Dallin Nelson

Some people don’t do good work consistently. Whether they are coworkers or managers, these folks seem to have all the capabilities of a high performer but can’t quite measure up. Slacking off, daydreaming, and time-wasting are some of the names people call it, but feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and stressed out can also contribute.

Employees who struggle at work put employers in a difficult spot. Intuition suggests that everyone’s good at something, but while managers can mine optimism to dispel some clouds of frustration, the fact is that unless an unproductive team member performs better, their role is in jeopardy.

Is letting them go the best solution? Of course not. There are many ways to help struggling employees hit their stride and build momentum toward a strong career, and managers can help them get there. Let’s talk about how.

Get Comfortable Talking

You know what’s awkward? Telling someone that their overall productivity is lacking and needs to improve. This is their livelihood we’re talking about after all, which could be why some managers prefer to keep quiet and stew quietly about performance issues. Unfortunately, these problems don’t often correct themselves. It is the manager’s job to identify what’s wrong and chart a path toward improvement.

If you have an employee who’s underperforming, it’s time for a talk. Don’t worry—they probably already know, so even just initiating the conversation will break some tension.

Chances to open up a conversation about work can include:

  • Periodic check ins and one-on-ones

  • Messaging via Slack or a similar app

  • Informal chats asking how they’re doing

  • Team outings

  • Non-work related book clubs or other discussion groups

In all these cases, managers use open communication to ask someone how things are going. Informal conversations sometimes yield valuable context, such as how someone may be dealing with stress at home or constantly compares themselves to the rest of the team.

However you choose to go about it, the only thing you can’t afford to do is keep quiet and hope the low productivity goes away. That’s not how it works.

Create More Avenues Team Member Communication

It’s not the 1950s anymore. People don’t just show up, put in the hours, and leave right after. Modern work philosophies value relationships between peers, coworkers, and bosses, and that’s a good thing for managers of employees who need to improve.

Back in the ‘50s, people might have insisted that you can’t be both a good friend and a good manager, but times have changed. The best managers are those whose team members trust them to lead and can rely on them for support during challenging times.

Good communication is good for business, too. Studies show that work cultures where managers connect with their employees see greater rates of productivity and employee engagement. The connection may not be obvious, but in short, open communication saves time and headache.

Employees who feel comfortable approaching their managers spend more time getting answers and less time debating whether to ask questions. Meanwhile, managers who value their personal comforts over employee well-being are less likely to hear from struggling employees, and thus less capable of fixing low employee productivity.

Learn More about Your Staff

There are countless reasons why someone may struggle at work, not the least of which is that it’s work! Spending eight hours a day laboring for someone else isn’t exactly the dream. However, with a little mutual respect and understanding, this issue becomes less of a problem.

Get to know your employees. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What kind of work are they most interested in?

  • How does their current job align with their goals?

  • Do they feel able to keep up at work?

  • What’s the hardest part of the job for them?

  • What would be their dream job?

Asking good questions not only builds rapport, but can also shed light on why someone struggles at work.

If, for example, a project manager can’t stick to deadlines, ask them what makes deadlines difficult to meet. Might they benefit from time tracking tools or calendars to keep deadlines fresh on the mind? If a salesperson isn’t meeting their quota, is their life going okay outside of work? Maybe they could use some time off.

Learning about team members creates goodwill that, while not itself a solution, uncovers root causes of work problems (and does it for free).

Find Work Patterns that Work

Before we delve into the more tangible solutions for helping struggling employees, there’s one more point to mention: the importance of employee freedom, or their ability to choose how they work.

Setting clear expectations of performance is a manager’s number one job. They need to assign work and tell employees how they’re doing. What they don’t need to do is micromanage work styles.

One big surprise of the Covid-19 years was the efficiency of remote teams who worked from home. Suddenly, the role of offices was called into question as people in pajamas cranked out just as much work as they did back in the office. While employers today are wrangling people back into the office, the words of football great Deion Sanders echo loud and clear: When you feel good, you play good.

The success of remote work, 4-day work weeks, and other novel work approaches proved that employee performance hinges on clear standards of performance. Managers don’t need to dictate workflows or ban social media; they just need to provide clarity and feedback.

Get Unproductive Employees Up to Speed

Employees need training—both new hires and veterans—but for some reason, training is harder and harder to come by. In fact, one study argues that work-related training in the UK has fallen significantly over the past couple decades. In its place are broad expectations of good social skills, justified by the idea that fewer and fewer jobs rely on niche manual labor tasks.

The result is an overall lack of training, which is a serious problem that contributes to a lack of productivity. No matter what kind of work you do, learning the trade is the first priority. Social skills may be the crux of, say, customer service work, for example, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t patterns and shortcuts that work most of the time—shortcuts that employees new and old should know about.

If you have a struggling employee at work, find out if they are (or ever were) properly trained. You may find they’re doing incredibly well given how few tools they have and just don’t know about.

