Conducting Better Performance Reviews During the Pandemic

Flexibility and communication help maintain morale and productivity.

By Brian O'Connell November 20, 2020
Conducting Better Performance Reviews During the Pandemic

​With more people working remotely these days, managers are having to find new ways to evaluate performance and provide feedback. For many companies, this has been a good thing.

“I think we’re all going to give employees a lot of credit for just surviving this year, and that’s OK. This is a human business,” says Chris Young, SHRM-CP, director of workforce development at the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin, Texas. “Going into 2021, I think we’ll all be much more focused on end products and less on how our employees get there. I think it’ll be a positive development to be able to focus more on results instead of just attendance.”

In the past nine months, the state transportation department has reworked its performance evaluation process, reducing the number of ratings for each employee and focusing on more one-on-one career conversations.

“The world has changed,” Young says, “and it’s OK to realize performance conversations can be more human-centered than they were before. I think that’s been a real silver lining during this time.”

Company leaders and managers say several strategies—some that were in place before the pandemic began and others that are new—have helped them measure workforce performance in the age of COVID-19.

Leaders at CHG Healthcare, a health care staffing agency in Salt Lake City, decided several years ago to ditch the company’s traditional annual performance review process for front-line employees.

“We found that it was ineffective for several reasons,” says Kerry Norman, vice president of talent management. “First, it was a look backward, so it didn’t help improve future performance. Second, it wasn’t an effective measurement tool because assessments varied so greatly from one leader to the next. Third, it was disengaging for employees. It felt more like a judgment than a motivational tool.”

Now the company focuses on providing “in-the-moment” feedback, which has proved helpful during the pandemic.

“We want people to know what they’re doing right and where they can improve,” Norman says, “rather than waiting until the end of the year when it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Be Flexible

The pandemic has forced CHG managers as well as their team members to be more adaptable. That means employees are taking on new roles, sometimes ones they’ve never been trained for. It also means managers must show flexibility when evaluating these workers.

“Our people are now learning that their skills can be used in ways they never knew existed,” Norman says, “and they’re helping in areas of the company that may have been foreign to them just weeks ago.”

At Shapiro Negotiations Institute in Baltimore, managers conducted formal reviews once a year and met with team members every other week prior to the pandemic. Now they’ve moved to shorter weekly meetings, which are conducted virtually. 

Moreover, the company’s managers have, for now, stopped evaluating employees based on the revenue they generate. “But we are tracking demonstrated thought leadership from our employees that leads to more sales” in the future, says managing partner Andres Lares.

The Debt Relief Co. in New York City already had an automated performance system that tracked employees’ metrics, such as tasks accomplished and project goals met, by the day, week, month and year. With the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up the company’s office culture, that system has changed. These days, each performance review is scheduled more than a week in advance, and employees are sent questions about their job expectations, satisfaction levels and goals attained, among other issues. Employees send back their responses for the manager to use as a guide during the review.

“While time is still spent on going over output, the emphasis now is on what the employee needs help with, what they’d like to work on, ultimately with three takeaways the employee will focus on and discuss in the next review with their manager,” says Adem Selita, CEO of The Debt Relief Co.

Ramp Up Communication

Following this new performance review blueprint hasn’t been easy. “The biggest setback at first was communications,” Selita says. “We’re moving from a management culture where leaders are steps away from your desk to answer questions to a scenario where leadership isn’t physically present. That leads to many questions not being asked until it comes time for performance reviews.”

On the upside, managers have noted new opportunities to discuss performance more broadly.

“With traditional performance reviews, employees were using much of their allotted time discussing small-ticket items, leaving them with little time to focus on development and what they can do better,” he says. “By establishing more regular check-ins, as well as a performance review guideline, we’ve found that employees are leaving sessions feeling more capable and motivated than ever.”

To be sure, performance has suffered at many organizations. “There are things that we cannot control, and that’s why our executive team made the decision to focus on what we can,” Selita says. “For example, with clear expectations, as well as directions, our team has rolled out new employee guidelines. We believe strongly in employees feeling safe at work” and want to use performance expectations to help address, not create, more concerns.

Selita believes that changes in performance review methods will remain in effect after the crisis ends, primarily because remote work has enabled managers to give employees more autonomy while expecting the same results. 

Shelli Holland, head of HR at Phone2Action, a platform for digital advocacy and public affairs technology in Washington, D.C., also found that more frequent contact is key. “We have learned regular one-on-ones [and] team and company updates help us stay on track and meet our goals,” Holland says, “even in a time when we are all remote.” 

Stryde, an e-commerce marketing company in Draper, Utah, moved its performance review process online after the pandemic began. In addition, Laurel Teuscher, vice president of services, asks employees in her department to fill out an anonymous survey to help identify processes that need improvement. Many have raised communication issues. “Everyone has their own style that works for them,” she says.

Postpone Reviews

Some companies have decided to push back performance reviews entirely during the coronavirus crisis. 

“We believe it’s unfair to hold employees to the same standards during this outbreak,” says Ken Eulo, founding partner at Smith & Eulo Law Firm in Orlando, Fla. “Consequently, we have completely halted performance reviews for the time being, as we can’t find reasonable parameters to measure each employee’s performance due to the circumstances.”

The firm will resume performance reviews when its services return to normal. “For the time being, we are trusting employees to hold themselves accountable,” he says.  

Brian O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa.

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern for HR Magazine.

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