemented correctly they provide a way to not only measure an employee’s contribution to wider corporate goals but to also prioritise progress towards the employee’s goals.

A well-developed set of KPIs acutely balances the need for leaders to monitor how well they are delivering on objectives and the need to identify where to meaningfully intervene to help improve performance. In a remote work (or hybrid) environment, achieving this balance goes a long way to building a sense of belonging and motivating the workforce.

Graham Kenny reminds us in his piece in Harvad Business Review (HBR) titled “What are your KPIs really measuring?” that KPIs are more than metrics to be achieved but are about relationships. He argues that since KPIs are a two-way street, they must contribute to both organisational performance and to employee satisfaction.

The primary drivers of the two-way street are direct managers and supervisors, who are having to learn to shift from being coached to being coaches. To this end, Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular in their HBR article, ‘The leader as coach’ embrace how difficult a change this is, “…even for the most competent and well-meaning of managers,” particularly as they learn to navigate teams in the digital era. They advocate for the shift, hypothesising that organisations successfully shifting managers to coaches create a learning culture with increasingly more engaged employees and all pursue the advancement of the organisations’ mission within the desired culture.

Further, Kenny argues that since KPIs are indicators, any set of KPIs is only a partial view of the whole picture. As such, they are not to be developed nor reviewed as standalones but as an ecosystem including leveraging them to clearly see causality in strategic areas. Like the younger version of me standing side by side with my siblings, context, causality and linkages to other areas of the business need to be central to both KPI development and review. i.e. other teams’ KPIs need to be reviewed side by side.

Finally, KPIs must be fluid, especially since we operate in an increasingly more fluid world, else employees and teams could be working hard to attain outcomes that are decreasing in relevance – a strategic drift phenomena that has plagued many organisations in the past.

Final thoughts

Whilst KPI’s have evolved over the years, some common threads have remained, namely their hierarchical and largely individualistic nature. A senior person monitors a junior’s (or team’s) performance (or Board of executives) through some form of framework. Whether it’s a single person or team, all tends to be how did YOU perform. KPIs are only useful in as much as they are founded on relationship and therefore help employees and their managers measure and help identify areas where coaching is required to improve individual and or team and ultimately organisational performance. They require ongoing conversation and the maturity to tweak as the operating context changes, thus ensuring relevance.


[Photo by Adeolu Elete on Unsplash]