Clarify Roles

The other surprise from the Covid-19 years was the sudden torrent of layoffs that left hundreds of thousands jobless for reasons unclear. Smaller staffs were left to shoulder bigger workloads, destabilizing any notion of work-life balance while muddying the job descriptions of individual workers.

Today, employees might be struggling because they’re busy handling someone else’s job. More and more companies want specialist performance at generalist pay, and so employees have lost job stability and clarity as to where to put their focus at work.

Jobs must be clearly defined. It’s not up to struggling employees to “figure it out”—it’s up to employers to provide clear instruction for what’s required and show teams how to get there.

Here’s a personal experience: When Covid-19 first hit, my writing department was heavily downsized. The remainder of my department went from managing not only web content and scheduled blogs like before, but now also fielding client requests. That meant lots of emails, which meant hours diverted away from scheduled blogs and web content. The lack of productivity resulted in lost clients and more layoffs.

Clear roles matter.

Manage Workloads to Reduce Pressure

Some people feel spurred by stress while others buckle. If your struggling employee is one of the latter, find ways to reduce pressure as much as possible. Try letting top performers handle the tighter deadlines while delegating bigger projects down the road to those who need more time.

Time management tools may also be worth looking into. Start by tracking how much time a struggling employee spends on a given project. This should help provide a gauge for how their time is being spent, and may even encourage them through surprisingly good results. “Slackers” may be too distracted to work consistently, but time tracking can show that when they do work, they do so at an impressive rate.

Here are some helpful, free time-tracking tools worth trying out. Each provides tools for logging time to tasks, creating reports to review employee work, and shared calendars for scheduling tasks:

If you’re savvy with programming and using GitHub, more options are available here on DZone.

Incentives Can Boost Performance

Performance bonuses can turn just about any struggling employee into a productivity powerhouse. It makes sense. There’s virtually no downside to rewarding people for upping their output, as more output earns more money for the company.

Offer incentives to motivate your struggling employees to get more done. If there’s a real reward for going above and beyond, more team members will find ways to get there, including the ones who underperform.

Home Depot is one great example where incentives helped get more from their staff. In fact, the company’s discount stock offerings for entry level employees turned thousands of them into millionaires. The result was workers who were happier and who stuck around longer. Today, Home Depot hardly embodies that spirit of the American Dream (profit sharing was replaced with the vague “success sharing” program), but the lesson is still worth remembering.

Wellness Programs

Employee well-being can also be an antidote to poor performance. Wellness programs not only sweeten the deal for new hires, but can also help struggling employees get healthy and find purpose.

Gym memberships, mental health services, financial wellness programs, stop smoking groups, and more are all possible components of a wellness program. Healthy employees tend to be more lucid at work and feel better about their jobs.

Employee communities are also valuable ways to support struggling employees. Feeling alone and isolated at work is more common than you might think. When a team member feels included at work, such as through a mentoring program or employee resource group (ERG), they may develop a sense of importance that drives them to work harder. In any case, research shows that employee communities reduce turnover and boost employee mental health.

Last Resorts

We’ve discussed some holistic ways to improve work environments for employees who don’t meet company standards, but that’s not always enough. Changing behavior is a mountainous task that requires time, effort, and patience. Managers may not always have enough of these resources to spend on unproductive team members, in which case it’s time for more urgent solutions.

Performance Improvement Plans (PIP)

While the PIP tends to be more of a legal measure companies use to document steps before someone is fired, they can actually help employees get back on track. It’s a wake-up call. Things are not okay, and they need to get better if this person wants to remain working here.

PIPs should contain plenty of detail about the company’s expectations for the employee. It’s not enough to say “doesn’t meet performance standards” if you actually want the team member to succeed.

Regular updates are also important. Have conversations to see how to help (assuming the relationship is still intact). Be supportive, too. Employees who are on notice suffer some of the worst stress imaginable, and they need to know that should they turn things around, there’s a way back for them.

Computer Monitoring

Business owners who use keystroke trackers and app monitors likely have zero rapport with their employees. Surveillance tools like these only serve to widen the employer-employee gap, and so should only be used if an employee is under suspicion of something illegal or detrimental to the company’s reputation. It’s hard to justify any other reason to use these programs.

Exit Interviews

The writing is on the wall. This employee isn’t cutting it anymore, and they won’t have a job for much longer. At this point, all you can do is find how to improve in the future. Make time for an exit interview to learn what went wrong and how to help future employees stay on track.

Generalizing/stereotyping can be easy to do here, but try to avoid it. Judge people by their individual actions, looking for patterns that led here rather than nagging about personality traits that bugged you.

Finally, realize that unproductive team members can emerge from a wide range of factors. Some people just need to grow up a little. Others need to heal. Give your best efforts to support them where they are, but always with an understanding that certain results are expected.