While performance reviews can be anxiety-inducing under normal circumstances, they can be an even bigger source of stress for employees this year. The global pandemic, political unrest, California wildfires, and widespread racial injustice are just a few of the 2020 crises that have left many people physically and emotionally drained.
One thing’s certain: 2020 has taken a toll. The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM)’s report, Navigating COVID-19: Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health, found that two in five employees feel burned out, drained, and exhausted from work, while nearly one in four say they feel down, depressed, or hopeless. To top things off, a January 2021 survey by market research company The Harris Poll found that 55% of employees say they’re worried they’ll lose their jobs because of the pandemic.
This doesn’t mean that you should skip performance reviews this year to avoid a potential additional stressor. Quite the opposite: In the face of waning employee engagement and productivity, performance reviews can be a powerful reset button to reinvigorate employee morale and realign teams. That said, this year managers will need to tread lightly and deliver feedback in a meaningful — but empathetic — way.
Performance reviews matter now more than ever and can even help employees adapt during trying times. Performance reviews can be used to:
1. See how employees are coping with change.
Performance reviews are a good opportunity to go beyond surface-level small talk and ask your employees to open up about what’s really weighing on them. This past year has turned many people’s lives upside down and made merely surviving an impressive accomplishment. At the beginning of the review conversation, ask your employee to share how they’re feeling about all the change at your company and in the world at large, and ask if you can do anything to help them. Something as simple as giving them permission to block off an hour during the workday to pick up their child from school could make a world of difference to a working parent, for example.
Unfortunately, many employees don’t feel comfortable discussing mental health with their manager. In fact, payroll services company Paychex’s Mental Health at Work During COVID-19 survey revealed that only 21% of employees speak about mental health with their supervisors, while about 30% feared bringing it up could get them fired or cost them a promotion.
Keep in mind that some of your employees might feel uncomfortable opening up as you approach these conversations. We’re all trying to cope with change in our own ways, but encouraging your employees to be candid about their feelings can help you be a better manager and learn how you can best support them.
2. Ensure alignment.
Remote work has changed the way we communicate with our teams. Without informal hallway catch-ups and impromptu desk brainstorms, we’ve had to become more intentional with scheduling video and phone calls and rely more heavily on chat and email to check-in on progress, share ideas, and assign tasks.
Unfortunately, these forms of communication are rife with misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Unlike in-person conversations, you can’t rely on nonverbal cues like body language and tone for context, and spotty WiFi connections only make it harder to have clear, meaningful conversations.
Use the next performance review cycle as a way to assess your own communication skills and styles. Ask your direct reports which form of communication they prefer (chat, email, video, or phone call) and if they think you’re checking-in too frequently or not enough. You might be surprised to learn some of your employees love a hands-off approach, while others appreciate it when you over-communicate.
3. Remind your employees what they’ve accomplished.
It’s always smart to take a moment during a performance review to look back on and acknowledge the exceptional work your employees completed during the last review cycle. Right now, when employees are struggling to stay motivated, recognition and praise can be an effective way to raise morale and recognize your employees’ hard work. Plus, it’s a great way to kick off your conversation on a positive note and help quash any review jitters.
4. Offer constructive feedback.
The meat of any good performance review should be the feedback. As a manager, you want to share helpful feedback with your direct reports to push them to grow and be better employees.
But, it’s important to note that not all feedback is positive feedback. You never know what others are going through, so tread lightly, be empathetic, and ensure you balance sharing positive and negative feedback during the review.
“Make sure your review is truly balanced,” urged Kelly Harris Perin, founder of Little Bites Coaching, a consultancy offering group workshops and one-on-one executive coaching. “It’s easy to rush through the positive feedback and dwell on the negative. Authentically and enthusiastically celebrating wins and strengths is just as important, both to make your employee feel valued and to ensure that they keep up their great work!”
