Suvi Aaltonen of Swiss Post Solutions on people management in times of great change.

Suvi Aaltonen of Swiss Post Solutions on people management in times of great change.

Suvi Aaltonen is a Talent Management and Learning & Development specialist with experience working at country, regional and global level in large multinational, matrix companies. She is currently Global Lead Talent& Learning at Swiss Post Solutions

Here, Frazer Jones' Delband Tamjidi talks to her about managing performance reviews, employee engagement, and learning and development in times of great change.

1. With most people working remotely these days, managers must find new ways of evaluating performance. How do you think companies should manage performance reviews in a pandemic?

Pandemic or no pandemic, performance management is about setting clear expectations for specific roles and ensuring the people in them can, and will, be successful with their deliverables. Sure, the pandemic has made that a little bit trickier, and forced us to re-evaluate and adjust our own thinking and approaches. I think a lot more managers now for example can agree that working from home can work, and that maybe we need to let go of some of the old “performance indicators” we’ve used before? I mean, if there ever was a time for SMART goals and output focused performance management, it’s certainly now. Especially with knowledge workers – what matters more: them delivering excellent results and exceeding your expectations, or you seeing them online on Skype or Teams for 8 hours a day, from 9 to 5?

So let’s say we want our people to deliver excellent results and exceed, or at least meet, our expectations. We need two things for that; clearly formed, communicated, and mutually understood expectations, and an understanding of what our people need to be successful in meeting them – especially given the COVID situation. And instead of just talking through them with system formulated online forms once or twice a year, we need to make them part of everyday life in our teams. You’ll get extra points for creating a team climate around openness and trust; where these topics can be freely discussed in a constructive manner, people support each other and aren’t afraid to ask for help, and can raise issues proactively already before they become bigger problems regardless of whether it’s a problem with a supplier or their own personal situation. Here’s a bit more on that:

  • Set expectations, discuss them with your employee and ensure you both understand and agree to them and review them regularly to check if they are still valid and attainable, or if other priorities have come up. Joint understanding of performance expectations make it easier for the employee to drive and organize their own work, makes following up on them a lot more structured and objective, and identifying and addressing potential issues easier.
  • Don’t base your evaluations on input like hours worked, but on output; the quality of work they are delivering, how they are contributing to team and organizational goals, and how they collaborate and interact with their stakeholders throughout the workflows. It could be useful to also ask others for feedback – either with formal 360 processes, or informal chats
  • Discuss with your employees what they need to be successful with their deliverables. Do they know the purpose of their work, how they add value to larger team and organizational goals. Do they have all the tools they need; laptops, access rights, infrastructure. Do they have the required personal capabilities; skills, knowledge and competencies. How’s their internal and external network; do they know everyone they need to and how is the collaboration going. Is their motivation and engagement allowing them to excel at their tasks, or maybe hindering results? Do they get the support, recognition and advice from you that they’d need?

All of the above will need some extra effort, and flexibility – they will require more time and communication, and enhance the importance of really knowing and supporting our people – not merely assigning tasks but also understanding their private situations and how all of the factors are impacting their performance.

2. Employee engagement is crucial to increasing organisational performance. Do you have any tips for creating and maintaining employee engagement during times of uncertainty?

Covid-19 brought on a lot of physical, and mental, distance to our teams, colleagues and organizations through remote working, and flooded our minds with millions of questions no-one really had answers to – and still don’t – like when is this going to end. Unfortunately with employee engagement the distance does not make the heart grow fonder, and the question marks in people’s head, in any given time of uncertainty, only result in bigger and heavier burdens to carry if not addressed. On top of that all of this makes it difficult to make any long or short term plans, and that can result in feeling hopeless and losing sense of control and trust in our organisations, leaders, and even our own capabilities and future. But there’s a lot we can do to help with that:

