How to deliver effective performance evaluations

Most of 2020 was spent dealing with the unprecedented transition of millions to working from home, and reviews suffered in the time of changing priorities and Zoom fatigue.

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In the continuous scramble for peak productivity amid COVID-19-relegated office work, company leaders had to reprioritize and reorganize teams. Managers struggled to find what worked and what didn't, for their dispersed workforce. One essential work meeting was either chosen as "easiest to move" or abandoned altogether—employee evaluations. Experts recommended at least a once-weekly 1:1 meeting between supervisor and employee fosters communication, a necessary and key ingredient for a workplace, virtual or brick and mortar, to succeed.

Clear and thoughtful communication can ease employee concerns in this still unpredictable time: Even today, with a vaccine as the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, many workers are uncertain about the state of their jobs, how well their company is doing, whether they'll be returning to the office, working from home, or in a hybrid situation. They want, it's been reported, "to belong and feel the company has their backs."

But whether at home, in the office, or deskless, no one can operate in a vacuum; feedback from supervisors tells an employee what's great and what needs improvement in their daily operations. A recent report indicated that the relationship between a manager's effectiveness and employee engagement "is undeniable."

SEE: CompTIA's 10 trends for 2021. No. 1: There is no normal. (TechRepublic)

"Employers should be checking in with employees more often," said Jeff Andes, vice president of talent management at the University of Phoenix. "More frequent, lightly structured conversations can help offset the lack of in-person connectivity that naturally occurs in an office setting. It also allows managers to gauge whether employees are receiving the support needed to complete tasks, meet objectives, and succeed in their roles in their work-from-home environment. These regular check-ins should be used to make sure that expectations are clearly understood, and that progress is being made."

And when it comes to actually assessing someone's achievements and performance, it's not often an easy conversation. "Employee-performance conversations can be challenging for all involved, even without considerations related to working remotely during a pandemic," Andes said. "However, these conversations should still be a priority to ensure future productivity, maintain morale and let employees know you are invested in their performance as a member of the organization."

For the time being, or until company leaders and staff feel safe and comfortable, telecommuting may continue to be the state of the enterprise. The enterprise learned that too many virtual meetings ate up productive work time and quickly evolved into Zoom fatigue. 

"If your team is continuing with remote work, consider approaching performance conversations in a new way—thoughtfully, with compassion, and with a structured plan for mutually beneficial results," Andes said. "While it may seem easier to delay performance conversations or even scrap them entirely, they are necessary now more than ever. Adjust your processes to best meet the needs of your employees, but do not do away with the opportunity to provide feedback and support for your team members." 

For these conversations, Andes noted that video calls are preferable to phone calls as "It provides a sense of normalcy and allows for human connection."

But not every employee is happy to switch "video on."  "Recognize that some employees may have reasons for keeping their camera off," Andes recommended. "In those situations, turn your camera on as the leader even if the employee feels more comfortable with their camera off–this lets them see they have your undivided attention."

While most HR professionals are aware of this, not every company manager is: "Don't look backward only," Andes said. Don't make the employee's past performance the sole focus of the conversation. "The past can be instructive, but you cannot change it."

Here's what Andes recommends for managers:

  1. Be compassionate but firm. Leadership in a time of uncertainty requires emotional intelligence. Every employee has challenges. This does not mean employees should be absolved of expectations or responsibilities. It does mean you may have to think creatively and adjust to support their success. Consider flexible deadlines instead of rigid ones for noncritical work or reallocate resources to see a project or assignment through to completion. Rather than changing expectations, find solutions to achieve goals. It ensures continuity for the organization and shows employees you value them.
  2. Don't use rating systems. Nix "needs improvement, meets expectations," etc. Putting labels on an employee does not add value. Focus on setting the employee up for success.
  3. Offer feedback and coaching. The value in a review is in the coaching and the feedback, not an arbitrary label or rating. That focus is even more important now as we balance the stresses of the pandemic.

For managers, Andes' best advice is: "Know your employee, spend time asking questions and listening to them throughout the quarter so that you understand what their struggles are personally or professionally. This will help as you prepare for your performance conversation that is focused on how to obtain success in the next quarter."

For those being evaluated, Andes stressed: "Use your voice! Share your own thoughts with your manager about what you would like to focus on over the next quarter to further develop to achieve success. Ask clarifying questions and make suggestions on clear measurable outcomes to your goals so that you have clarity about what success looks like over that period."

Working is less about location these days and more of a collaborative effort. Andes said, "Working in a remote work environment requires trust and a great way to build trust is by giving your employee an opportunity to collaborate with you on setting goals/objectives success measures."

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