Hybrid work has drastically changed our relationships with our colleagues and supervisors. Managers used to be able to walk around and see who’s in meetings, who’s early or late for work, who gets chatted up by their colleagues. But with workers at home for several days a week now, that peripheral vision is lost.
Today’s hybrid workplace also means we work in a more collaborative way. Most employees work in teams and go to peers for advice, not just a direct manager. Conversations that happened in the lunchroom now happen over Slack or Zoom. All of this makes it harder for a manager to see all the ways that an employee is contributing to the company, and that means we need to change the way we conduct performance reviews.
Audits on Break
Many companies simply put performance reviews on hold during the pandemic. Leaders were thrown off and overwhelmed, and many of my executive coaching clients tell me they felt like they didn’t have enough visibility to accurately assess their direct reports.
If reviews were done over the past three years, they were likely what I would call ‘light’ or ‘soft’ reviews. They weren’t necessarily official appraisals that involved Human Resources, but rather simple conversations with employees about performance. Because the times were unusual, the reviews were also unusual. Of course, there were other companies that maintained their regular review protocols throughout the pandemic.
The Old Way
Traditional performance reviews take a top-down, hierarchical approach where the feedback typically comes from one manager. Sometimes 360 peer reviews are included, but those are usually hand-selected peers, so the cumulative perspectives don’t provide a wide scope of the employee’s performance or impact in the organization. It’s amazing to me how many leaders still use this model because it contributes to their blindness as to what’s actually happening in the workplace.
I bet everyone can think of at least one person you know who managed their way up to a promotion. I’ve even seen this happen at the C-suite level. A person can manage up very well but be wildly different in their skills of managing down. If that person’s boss is the only opinion reflected in a performance review, an important piece of the big picture is missing.
The New Way
Since the hybrid model became part of our lives, I’ve noticed leaders are doing more skip-level reviews. That refers to a conversation between an employee’s direct supervisor’s manager and the employee, without the direct supervisor present. It allows a senior-level manager to gain insight from that employee’s perspective. This method means that a more extensive cross-functional review is done. My clients tell me they are leaning on more people to get differing opinions of employee performance. They say they don’t feel as close to their employees as they were before the pandemic, so they are compensating by talking to more people and reaching out further to get good feedback.
Although this is a more time-consuming method of completing performance reviews, it’s a definite positive change because it offers a more comprehensive and rich review. With this amount of conversation happening, you can see the whole person – how they interact with employees beneath them, managers above them as well as the top boss.
There’s another approach that has existed for decades in academia that managers should consider: Organizational Network Analysis. To summarize, every employee answers questions such as who they go to for help, who are the outstanding contributors and who they have concerns about and why.
This data-driven approach provides feedback from the network rather than just the manager or cherry-picked colleagues for 360s. It’s bound to produce information that wouldn’t necessarily been revealed otherwise which can be important for making decisions about talent.
It’s no secret that a small percentage of your employees are your key players. In fact, researchers have studied Pareto distribution vs. Gaussian curves (i.e. bell curves) for decades (if you want to geek out on this topic, this Harvard Business Review article is a great place to start). When you use ONA, you are going to find the same people named over and over – they will show up repeatedly. What that tells a company is that you now know what key people you cannot lose and why you should do whatever you can to retain those high performers.
No matter what method you choose for your performance reviews, it’s important to offer frequent feedback, perhaps more often than you did pre-pandemic. My coaching clients tell me they feel like they don’t have as much oversight and control over their employees and how well they are performing.
In an effort not to lose that closeness they once had, they are checking in more. They are collecting bite-sized performance data throughout the year. They speak with key stakeholders around the employee and then have the performance review with the employee. I think this approach means that performance reviews are more accurate now than before.
The Perceived Negatives
Now that we know that traditional performance reviews don’t fit with how we are currently working, what’s to stop leaders from embracing other methods with open arms? In addition to the time factor already discussed, I find that strong belief systems – strongly holding on to “how it has always been” get in the way.
For leaders who did not adapt well to the changes caused by the pandemic in the modern workplace, they are also resistant to change in performance reviews. They want to see the people in the office so that they know they are actually doing their jobs. It’s a trust issue. These leaders have belief issues that are very strong. Do you trust that your employees are working while they are at home? Or do you distrust, and want to install software on your company computers to keep an eye on how people do their jobs? Although there are benefits of productivity monitoring in practice, things often go wrong.
These managers are not able to lend trust even though they are getting significant deliverables from their employees and even though worker performance has actually gone up. Research has shown that people work more and more importantly are more focused from home than they do in an office full of distractions. There’s a generational gap at play here as well, where older people believe very strongly in in-person office work whereas younger people want more flexibility.
This strongly held belief will end up costing companies in their capacity to pull in top talent. I’ve seen companies I work with let people go who refuse to come back to work in the office two days a week. Those same companies are currently using a modified hybrid model but have the intention of having everyone come back to the workplace full-time eventually. These leaders cannot be moved from their opinions because their beliefs are stronger than any data presented.
Coaching for Performance
One positive trend I have seen in this new hybrid world of performance reviews is more development for employees. While there are certainly leaders struggling to develop their teams while being under-resourced in today’s tough economy, there are other companies who have increased investment in coaching and development.
A traditional performance review details where the employee is today and areas that they need to work on. But I’m seeing more of an interest in having more performance-driven improvement opportunities for people both in reviews and development.