January 21st, 2022 | Sterling

End-of-Year Reviews in a Virtual Environment

“Did you just crush your employee’s soul? Or is their video frozen?”

Rebecca Knight raised worthy questions in her Harvard Business Review article, “How to Do Performance Interviews- Remotely.”

In a recent episode of Sterling Live, which you can watch here, Sterling’s People and Experience Leader, Jenna Gardner, and People and Culture Leader, Virginia Rho, discussed these same kinds of questions. Since the influx of remote working during Covid-19, the switch to performance reviews in the virtual realm has been rapid and daunting. Revisiting the approach to these reviews, especially end-of-year (EOY), is vital in the wake of such a large upheaval of working norms. as workflows change, so must employee assessments.

Destigmatize Performance Reviews

First, it’s important to destigmatize performance reviews, especially those at the end of Q4. When done regularly and with transparency, they shouldn’t be a source of dread and both parties should have an idea of what to expect. What’s more, a review is an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and look toward the future. It’s ultimately meant to serve the employee. Jenna and Virginia shared that Sterling does quarterly check-ins at the very least, and virtual work has created an even greater need for quality, frequent communication. This is where effective HR and people-leading are key. Regular check-ins, like those that occur quarterly, de-mystify the EOY review since it’s essentially just a Q4 check-in taking place like the three reviews before it that year. Basically, the longer time goes on between reviews the more they seem to loom, so it is in the interests of both employer and employee to keep up with them. You don’t wait until the end of the year to bring up something that happened in February, right? If anything, frequent review desensitizes the “scariness” by repetition. There shouldn’t be any surprises; instead, it should be a continuation of a conversation you’ve been having all year long.

Obviously, conducting reviews over Zoom creates a different dynamic than those occurring in person. If someone is uncomfortable during an in-person EOY review, imagine how they must feel on a virtual platform. As the work environment has changed, so should the general approach and rubric of assessment.

Reimagine the Rubric

In the aforementioned article, “How to Do Performance Interviews- Remotely,” Anna Tavis, a clinical associate professor of human capital management at New York University and editor at People + Strategy says that “At most organisations the targets that were set before the Covid-19 crisis emerged ‘are no longer applicable’ as the context has changed.” Since it would be unfair to judge your employees against the company’s pre-pandemic objectives, Tavis recommends concentrating on your individual employee’s growth and learning. “Everyone is stretched in their own way,” she says. “Your goal, therefore, is to make an empathetic assessment.”

Conversations should be tailored to employees. Some may prefer numbers-oriented feedback while others may want feedback that’s outside of the reviewer (peer review, self review, etc.). The approach should be tailored like any one-on-one conversation or meeting. Some people like using an agenda and some respond best to a more free-flowing discourse. It’s the manager’s job to be flexible in approach and meet employees where they are. This is a strength of a good people manager.

Acknowledge Distractions

Typically, those who work in an office have a distinct “home life” and “work life.” In 2020 they melded into one, and it’s a tricky environment to compartmentalize. People trying to work from home have emails, a child underfoot, phone calls, the team slack channel pinging, partners milling about, all while the pet cat is meowing and walking on the keyboard. Someone cannot necessarily “close the office door,” so to speak, and it’s important to consider the remote worker’s plight when being thrust into a potentially chaotic workspace.

Just as important as appreciating distractions is applauding an employee’s ability to pivot during such a strange time. If someone has especially succeeded in this way, the review is a time to acknowledge and celebrate that professional agility.

Be Wary of Bias

Simply put, biases at work become even more real and apparent when you’re virtual. Harbouring old biases still lingering from in-office interactions or making assumptions about colleagues can ultimately damage your work. It’s unfortunate that, when not in the office, small moments are lost, for example seeing someone while prepping for a meeting or being able to quickly touch base with a colleague passing in the hall. In the same vein, “halo” and “horn” perspectives become more pronounced when regular reviews aren’t taking place, an issue which is (of course) further compounded by remote work. This ultimate lack of communication reinforces harmful biases that don’t serve anyone. It pays to believe everyone is doing the best they can in their (fairly) new virtual situation.

Employ Empathy

It’s important to summon compassion and empathy so much more in today’s virtual working world. There is, quite literally, no human touch to an email exchange or Zoom meeting, and a lot of people are isolated. It takes a toll after a while. Beyond assessment of work, EOY reviews should also include a wellness check as it relates back to work performance. How is the employee doing given the circumstances? Are they having trouble adjusting to any aspect of remote work? When considering suboptimal performance, does the employee have a good reason for it, given a personal circumstance? In “How to Do Performance Interviews- Remotely” Tavis chalked remote work and its necessary virtual reviews to be an opportunity: in place of ratings, she suggests creating ‘a flexible system that recognizes the hardships that many people are enduring,’ and conducting ‘more of a narrative assessment’ that provides employees with specific and helpful information about what they’ve done well and where they could improve. After all, performance indicative of healthy staff extends beyond numerical output, which alone is short-sighted and unsustainable. A holistic capture of performance should include personal wellbeing and a discourse on how the company can help or support the employee to further succeed. It’s important to consider performance beyond deliverables.

In terms of giving difficult feedback, Jenna recommended reading the book “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott, as she believes in challenging directly while being empathetic in the process. Basically, ask the hard questions while remembering personal circumstances. As always, language choice is critical. No matter what the issue is in the workplace, there’s a way for a manager to address it while showing care for the employee at the same time.

Virtual Performance Review Specifics

When it comes to feedback, it’s all about the specifics. If someone is exhibiting poor performance, of course they need to know where they might be lacking so they know how to improve. More common, though, is someone receiving generic, overarching positive feedback. If an employee doesn’t know what exactly they’re doing well, they may not know what behavior or processes to replicate and apply moving forward. A vague “great work” doesn’t read as meaningful, so be as detailed as possible and give examples. Sometimes it’s easy to almost phone it in on giving feedback to really great, high-performing employees. They too need to be affirmed regularly, or they may not think they’re succeeding in moving the needle in the workplace.

Immediate feedback is great, too. “Great work today, I love that you did [specific XYZ]” or “I asked you to do this and you accomplished it [specific XY] way. I’d love to see you do more of that!” To the reviewee, specifics drive up the strength of what made something good so they know that worked for them and they can recreate the effort. If you want to elevate performance, you have to give specifics. With luck, other employees see a specific effort and its results and can propagate the approach.

Continuing healthy, productive operation in the virtual workplace continues to evolve as time goes on, but these tips should ease the pressure of EOY reviews on both sides.

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