A return to the office is still a long way off for many, driving some employers to shift out of crisis mode and work to instill a sense of normalcy into operations.
For some, that will include performance reviews, a staple in many businesses. Often, reviews give employees feedback to improve job performance and provide the manager and employee an opportunity to create career development plans. They can allow employers to adjust performance goals or switch strategic direction as needed — something that may be especially critical in today’s business environment.
But performance reviews were challenging enough in "normal" times. Now, with many employees working remotely, it can be even harder for managers to do this well, sources told HR Dive.
Remote reviews are complicated
"When you’re not in the office, there’s a level of trust that has to be there to ensure that performance expectations are met, and people are remaining productive," said Shelli Holland, vice president of human resources for Phone 2 Action, a digital advocacy startup.
Employers need to consider how they usually conduct performance reviews and determine if that still makes sense, added Steven Starks, senior manager of career counseling services at the University of Phoenix. If they are metrics-driven, that can be difficult; if employers can't monitor certain activities closely, they may want to consider qualitative measures in performance, he said.
However, qualitative measures have their challenges too. Some aspects of work, such as quality, are harder to assess numerically. Employees need to collaborate, but that also becomes difficult to measure, Starks said. Collaboration becomes much more prominent in a remote environment, he said, and "that’s a little more nuanced and subtle." If an employee collaborates with another department on a project, the employee’s supervisor may not be aware of the employee’s specific role or contribution, he said.
During the performance review, the manager and employee may brainstorm ideas for new projects or development, Holland said, but brainstorming online can be awkward. "It’s something you have to train. It’s not something that naturally happens," she said. With an in-person review, it’s easier to read body language to gauge when someone is going to speak, or what they might say, she said. Now, taking those social cues online, waiting for pauses and anticipating video call delays can interrupt the flow of thought and conversation.
Making remote reviews work
HR leaders can help employees and managers improve performance reviews with practice, the sources suggested. Managers should schedule a monthly or quarterly brainstorming session with employees to discuss what can be accomplished now and identify some stretch goals, Holland said. "Setting aside time to brainstorm or to build that relationship, whether in person or remote, is important. Don’t skimp on time."
If a lack of metrics makes it challenging to judge an employee’s performance, ask for feedback from those the employee works with, Starks said. For example, his career coaching team interacts with marketing and PR teams on projects, and while Starks sees some of the output, it doesn’t give him a complete picture, he said. "I rely on feedback from the actual marketing or PR department."
Communication between the employee and manager is crucial, Starks added. In an office, a manager can casually connect with an employee or follow up on a project. When employees are remote, that contact must be more intentional, he said. "In general, I’m interacting with the team every week to make sure we’re on the same page, know the goal and priorities. This is necessary because of how fluid the business is," he said.
Assessing performance during a pandemic
When conducting a performance review, the pandemic may need to factor into a person’s assessment. Leaders should be flexible when possible, Holland said. Workers have been under extreme and unusual circumstances, both at home and at work. "This goes back to how effectively people are communicating and maybe re-prioritizing what the goals are. Is there leeway that needs to happen?" she said. People want to be successful. When possible, managers can try to adjust goals and metrics to give a struggling employee time to ramp up and focus on the most immediate tasks, and save the nice-to-haves for later, she said.
Whether a review occurs quarterly or annually, it provides a summary of performance and managers should frequently give employees timely and specific feedback, Starks said. If an employee struggles to stay organized or manage time, he will ask for more details: "Do that now, not six months from now." Talking with employees often is the key to identifying problems while they are still small, he added.
With more businesses increasing their comfort with employees working remotely, it follows that leaders will need to do more performance reviews from afar. And, while both managers and employees must make adjustments to become proficient, it’s possible, said Holland. "It’s just learning a new way of doing things and having that growth mindset — which, at the end of the day, I think performance management is all about."