Accountable Healthcare - Performance Reviews in 2021: Meaning, Not Just Metrics
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July 21, 2021

Performance Reviews in 2021: Meaning, Not Just Metrics

Say you’re an organization that conducts performance reviews on the regular. No matter the cadence — 3-, 6- or 12-month — you’re likely wondering if you can simply repeat the usual process of years past. And however you did it over the past year, kudos for holding it together. 

Now it’s time to review the performance review. This is a year of huge opportunities for organizations to reevaluate their people management processes across all fronts, from recruiting to reviewing, from retention to retirement. Reviews of employee performance need to be useful and relevant to justify the effort, the time and the stress. If you simply try to conduct business as usual in terms of performance reviews, the approach could backfire — as in increased disengagement, frustrated managers and a potential brain drain as the labor market reheats.

Start with the obvious question

Let’s get the biggest question out of the way: Do you need to conduct performance reviews? Most likely, you do. Most of the leaders and decision-makers I talk to are looking for a better way to do just about everything, including alleviating anxiety and uncertainty. But doing away with performance reviews may not accomplish that. It is true the very nature of the workplace has been called into question — wherever it took place. Many of the practices we relied on were radically disrupted, as was our belief that we need them to get work done. 

But performance reviews still provide an important function for all involved. On an HR level, gutting them may have the unintended consequence of affecting workforce planning for years. Further, managers may depend on them — and may need them to provide structured feedback to a workforce that was scattered in space, time and attention span. They may want a way to formalize their own recognition of employees for all the hard work. And from an employee perspective, however traditionally stressful it can be, a performance review is a critical gauge for their growth and improvement. LIkely, the cycle of performance reviews has been part of how they conduct their relationship with management and the organization. Given the added pressures on employees over the past year, a performance review could deliver a much-needed boost.

Further, everyone needs indications that the organization has weathered the pandemic and its economic storms and is returning to an even keel. It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but conducting a performance review is a sign that the organization is strong. On the other hand, ditching performance reviews may be perceived as a concession, a compromise or a shortcut, all admissions that the pandemic got the best of the organization. If it’s going to take some time to return to normal processes due to workplace restructuring or rebuilding the workforce, it’s all right to hold off on the next quarterly or semi-annual review. But don’t skip too many: it’s not only a milestone in the work cycle, it’s also a skill managers need to practice and maintain.

Recalibrate, reassess and redesign

So instead of doing away with your performance reviews, consider recalibrating them in these three ways: 

1. Build in empathy, compassion and reality.

Not to imply that most organizations don’t prioritize mental health and well-being, but performance reviews need to take into account the workplace experience of the past year or so. Employees have been through the ringer. Managers have heroically kept everyone together and done a lot of heavy lifting. How are you as an organization going to acknowledge that? More to the point, you may already be acknowledging it with various communications and recognition. Many organizations are. But it’s important to integrate the same theme into your performance reviews. That doesn’t mean doing away with measurements. But it means adding in more opportunities for two-way feedback and more room for employee voices. 

There are plenty of reasons to do this. Primary among them is the need to build, increase and leverage trust. Remote working ran on trust, digital workplaces relied on trust and the relationship between managers and employees by necessity required an increase of trust going both ways. Trust was the glue that held remote teams together. But performance reviews haven’t exactly promoted trust as a currency. Only 42% of employees reported that they trusted their bosses according to a global survey by the Harvard Business Review. Capitalize on the culture of trust built up during remote working by taking away one of the least trustworthy parts of performance reviews — their cold reliance on one-way discussion, cold ratings and a lack of dialogue. And we know that two-way feedback is a great way to foster trust.

2. Build in two-way feedback 

That said, expand on the performance review format to include feedback on employees’ experiences, including burnout. A global study of employees found that mental health plummeted from March to April 2020, even among those who had reported themselves to be fine in the year leading up to the pandemic. From March to April, the share of respondents who reported their mental health in the lowest range doubled from 6.8% to 14.4%. Part of any healing process is reflecting on the past once it’s safely behind us. Include space in the performance review process for employees to weigh in on their own struggles. 

It’s important to ask specifically about burnout. A recent report on employee burnout found an unsettling trend: 52% of respondents report feeling burnt out over the past year, and 67% said the feeling got worse over the course of the pandemic. Further, 53% of virtual or work-from-home employees reported they worked more hours than they had in the office.

From a talent management perspective, to not address burnout as a specific issue is a glaring omission. Addressing it not only shows empathy and compassion, it’s a great opportunity to gain insights into what works and what doesn’t to mitigate burnout. If this applies, compare the experience of your remote and your onsite employees. If you instituted a policy change, such as in flexibility or leave during the year, find out if it was effective with before-and-after questions. 

3. Reconsider your standards 

In the recent past, standards by which you measured performance might include benchmarking against competitors and industrial norms. You may have established a set of hard metrics, such as expectations as to how an employee should be able to perform and to what extent established individual and organizational goals were achieved. Other common metrics include development milestones, skills attained, deadlines reached and demonstration of organizational core values, such as innovation or initiative. 

Many organizations also use comparative ratings — but given the wildly different challenges employees faced as they worked through a pandemic, they won’t be accurate or fair. Moreover, team cohesiveness, whether via remote or in on-site situations, was hard fought. Ratings are an effective way to break down those connections and nullify that experience, but they won’t do much else. Instead, address what happened over the past year. Come up with five essential metrics that reflect across the whole of your organization. Take the numbers game out of pitting people against one another, and gather your managers to get their take on what can and can’t be measured. What really mattered wasn’t just workday performance or deliverables — ironically, the pandemic forced us all to bring our whole selves to work.

Tact is a business strategy

Tact isn’t just an affect when it comes to talent management. Flash back to the world of work before the pandemic, and it’s clear that workers wanted frequent feedback about their job performance but were (and remain) extremely sensitive to unfair performance reviews. 

A U.S. poll of 1,000 employees found that 92% want feedback on how they’re doing more frequently than just once a year. But as we head into the midyear review season, we may be evaluating slightly more frequently, but if it’s based on outdated, nonrelevant metrics, it’s not going to make anyone happy — including managers. A full 85% of employees in the poll said an unfair performance review would prompt them to consider quitting their jobs. 

Granted, 2019 had an entirely different labor market. But on the other hand, people have been through enough — and are still processing the challenges of 2020. Whatever the cadence of your performance reviews, the last thing you want to do is alienate your employees — unless, of course, the pandemic also exposed some bad apples, such as employees who were consistently absent, churlish in meetings or present but simply not there. In that case, performance reviews will help you sort through your talent, and it may raise morale among your employees as well as let them know that not only are they being recognized, but they’re being freed of the burden of toxic teammates.

Article By: Meghan M. Biro.