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Managing staff appraisals during COVID-19

In light of recent events, it’s easy to forget that performance review season is fast approaching. Most managers have spent the last few months grappling firstly with the logistics of moving their entire team to a remote working model, followed quickly by determining how best they could manage this remote workforce. Before we knew it, the pendulum began to swing back, and the focus shifted to how to transition people back into the workplace while maintaining appropriate physical distancing.

Understandably then, upcoming performance reviews may have slipped further down your to-do list than they would typically be at this time of year. Add to this changed business priorities and objectives that may have altered over the last few months, and you may think that performance reviews should be postponed.

However, this is not the time to put off performance reviews. In fact, during any time of crisis, celebrating successes, refocusing on the organisation’s goals and an employee’s role in achieving those goals, and setting new objectives for your employees is an important part in helping your organisation return to growth as quickly as possible.

After all, a performance review is not only an opportunity to evaluate recent work; it’s also an opportunity to reset priorities and focus on what needs to be achieved in the coming months. Without recognition for recent efforts and guidance on their new key priorities, employees can be left demotivated and unengaged, which negatively impacts productivity and output.

Therefore, if organisations are to chart their path through recovery and back to growth, knowing how to conduct appraisals with employees successfully at this time is more important than ever.

Here’s our tips on how to appraise staff this year

Acknowledge that pre-COVID-19 objectives have shifted: During the pandemic, many of the objectives you set for staff in their last review reduced in priority or were put on hold. Others instead took their place. At the same time, some employees took on additional duties outside their normal remit. Therefore, before the review it’s important to update each employee’s pre-appraisal form with their new priorities. In this way, there will be no surprises in the review. In addition, the resulting discussion will be relevant and focus on current metrics. Rather than reviewing a set of outdated and irrelevant objectives, you’ll concentrate on how employees have helped their organisation through the crisis and the value they’ve added.

Recognise soft skills: During the pandemic, employees have been forced to double down on their soft skills to ensure they successfully delivered new metrics while working remotely – often for the first time. Given this, on relevant employees’ pre-appraisal forms you could also note that they were required to shift to remote-only working. After all, this achievement required an enormous learning curve and a high level of accountability to remain motivated and productive, and so it deserves to be discussed and recognised in their review.

Of course, working successfully from home, especially if an employee was doing so for the first time, also required them to flex their adaptability skills. There’s no denying that over the past few months, we’ve all been operating in unchartered territory. A huge number of employees have consequently had to learn to work remotely and pivot their priorities to help their organisation navigate this crisis.

Such adaptability should be commended in the review, not only for helping an organisation survive the pandemic but because it will remain a crucial trait in the future world of work where rapid technological disruption impacts all our jobs.

Change your method of evaluation, if required: Many employees are evaluated against parameters that have been unachievable during the crisis. For example, perhaps an objective for your staff was to increase revenue by a certain percentage or achieve a set number of sales. Holding staff accountable to such objectives at this time is unrealistic, so look at alternative methods to evaluate employees. For instance, the number of customers your employees have spoken to on the phone or over email, the number of internal or external stakeholders they’ve worked with or the volume of tasks delivered in a given timeframe. You could also consider the impact of process improvements made over this time or the involvement in projects outside their usual remit.

A two-way discussion helps people feel visible – especially when they’ve been working remotely: Over recent months your entire workforce may have been working remotely, and many staff may continue to do so. When employees are working remotely, they may feel that their work is less visible or that they have less opportunity to highlight to you the work they are proud of. It’s important therefore to ensure your review is a two-way discussion. Of course, for reviews to be effective they should always be interactive, with employees given just as much time to share their perspective as their manager. Today however, it’s even more vital that a review feels like a conversation, with employees able to highlight to you their achievements, successes and performance. They should also be able to discuss in a collaborative manner their future priorities and objectives. This will help them feel that their voice was heard and respected at a time when they may have far less contact with you than usual.

Understand that hiccups were inevitable: This pandemic is unprecedented. Everyone has been forced to adapt. Plans changed and people had to work out how to achieve the output required of them in new ways. Not everything went to plan. Therefore, do not be too critical of your staff. We all found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and it may have taken a few attempts before suitable solutions were found.

Identify learning & development opportunities: Any review should be used as an opportunity to check in with each employee and discuss learning needs. At this point in time, asking each employee to identify where they are falling short and how you can support them to improve their performance is vital if they are to help your organisation transition back to growth.

Discuss career progression: Even during a time of crisis, your top talent wants reassurance that their career can continue to develop. A performance appraisal allows you to check in with your employees to discuss recent achievements that have moved them closer to their next promotion. It also allows you to discuss your employees’ career goals and identify objectives that must be met or skill gaps that need to be overcome to qualify for a promotion. This is an opportunity to keep staff who are motivated by career advancement engaged and shows them that you care about their progression.

Reset expectations: If you are managing a hybrid team and your employees continue to work remotely all or some of the time, a performance review is also a good opportunity to discuss your expectations for the regularity of communication, work-life boundaries and output. Use this time to check with your remote employees what is working well and what challenges they are facing. Discuss how these challenges could be overcome and put a plan in place. For more advice on how to ensure continued remote working remains viable for both your organisation and individual employees, read these six considerations for managers.

What if you offer performance-related bonuses? Budgets may be tight but cancelling bonuses will only have a negative impact on the motivation, engagement and productivity of employees who have worked hard to achieve their objectives and pivoted to help your organisation through the crisis. Failing to honour bonus commitments will also have a detrimental impact on your employment brand. So, while salary increases can understandably be put on hold, you should stand by bonuses.

Without doubt, this review season will be different to most other reviews you’ve run. You may even be holding your reviews virtually this year for some or all staff. With the above advice on best practices for conducting performance appraisals at this point in time, you can ensure your reviews remain productive and focused on the objectives and output that is relevant today, while planning collaboratively how your employees can help the organisation transition back to growth. This allows you to recognise successes, acknowledge shifting priorities and plan for the future.

For further tips on how to prepare for an appraisal and run the appraisal itself, see our article how to conduct a performance appraisal.


About this author

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director, began working at Hays in 1993 and since then he has held a variety of consulting and management roles across the business. In 2004 he was appointed to the Hays Board of Directors. He was made Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand in 2012.

Prior to joining Hays, he had a background in human resource management and marketing, and has formal qualifications in Psychology.

Follow Nick on LinkedIn

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