  • Tackling the question marks - Communicate, communicate, communicate. Share as much as you can, as often as you can and encourage questions. Updating your employees frequently, even if it’s just to say you don’t have any new updates will help as your people can trust that if and when you do know something, you will share it with them. These discussions will also allow you to uncover any potential rumours, or other concerning topics of worry you should address immediately.
  • Keeping the connection strong between the employees and the organization - Sharing company news, progress with projects, core values in action, success stories big and small, appreciation to your team, or even sending employees some branded chocolate or company gear will all serve as nice, frequent reminders of who you are as a company, how you are doing, and what you stand for instilling trust in your future and keeping morale up.
  • Focusing on things we can control like creating a safe, positive, encouraging team climate  - Whether a global pandemic or a larger organizational change, the powers of individual employees or teams are limited. Giving back some power, some sense of control to your teams and employees will help keep them engaged. Decide together on team rules like best times for team meetings, best tools for communicating, or topics you want to cover in your chats. And don’t just restrict it to purely business-related topics – having informal chats, virtual coffees or lunches, game nights, or themed chats are just some additional ideas. Don’t underestimate the power of humour and having fun – it’ll do wonders for raising team spirit.
  • Be the role model. Balance realism and optimism – authenticity and strength – emotions and task focus. Your employees will look up to you and try and find behavioural cues and answers to the question marks in their heads. Similar to an airplane going through turbulence; if the flight attendants or the captain are screaming and crying, you probably feel quite bad as well, versus if the flight crew keeps calm and carries on with their duties, providing frequent status updates, and calming down the more panicky passengers, the other people might have more confidence in a positive outcome of the flight. But balance is key – you can’t say everything is fine if the airplane turbine is on fire, nor should you pretend you’re not worried – please do share some of your worries and concerns with your team as that makes you more reliable and authentic, but do end the discussion in a positive note – trust in the future, and a safe landing.
  • Put your people first and listen, listen, listen – and adjust your style and approach accordingly. What might work one day might not work on another. One example was the increase in video calls – a great way to engage people at the start of the pandemic where people went from everyday social contact to about zero in just few days. Nowadays though there are more and more reports of exhaustion from constant video calls, and maybe it’s time to agree on no-call-Mondays, or topics where a video call is needed and where an email would suffice.
  • Make sure the sentence “How can I help?” gets to the top 3 things you say – we are all individuals with our own set of needs and wishes, fears and anxieties, struggles and aspirations. There’s no one size fits all solution to employee engagement, you will need to ask each individual what they need so that you can be there for your people, show them that you care and are there to help. Listen to them if they just want to vent, give advice if they are stuck with a work task or problem, give them time off if they are exhausted, mediate discussions if there are conflicts brewing, whatever the need, try and help, be a leader they can rely on.


3. We have faced a year unlike any other. The Covid-19 crisis forced us into working and meeting online. Many companies shifted to a digital L&D approach, which brought a lot of advantages. Could you describe what post-pandemic learning & development should/will look like in the long term?

One of the benefits of online learning is that it enables on-demand learning, and flexibility – employees can easily choose the topic they want to learn about and select the timing for it – when they want it and how – a full 2-hour set of content in one sitting, or multiple bite-size videos along the week – whatever suits them best. It’s great! But while digital methods are an efficient way of distributing information, they do lack in helping people process their learnings efficiently and making it stick – it’s easy to skip those quick tests to check your knowledge, or the reflective questions or action plans and suggestions in the courses. And building rapport, ensuring safe environments to discuss challenges and pain points? Not easy to manage virtually, nor do fully virtual courses allow for those informal networking sessions and relationship building you do after the training over a drink and dinner.

And here’s the thing: having access to information or gaining knowledge is not a problem anymore. The information is out there, and while organization might still want to curate some of that, and/or drive focus to topics that are important for specific tasks, roles or functions, more and more the L&D focus should be on helping employees process all the information and put that into action. 

  • Learning for a purpose: enable just-in-time learning by linking learning goals to upcoming projects or tasks, specific work situations that might require behavioural changes, or new products or processes in development where people can start applying their learnings.
  • Gaining knowledge to be individually driven based on the preferred learning styles: attending (online) courses, ordering a book or few from Amazon, reading articles, looking up a YouTube video or posting a question on a discussion forum or google search bar are all great ways of acquiring knowledge with differences in individual preferences.
  • Processing knowledge to become even more a social activity – discussing the learnings and finding with peers, coaches, managers or other SMEs, shifting through fake news and alternative facts together, making sense of data, reflecting on it, collecting different points of views and possibilities, critically assessing the information and discussing how, where and when the learnings, the theory can meet practice.
  • Collective, real-time social learning – after actions reviews are great for learning, but why not build and create real-time learning opportunities and make it a group effort – setup a sales process from opportunity mapping, to preparing and handling client contacts and meetings, to negotiations and closing for example – organize panel discussions and presentations by the core team, followed by Q&A in all steps of the process – for them to explain what they are about to do and why, and then reviewing the results after – and allow people to participate by asking questions and proposing other tactics. And have fun with it; encourage “stupid questions”, or people actively playing the devil’s advocate and trying to destroy the ideas, or sharing previous successes but also failures in similar situations, and bringing up ideas from different functions and people.
  • Rise of more “soft topics” – in addition to your functional curriculums, or leadership paths; we need to ensure we have topics such as resiliency, critical thinking, out-of-the-box thinking, design thinking, innovation, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, learning and unlearning, mental well-being, etc. as part of our learning offering – and providing learning experiences that take people out of their comfort zone, connect them with the needs of their internal and external, current and potential customers, and expose them to areas they wouldn’t normally venture into.

So while more and more courses and content are offered through online sources, AI is helping in targeting topics to specific needs and specific employees, gamification will keep engagement levels up and you can even find and schedule coaching sessions on different topics any time of the day on your mobile, we will still need the human interaction to make it all work. More importantly, we will also need to focus on creating a true learning culture that’s built on psychological safety in learning – allowing and enabling risk taking, failing, discussing, reflecting, learning, getting continuous feedback from multiple diverse sources, and changing the perception of terms like “development area” from something negative to something to celebrate.

If you'd like to talk about how to adapt and develop your People strategy, hiring in to your team, or your career, please get in touch with Delband: delbandtamjidi@frazerjones.com | +49 211 2479 1145