Evaluating employees’ performance is a difficult task under almost any circumstances—but it is especially complicated when your employees spend most of their time off-site consulting at a client company.

Consultants are prized for their creativity and self-direction, so how do you keep tabs on your consultants’ performance without cramping their style or giving them the impression that you don’t trust them to get the job done?

“At its core, it’s a communication issue. It’s about knowing how to stay in touch,” said Barbara Gomolski, an analyst with Gartner, a business technology advisor based in Stamford, CT.

We talked to several IT pros to find out how to get the information you need to track consultants’ performance effectively.

Laying the groundwork
Several experts say one key to success in evaluating off-site workers is to have managers in place on both ends of the relationship—at the home company and the client company—with clear ideas of what the consultant is expected to deliver.

“Lots of companies mismanage their consultants because they don’t have a responsible person in place managing that vendor relationship, and they are not clear about performance metrics,” said Gomolski. “The more clarity there is within the hiring company, the more likely they are to get the performance they are looking for.”

Clear management is also essential on the home front. An IT consulting firm headquartered in the South with offices throughout the United States has a dual system of managing consultants and performing quarterly evaluations. The company’s project managers solicit feedback from each client company for which the consultant has worked 80 hours or more during that quarter and prepares an evaluation for the consultant based on client feedback. The feedback centers on the consultant’s level of professionalism, communication/consultative skills, and success in producing deliverables. The evaluation is a major component in calculating the quarterly bonuses paid to the consultant.

The consultant also has a “career manager,” who offers performance coaching and counseling. According to a consultant/project manager with the firm, the career manager provides a “continuity and a leveling” that you don’t find with the client evaluations.

Keeping in touch
Counter to some commonly held assumptions, working off-site—when you have motivation and the right kind of direction—may be a major performance booster.

When his tightly-knit Web development team was placed in a 30,000-square-foot “cube farm” in close proximity to the energetic marketing and sales departments, morale plummeted and productivity took a nose dive, said Jonathan Jordan, senior director of IT development for Nuvox Communications—a Greenville, SC-based telecommunications company which offers Web design and hosting and e-mail services.

He lost four of his ten developers within three months. “Of the eight remaining developers, including two replacements, production and accuracy dropped 30 to 40 percent overall. Ramp-up of the new developers took longer than usual,” said Jordan.

His solution was to have each developer telecommute twice a week.

“I call them, e-mail them, and watch closely the task completion time against projected schedules. I can tell by the difference in reply times to e-mails, in the cube or at home, whether they are at the keyboard,” said Jordan. After three weeks, production increased by 20 percent and e-mails from developers to the user community were “more polite, relaxed, and friendly.”

On average, Jordan speaks with off-site workers two times a day and sends between three and four e-mails. He warned his staff that if he didn’t receive a prompt response to e-mail, he would ask why. He augments phone and e-mail communication with regular meetings and uses Microsoft Project 2000 to track when and whether his employees are hitting their deadlines.

“Working closely, I’m able to keep my finger on the pulse of the team. Regular, meaningful communication is the key,” said Jordan.

“Face time” is important
The aforementioned consulting firm holds both weekly “consultants only” meetings and meetings with the client. In addition, consultants are part of a larger “service area” group (such as business intelligence or change management) that meets once a month.

Some managers advocate periodic on-site visits to check a consultant’s progress on a project.

“I’m big on drop-in visits. If I’m managing the project, it’s my job to be there and walk around and see what is going on,” said the consultant/project manager. “Consultants tend to be individuals and work on their own, but it’s good for them to know there is someone to go to in case they want to vent or bounce an idea off me.”

Gomolski cautions that knowledge workers are not your typical “punch the clock” employees, so it is important for project managers to keep their eye on the results and not get alarmed if the employee is not always on site between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The consultant/project manager also encourages the consultants she works with to take an active role in communicating their accomplishments to her. “Break your projects into parts and have regular updates with your project manager,” she advised.

Tracie Almond, a consultant with the Hunter Group Ltd.—a small firm based in Wellington, New Zealand—said her firm does evaluations based on peer review of all deliverables and client feedback.

“I’ve found that it’s a good idea to touch base with the peer reviewing director fairly regularly so they are aware of milestones reached, work completed, nice things customers say. That helps to build up a positive impression throughout the year, rather than just before the twice-yearly review,” Almond said.

“For performance reviews to work best, the employee has to make some effort to bring things to the attention of the reviewer rather than relying on them to find out everything they need to in other ways,” she added.

So, with the right relationships in place and the lines of communication open, performance evaluations can become an effective tool for rewarding and motivating your consultants.

Jordan keeps it simple: “The key thing is to know who [your people] are and what they’re capable of.”

Share your experiences

Do you manage consultants who do most of their work at the client site? How do you evaluate their performance? Post a comment below or send us a note.