Over the last decade, many organizations have shifted from an annual performance-evaluation model to a continuous-feedback one. This transformation makes sense. Annual reviews are time-consuming, often focus on goals that are outdated or irrelevant, and yield results that may not correlate with employee contributions to the bottom line.
Mechanisms that track employee sentiment are much the same. Traditionally, employee engagement and sentiment too were tracked using the annual performance evaluations. Today, however, organizations can retain top talent only if they gauge satisfaction much more frequently.
Emerging communication technologies offer organizations and employees the ability to exchange real-time feedback that is meaningful to engagement and the tasks and challenges at hand. Because feedback can be delivered and received by anyone, it's inherently less biased, and its immediate nature allows for more versatile problem-solving. Continuous-feedback solutions improve collaboration, coaching, decision-making, agility, skills acquisition, employee engagement and retention. What could be the downside?
Too Much Data Is Not Always Good
While continuous-feedback data can be incredibly useful, it's easy for organizations to get overwhelmed by its sheer volume.
Legal software company Everlaw uses an in-house digital platform for continuous feedback between peers and managers. The tool, Culture Amp, issues surveys on employee effectiveness, engagement and experience and measures 360-degree feedback as well as team and manager impact.
"Culture Amp provides recommended questions, prebuilt reports and benchmarks," said HR manager Clair Lee.
Bhushan Sethi, the joint global leader for PwC's people and organization practice, suggested that mobile apps can best capture real-time data from disparate sources, delivering a dynamic visualization of feedback received over time, plus provide feedback via multiple devices like smartphones, computers and tablets.
PwC has built PwC Professional to provide feedback that is both evaluative (through the Snapshot tool, which lets employees provide and request rapid reviews on five performance dimensions: relationships, leadership, and global, business and technological acumen) and developmental (in the moment with candor and empathy).
"The system is playing a significant role in changing the development conversations and introducing common language and progression criteria across the global PwC network of over 220,000 colleagues across all levels and job roles," Sethi said.
At General Electric (GE), an employee's measure of success includes a variety of channels in which feedback occurs, including in person, by e-mail and through the company's performance development (PD) app. In the PD tool, feedback is visible only to those giving and receiving it—although employees can choose to share insights from colleagues with their managers.
Managers and employees use feedback nuggets to collaborate on a performance summary, which involves two forms of feedback that complement the company's ongoing approach to performance development. "Continue insights" are behaviors that already make an employee impactful and effective, and "consider insights" are behaviors that will improve his or her impact and effectiveness. Once synthesized into a summary and finalized, this content informs GE's talent decisions via its talent management system.
GE's PD app promotes feedback transparency. "A key part of our approach is that continuous feedback is authored," said Jennifer Beihl, culture and HR learning leader at GE. "Removing anonymity builds a culture of candor, which has had significant positive impact."
Lessons Gleaned from Continuous-Feedback Implementations
Many organizations have realized that different departments have different feedback needs. "Continuous-feedback systems are challenging in that you don't always know immediately that the process is working, so you have to be willing to refine as you go along," said Lee.
Everlaw's policy on mandated transparency differs from GE's. "We've learned that employees have preferences for how they want to communicate feedback and comments. The survey format allows employees to feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts in writing, especially because they can be anonymous," Lee said. "But some employees do their best communication face to face, so you need to have both options available."
Sethi cautions that continuous-feedback models, including those that leverage apps, need to prioritize data security and privacy and ensure that performance data is probed for fairness and unconscious bias. When it comes to performance feedback especially, leaders should avoid encouraging feedback fatigue, or a "check the box" mindset that focuses on quantity of feedback over quality.
"We must also manage potential pitfalls, including inconsistency across leaders who provide feedback, unclear or unavailable documentation, and a lack of action-oriented feedback that leads to key development outcomes."
Peter Capelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, supports the continuous-feedback approach, but he too cautions that input can be too limited. "Continuous-feedback apps can be very useful for figuring out what employees are thinking right now and for looking at trends, especially in response to some event. And many employers have moved toward app-based, just-in-time feedback in place of annual reviews. The idea is that apps can facilitate conversations, but even fast and frequent feedback that lacks detail isn't going to be very useful."
Simple Employee-Sentiment Monitoring: How Far Is Too Far?
Most organizations currently use survey tools to track employee engagement and sentiment. However, because it's difficult for a few HR representatives to track employees' feelings all the time, companies like the Finland-based HappyOrNot have attempted to meet this challenge.
The HappyOrNot solution uses smiley or unhappy faces to provide a continuous trend of satisfaction. Because the responses are quick, easy and anonymous for employees, higher response rates are guaranteed. Employees can express their true opinions without the fear of being recognized and singled out. The ability to see the fluctuations makes it possible to monitor a dip in employee satisfaction, identify correlations and make corrections quickly.
Milhouse Engineering & Construction Inc. in Chicago began deploying HappyOrNot in January 2017. Using the solution both in office and on its internal web portal, Milhouse monitors employee satisfaction on such matters as benefits and HR performance. The HR department team reviews the daily, weekly and monthly trends to spot any instances of low satisfaction and act immediately on the results.
But can such simplistic tools really make employees feel heard? Such mechanisms can create a culture of transparency and mutual communication, but, as Capelli noted, there is only so much you can accurately assess from feedback like this. There's a danger that you could overreach and make a costly misinterpretation of the data.
Getting Started with Continuous Feedback
Whether we're ready or not, continuous feedback is becoming the new normal in performance management and employee-sentiment evaluation, and there are several best practices to keep in mind, most of which can be facilitated by technology. First, build a single feedback dashboard that allows easy inputting, searching, reviewing and sorting of all the feedback requested and delivered—understanding that data will be more qualitative and therefore may require more advanced analysis.
Ideally, any feedback provided should be immediately categorized (e.g., performance objective achieved, peer recognition, employee reaction to a CEO announcement, etc.) and linked to individual and organizational goals. All managers and employees should be prompted to use the feedback system regularly, and fast responses should be valued and rewarded. Finally, keep it simple. Provide straightforward instructions and allow your people to access the system from any device they choose.
If you are collecting feedback from multiple channels, as GE does through in-person conversations, e-mail and the PD app, you'll have to devise a means to funnel it so that nothing slips through the cracks. Inputting verbal and e-mailed insights, for example, into your single feedback system is the most efficient way to go, but insisting that your managers and employees operate this way may require a culture change. Be patient, send reminders and perhaps create a feedback system prompt in which managers and employees are asked specifically for verbal and e-mailed insights. Fortunately, within the next few years, artificial intelligence in feedback dashboards will automatically pull insights out of channels like e-mail and categorize them in the right place for review.
Technology adoption and ensuring that new systems perform as intended are not the only considerations, however. Feedback exchange must remain a uniquely human endeavor. It requires traits that machines simply don't have, including diplomacy, empathy, camaraderie and collaborative problem-solving.
And, for most organizations, moving from talking with employees once or twice a year to talking with them every day represents a paradigm shift in engagement expectations. It will inevitably require intense and focused communication to your entire workforce and a period of growing pains as new systems are piloted and expanded. Fortunately, the strategic use of streamlined methodologies can ease your transition and encourage employee growth, productivity, satisfaction and retention.
Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, 2018). Based in suburban Chicago, Levit consults on the future of work for a variety of Fortune 500 organizations and previously advised the Obama administration on workforce-related issues.