That said, remember that nothing you point out during a performance review should be new. If and when issues arise, you should address them swiftly in a one-on-one meeting or other casual check-in calls so employees are aware of the issue and can correct it moving forward.
“The majority of your conversation should be forward-focused. Because you’ve been providing feedback along the way, there’s no need to rehash things in detail from a year ago,” reminded TyAnn Osborn, founder of executive and leadership training consultancy Osborn Consulting Group and former Global Director of Human Resources for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “Instead, use the rest of your time discussing an employee’s focus areas, strengths, skills, and career interests, and how you can support their continued growth as a manager. Those topics are typically much more inspirational.”
5. Discuss career growth.
While career growth is an essential part of any performance review, these conversations might look a little different this year. For companies struggling to survive during the pandemic, promotions and raises might be off the table for the moment. In that case, you need to think of other creative ways to invest in your employees’ professional growth. This could be encouraging them to take an online class, assigning them to stretch assignments or projects with high visibility, or even finding them a mentor. Listen to your employee and their goals and decide together how you can best support them in achieving their aspirations.
“The very best performance reviews affirm someone’s strengths and co-create a clear, compelling vision for where the person can go and grow next,” said Harris Perin. “Discuss some exciting new ideas for growth opportunities and stretch projects with your employee and schedule a follow-up meeting to check-in on progress in a month or two.”
If your company is struggling, it’s important to be as transparent as you can be with your direct reports. Odds are, they’re anxious about job security and want to know what’s happening now or what will be changing in the future. Giving them any information you have that can help calm their nerves can be a good thing, Osborn said.
“Managers should be open and honest with employees. While no one likes to hear that there is no money for raises or promotions, people can understand and accept business conditions, especially when the alternative might be business closures,” said Osborne. “Ideally, your company has been openly communicating business conditions with employees throughout the year, so this shouldn't be a surprise either.” Still, it can’t hurt to reiterate what you do know to help quell rumors and put employees at ease.
6. Set expectations and priorities.
You also want to use a performance review to align on what priorities your employee will focus on in the upcoming quarter. To do this, you’ll want to establish clear, measurable, and time-bound SMART goals. Not only will this ensure you both understand what your employee will be working on in the coming months, but it will also help your employee understand how their contributions help and connect to your organization’s overall goals, which can aid in improving morale and motivation. Just be sure to put them down in writing to hold your employee accountable.
7. Thank employees for their contributions.
Lastly, it’s important to end performance reviews on a high note. We’ve been through a lot in the past year and so far 2021 has been more of the same. We’re all dealing with a whole host of emotions, so trying to instill a little positivity in your employees can’t hurt.
Research shows that workplace recognition is one of the top factors that encourage employees to stay with or leave an employer. Make sure during the performance review that you let your employee know how much they mean to you and the rest of your team by thanking them for their contributions.
“Two of the primary drivers of employee engagement are knowing that you are making a difference and that your manager cares about you as a person,” noted Osborn. “I like to end all review meetings stating those things explicitly to my employees: ‘I am so proud to be your manager and am honored to have you as a part of the team. Because of you, we are able to meet our goals (or provide quality service to our customers, improve people's lives, etc.). I want you to know how important you are, and I want you to know that I am here for your success.’”
It’s been a hard year, but having a team you can depend on makes a world of difference. Thank your employees personally for all their hard work and flexibility. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts and contributions to the team. Just a simple “Thank you” can go a long way, and a performance review can be the perfect time to let your employees know just how much you care.
While some things have had to be put on pause until we return to the office, performance reviews should not be one of them. In the face of change and uncertainty, managers need to prioritize coming together with their employees and communicating clearly throughout this time of ambiguity.
Physical distance doesn’t erase our need for feedback — it magnifies it. A virtual video call might be the closest we can get for the time being, but these face-to-face moments are crucial for maintaining individual performance, team alignment, and employee morale. That’s why performance reviews are so essential for business success and should be prioritized this year and beyond.