Employees of companies that have shifted to a remote work model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have had their professional lives turned upside down in many important respects. It’s harder to communicate and collaborate with colleagues; they may be dealing with childcare responsibilities at home; and they may have a variety of other distractions and a general lack of structure that make doing their jobs more difficult.
Nevertheless, it’s still necessary for managers to conduct performance appraisals for their teams to keep track of and provide feedback on how employees are performing their core job responsibilities and make any necessary adjustments.
All this means that managers need to rethink how they currently conduct performance appraisals. In this feature, we provide some suggestions for how to update existing performance appraisal policies and practices, including input from some industry experts who provided us with their thoughts.
Changing Significance of Skills and Aptitudes
The skills that translate into success in the office don’t perfectly overlap with the skills that translate to success in a remote work environment, at least not to the same extent.
It should come as no surprise that communication skills have been critical in maintaining the effectiveness of teams and organizations during the shift to remote work. Gone, for now, are the days when team members could walk over to a colleague’s work space and have an in-person conversation—and with them, all the benefits that in-person conversation brings to communication, such as body language, voice inflection, facial expressions, etc.
Instead, there’s a much greater reliance now on e-mail, phones, videoconferencing, and instant messaging. Sure, videoconferencing can help bring back some of what was lost with in-person communication, but it’s not a perfect replacement. In addition, it’s certainly not the case that every conversation previously held face-to-face is now held via videoconference. It’s just quicker and easier to send an instant message or pick up the phone.
It should also come as no surprise, then, that many companies are emphasizing communication and other collaboration skills in their latest iterations of performance appraisals.
“Remote work has definitely made us realize how much we should be prioritizing communications training,” says Jake Hill, CEO of DebtHammer, a personal finance publication. “Our employees who were already great communicators across a variety of channels have been such a valuable asset, and we really owe it to those who are not to get adequate resources and training. Performance reviews for this year will focus on factors such as this.”
Grading with Empathy and Flexibility
While some employees may have a preference for working from home, it’s important to understand that millions of employees around the country are working in an environment they never signed up for. It will take some staff longer than others to adjust to that shift, and some just may not be cut out for remote work and perform far better within the structure of the traditional office.
A dip in performance due to this shift isn’t necessarily something that should reflect negatively on employees. Again, they didn’t necessarily lobby for a remote work arrangement. “The performance evaluation process can no longer be a one-size-fits all approach,” says Jacob J. Sapochnick, an immigration attorney and a serial entrepreneur. “A varied approach is more successful in addressing employee performance and achievements.”
On top of the sudden shift in work environment, many employees may also be dealing with added stress related to childcare responsibilities, personal illness, the illness or death of loved ones, financial impacts of the pandemic, and other factors. In this context, many experts advise being empathetic during performance appraisals in the current environment.
“We’ve been telling managers to ‘grade with empathy above’ all else,” says Hill. “Our managers know their reports well, so it isn’t really an issue to begin with, but having a little compassion for someone’s personal situation goes a long way, even in something like a performance review.”
Even before the pandemic, we advocated strongly for more frequent and continuous employee feedback. The old paradigm of condensing a year’s worth of feedback into a single annual performance review makes many HR experts cringe. It’s just not realistic to expect feedback to have the desired impact if it comes so infrequently and so long after the events being evaluated.
That drawback is even more pronounced in a fast-changing and somewhat chaotic environment, such as a pandemic-driven shift to widescale remote work. Employees need to know as soon as possible if their performance or work habits need improvements or adjustments. There’s virtually no value in telling employees about their performance during the shift to remote work a year later when they’re back in the office.
Even within the remote work period, many companies have repeatedly made adjustments to how the day-to-day work of employees is structured and managed, and more frequent feedback is needed to correct course whenever there is a shorter course.
“Employee evaluations are not enough,” says Sapochnick. “A more effective medium of interaction has to be applied. Review employee evaluations but add a reporting structure that addresses employee issues and concerns.”
It’s not only the case that employees need more frequent feedback in the current, rapidly changing environment. They also want more frequent feedback. Many employees are struggling with greater levels of stress and anxiety during this pandemic, and more frequent touch points to let them know how they’re doing is a great way to help ground them, as well as provide an opportunity for them to discuss concerns.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight, but many companies are likely to maintain remote work policies at least for the next few months, and performance appraisals are, of course, backward-looking, meaning any annual review given in 2021 is going to cover large periods of remote work for employees who shifted to that model during the pandemic. It doesn’t make sense to take a business-as-usual approach to performance reviews covering periods that were anything but business as usual.
A focus on the importance of communication, greater empathy and flexibility, and continuous feedback are tips managers should incorporate into their evaluation process.