A performance review, done well, applauds excellent work, delivers beneficial feedback and inspires a feeling of forward momentum. It’s not easy to pull off in the best of times, and as work-from-home drags on, the task can feel even more challenging.
Inspiring employees to remain engaged and productive is a growing issue. The number of chief executives who cited employee performance as a top concern shot up to 56% in 2020, from 36% in 2019, according to research by the Predictive Index, a firm that uses data analytics to help companies with hiring and management decisions.
What follows is some advice for managers to guide you through reviews in this pandemic-upended year.
Before the meeting: A skilled manager handles each problem or success as it happens, so there shouldn’t be any surprises for the employee during a performance review. Remote work, however, means “less shooting the breeze and random encounters on project status and responsibilities,” said Kevin Rockmann, a professor of management at the School of Business at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, adding that it’s more likely now that an employee’s and a manager’s views will diverge on how things went. To ameliorate this effect, he said, both parties should take time to evaluate the employee’s performance before the meeting and send it to the other in writing. The manager can see whether the analyses differ, and the employee will have time to assess the manager’s review and to prepare questions before the talk.
Gather information: You won’t have as much information to go on when you aren’t in the office together every day, so ask other team members, customers or partners for feedback on the employee. If two people have similar responsibilities but you learn that one person is the “go to” for advice and problem-solving among their teammates, that matters. Ask who stood out so you can celebrate them, said Susan Kline, a labor and employment consultant and lawyer with Faegre Drinker in Indianapolis.
Begin with empathy: It’s as important as ever to be clear about where employees excelled and where they missed the mark, but now more personal factors need to also be taken into account, said Shelli Holland, vice president for human resources at Phone2Action, a software company that connects advocacy groups with elected officials.
Before the pandemic, employees could more easily separate issues at home from the workplace, so it was easier for managers to evaluate them solely based on their output. Now, “there’s no line between work and home life,” Holland said. “We have to get to know people more holistically.”
Personal challenges may include working out of a cramped apartment, dealing with illness at home, managing online school for children, caring for an elderly relative or all of the above. Job-related “struggles, pinch points and frustrations” might include communication frequency or assignment clarity, Rockmann said.
Poor performance owing to temporary factors shouldn’t be judged the same way as poor performance from a lack of skills or effort. Whatever the reason for the subpar work, it will most likely be easier to help team members to improve than to hire and train a new employee remotely.
Support vs. privacy: Conversations about performance can quickly turn personal these days. There’s a fine line, though, between empathy and privacy, Holland said. Managers can ask employees what’s stopping them from doing their best work or inquire about specific accommodations that they may need, she continued, but should leave it up to employees to decide which personal details they want to reveal. Once an employee has shared a concern, the manager can brainstorm fixes like a change in group meeting time, or reimbursement for noise-canceling headphones or ergonomic office furniture.
It’s OK to check in, for example, to ask how the employee’s parent is or how online school is going, once they’ve mentioned it, Holland said. “Managers can also share their own challenges,” both to offer advice and to show that they can empathize with the struggles that many people have faced this year.
Recognize the goal posts have moved: Did the employee meet previously stated objectives? If not, it might be because the year’s chaos and change rendered goals from six months ago, or even last month, obsolete. For goals that remained or were added, evaluate what the employees had to work with to accomplish them and how they adapted. Personal qualities like flexibility, creativity, initiative and teamwork might have loomed larger than task lists and should be recognized, Kline said. Even just keeping a positive attitude and encouraging and helping others while the work world changed means a great deal to a team, she said, and should be called out.
The closer to in-person, the better: When it comes to scheduling the review conversation, a video chat beats a phone call for communicating nuance and understanding reactions, Rockmann said. Even better, he suggests, plan a socially distanced in-person meeting. If it’s possible, meet at a park or an outdoor coffee shop, or take a walk, he said. “A manager who is willing to drive to meet an employee shows that they truly care about helping that employee improve,” Rockmann added. “It also makes it easier to connect and talk about any difficult issues.”
Help them move up: A frank conversation about the employee’s career advancement objectives is more important than ever in a work-from-home performance review, Holland said. Without the usual in-person exposure to other groups, employees can feel they are working toward company goals but not their own. Take time to discuss the employee’s professional development opportunities and ways to help each person on the team move forward. The manager should leave the meeting with action items to take on the employee’s behalf, and check in with the employee periodically to report progress.
Keeping worker engagement levels and productivity high becomes more challenging the longer the pandemic stretches on. Managers need to make sure their top performers are happy, though, or they may start looking for another job. Pandemic-proof specialties like technical and sales roles are still in great demand, despite the downturn, Holland said.
End upbeat: Recognize emotional contagion — a manager’s attitude and mood can affect the team. If it’s sincere and not too corny, end the meeting upbeat with language like, “We got this” or “I have your back.” Reflect on 2020 as a year of upheaval, Kline said, “then transition to what shared success will look like in 2021.”