How to conduct an effective performance review remotely

For most in the NFP sector, 2020 has brought new experiences of working remotely. If you’re based in Victoria, it’s likely that your team have been working remotely for months now; in other states, you may be back in the office by now, or some staff may be continuing to work from home.

Either way, having at least some staff working remotely is likely to be a permanent part of working life into the future. That means all sorts of processes will need to be adapted for those staff who work remotely – including performance reviews.

So what does an effective performance review look like, done remotely in the middle of a pandemic? Here are some essential elements to consider as you plan performance reviews for your staff working remotely.

1. Think carefully about the purpose of your review

Performance reviews are important for both managers and employees. They provide an opportunity for employees to discuss their career objectives, professional development and contentment in the role, while managers get an opportunity to review the employee’s achievements and areas for improvement.

However, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the agreed pre-pandemic performance indicators may have shifted significantly. Before you jump into any discussion with a team member, take the time to analyse what you as a manager want to get out of these performance evaluations.

Here are three things to consider:

  • Focus on strengthening your team members in their role – This should be the purpose of the performance review and everything you say should be focused on this.
  • This is not a normal performance review – In the middle of a pandemic, working from home doesn’t necessary work for everyone, but employees probably don’t have much choice right now. Be compassionate and take time to acknowledge the person’s effort, hard work and ability to adapt during this time of change.
  • Take the opportunity to strengthen your culture and increase engagement – Deloitte reports that ratings-based performance management can negatively impact engagement and undermine confidence. Focusing on coaching and developing over just numbers can boost confidence and strengthen engagement during what is a challenging or anxious time for many people and organisations.

2. Set expectations early

Communication is vital to making employees feel valued and engaged. If there are elements of the performance review you won’t be able to do remotely, set these expectations up-front.

Be sure to make the performance review process clear by explaining:

  • Format – Explain in writing how you will conduct the remote performance reviews (e.g. via video call on Zoom or Google Hangouts).
  • Invitees – Outline who will be present during the review.
  • Duration – Send a calendar invite with a set time (e.g. one hour).
  • Structure – In your calendar invite and/or corresponding email, break down what you will discuss.
  • What’s different – COVID-19 may have impacted your ability to foresee what the coming months will look like for your organisation. Be upfront about what won’t be discussed at this time.
  • What’s remaining – Outline what goals, KPIs and achievements will be assessed in the review. If you are sticking with performance metrics you set pre-COVID, explain how these will be assessed considering the changed circumstances.
  • Provide the opportunity to ask questions before the session – Set aside a designated period for your team members to discuss any questions or concerns they have. This empowers them to prepare and share.

Clearly setting expectations earlier on can help you and your team member stay on task throughout the review, even in a virtual setting.

3. Talk about impact and the future

Remote work looks here to stay. Therefore, many NFPs will have to consider how they manage feedback and performance remotely for the long-term.

While the prevalence of remote work is increasing, job stability will still remain a primary concern for many employees. You can help to reassure them by:

  • Highlighting each employee’s specific impact on relevant projects and organisational achievements. This can be done at the beginning of each performance review to set a positive tone for the rest of the meeting.
  • Revisiting the organisation’s big goals for the upcoming year. By linking how your staff ’s work contributes to your organisation’s future plans in your review, each employee will get a reminder how they continue to play an important role in the organisation.
  • Collaborating on a plan for each team member’s future. A focus on career development is one thing that makes a great manager. If looking one year ahead isn’t possible, break it into bi-annual or quarterly stretches.

4. Consider context if there is underperformance

If someone isn’t performing, try to identity the underlying factors that could be causing it. After all, the pandemic has caused a lot of upheaval in the workplace, and not every employee will have the same reaction to the situation.

Demonstrate compassion by acknowledging you understand that there may be a gap between normal performance and their work during this period. Show you understand and appreciate each team member by:

  • Asking what they’ve found challenging about remote work and listening carefully to their response. Be on the front foot and offer yourself as a support. For example, ask if they need additional tools or different processes to help them complete their work under these different circumstances.
  • Focusing on other measures of performance that could be appropriate for the pandemic circumstances, such as self-evaluation and sharing wins that have occurred.
  • Approach any difficult conversations about performance with sensitivity. You don’t know what each team members’ at-home work environment is like, so it’s important to not make assumptions.
  • Offering more flexibility. Some of your employees may be feeling isolated. Others may be overwhelmed by kids learning from home. Yet others may just prefer the collegiate environment in an office to working from home. Ask each team member to honestly assess their work structure and what changes could help.
  • Pressing pause on numerical ratings. Consider conducting a more narrative form of assessment, instead of one focused on metrics. This can still include specific and constructive feedback about what they’re doing well and where they could improve, over concrete numbers.

If an employee’s underperformance is long-standing and continuing, offer a clear warning. There may come a point where you’ll need to make some tough decisions – but being empathetic and creating strategies for success should come first.

We’ve covered this topic in more detail in our post on six tips for approaching remote employees who are underperforming.

5. Ask for feedback  

Reviews should be a two-way conversation, so encourage your team to provide feedback in a variety of formats. This can include:

  • Providing an opportunity for each team member to give genuine feedback in person, without becoming defensive. Some employees may feel anxious and uncertain about performance reviews in general, let alone those conducted remotely. But it’s crucial to your team’s success to allow all members to feel heard. Create a space for them to be honest by listening actively, validating what the person has said, and taking your time before compassionately responding.
  • Providing opportunities for your team to share their thoughts anonymously prior to and after their review. Many online tools to conduct anonymous team surveys and gather valuable insights offer a low-cost or free version.
  • Scheduling in a check-in with each employee following the performance review. Some of your staff may need time to process feedback. Others might just want some reassurance and a chance to discuss something that came up.

During COVID-19 restrictions, compassionate leadership should be a priority. As a manager, you need to adapt and tie employee performance and wellbeing together.

How is your organisation conducting performance reviews this year? Is there anything you think needs to stay or go? Let us know in the comments below!

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