Michael’s Corner – Issue 108

James Murphy

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← Issue 108 – Superannuation 2020

Michael’s Corner

Article 008


You may have conducted hundreds of performance reviews over the course of your career, but in the era of COVID-19 everything is different. You and your team have been working remotely for months now in an extremely difficult situation. How do you begin to evaluate your employees’ performance at such a challenging time? How much should you consider the impact of COVID-19 on your assessment? And how do you make sure you are fair-minded given everyone’s different circumstances?

In most 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.

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

Deliberate your purpose

Performance reviews are important for both managers and employees. Think about why you are conducting these reviews in the first place — because, as the COVID-19 crisis flounders, you are not necessarily looking to weed out poor performers or decide who gets a raise. Rather, it is to strengthen your organisation’s culture and reinforce its values.

How the company treats its employees in this situation will make or break the culture. So, think hard about what you aim to achieve with these evaluations. Performance evaluations are one of the strongest anchors and artifacts of your corporate culture, so should be used wisely. Talk to your management and colleagues about the company’s near and long-term goals. Work together to figure out how to communicate those goals to your workforce as part of the evaluations. What leaders do and say now in these times is going to be remembered. Show your managerial mettle and tend to your team. And remember, your primary objective has not changed: You are still trying to help your employees become as strong as possible.

Give thought to what you are evaluating

Communication is vital to making employees feel valued and engaged. Similarly, be clear in your own mind what you are basing your assessment on. Are you looking at their performance prior to the health emergency or how well they are doing now? From a principled standpoint, think about what is most important.

Performance is a measure of success against a goal. And at most organisations, the targets that were set last year before the COVID-19 crisis emerged are no longer applicable as the goalposts have shifted and the context has changed. Since it would be unfair to judge your employees against the company’s pre-pandemic objectives, concentrate on your individual employee’s growth and learning. It would be really unfortunate if you focused on the transactional aspect of performance when instead you could look at employees’ empathy, resilience, and capacity to adapt during this challenging period. Teamwork and collaboration are at a premium during this crisis, and those behaviors should be acknowledged and rewarded.

Gather compassion

Fully acknowledge the vastly different and varying circumstances your team members are operating under. 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. With your team members working from home, your approach calls for a little more flexibility, a little more heart, and a little more leniency.

This is not a normal performance review, working from home does not necessary work for everyone.

Some may be juggling client calls with entertaining their toddlers or helping their teens with homework; others may be overseeing projects while caring for sick or elderly family members; still others may be trying to work while struggling with feelings of isolation. You do not know exactly how rough it is for your employees. As a manager, do not only look at the deliverables people are providing while ignoring their home situations, the psychological impact of COVID-19 is hitting people in different ways. A little more latitude is required. Be compassionate and take time to acknowledge the person’s effort, hard work and ability to adapt during this time of change.

Consider eliminating ratings

Temporarily suspending numerical ratings and consider conducting a more narrative form of assessment, instead of one focused on a set series of indicators. Rating your employees is going to be extremely difficult because, for objective reasons, many are not able to give 100%, adding that many schools have done away with student grades and are opting for a pass/fail model . In place of ratings, create a flexible system that recognises the hardships that many people are enduring, and doing more of a narrative assessment that provides employees with specific feedback and helpful information about what they’ve done well and where they could improve.

Compile an assortment of data

 Ask for feedback, reviews should be a two-way conversation, so encourage your team to provide feedback in a variety of formats. One of the most difficult things about conducting performance reviews at a time when your team has gone remote is that you don’t have as much data as you usually do because you’re not seeing your employees in person.

Some employees may feel anxious and uncertain about performance reviews in general, let alone those conducted remotely. The risk is that your old biases, positive or negative, are going to be amplified. It is 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. Your star performers are sure to be doing great while your stragglers are dropping the ball. To tackle the problem, you need and look for other sources of data. Request self-evaluations and canvas peers for their thoughts. Ask others, is this employee proactively communicating? How are they connecting with clients and colleagues? Who are they helping? Put those positive questions front and centre.

Lead the way

Be sure to make the performance review process clear. Mental exhaustion because of Zoom calls or webinars is very real, so for this type of conversation video is also important, it is more personal and humane. It also allows you to see people where they are — whether they are working from their living rooms, their kitchens, or bedrooms. Be open and warm. Pay close attention to body language — both yours and your employees. Because you are not face-to-face there are no contextual cues, so it is easy to have misunderstandings. On a screen, your employee’s head is  two-dimensional, so it is going to be harder for you to judge the subtext of what is happening. You are going to have to be much more explicit and much more verbal. Listen carefully and encourage two-way conversation . Spend the time to really make sure things are not lost in translation.

Proceed carefully; avoid offending poor performers…

As a rule, job reviews are a chance for managers to confront poor performers by demanding improvement. But these are not normal times, if someone is not performing, now is not time to beat them up. Approach any difficult conversations about performance with sensitivity, make a conscious decision which battles to fight, it is not worth it to run around chasing non-performers.

Instead, if someone on your team is not delivering, you need to find out why by asking what is going on in their lives, create some slack in the system to deal with problem employees. If ordinarily you would put someone on warning because they are struggling, you could instead offer a set time and some space to allow them to get used to remote working and turn things around. If an employee’s underperformance is long-standing and continuing, offer a clear warning. There may come a point where you will need to make some tough decisions – but being empathetic and creating strategies for success should come first.

…And be effusive with your high achievers

On the other hand, it is critical to acknowledge your high performers — both for their morale and your organisation’s ability to retain them. Reassurance and praise will mean a lot to your workers’ peace of mind. Your top talent will always have places to go, even in a tough employment market. Make sure you seize this opportunity to recognise and show appreciation for employees who are working hard, engaged, committed, and offering their support to others. In this economy, people are experiencing a lot of dread and fear that they are going to be out of a job. The best way to help them cope with uncertainty is to create some certainty. Give people a baseline. If you know that somebody’s performance is not going to put them at risk, let them know.

Plan toward the future

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

In this environment, you may need more frequent, smaller evaluations such as semi-annual or quarterly check-ins. This will give you, the manager, an opportunity to provide real feedback and gives employees the chance to make adjustments and calibrations, while thinking about how this crisis could be a catalyst for changing your organisation’s performance culture. This period represents an opportunity to pivot toward a people-focused management system, built around resilience and agility, instead of efficiency and competitiveness at any cost. The former is more sustainable in the long run.

Fundamentals to remember

Do… Do not…

·       Recognise and show appreciation for employees who are engaged and working hard. It is critical for their morale — and for your organisation’s ability to retain them.



·       Be hard-hearted toward your poor performers. Give them a time-bound grace period to get used to working remotely and to turn things around

·       Let your old biases creep in. Seek out alternative data. Ask colleagues and reports for information on how well other employees are communicating, collaborating, and helping. ·       Forget to talk about impact and the future. Remote work looks here to stay. Therefore, many will have to consider how they manage feedback and performance remotely for the long-term.
·       Approach your evaluations with more flexibility, leniency, empathy, and compassion. ·       Revert to business as usual — instead, think about how to do performance reviews better. In this environment, semi-annual or quarterly evaluations may be optimal.
·       Use video for this conversation. It is more personal and humane.



Please note that this is general advice for information only and any application of legislation and/or Industrial Relations or contractual requirements may require professional advice to suit your individual circumstances. If you have question for Michael’s team send us an email [email protected] or sign-up for a Buzz Session…