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For technology company AvePoint, employee engagement became the top priority when work shifted to remote during the pandemic, which suddenly meant rethinking and redesigning the performance-management process.

“We’ve continued to do performance evaluations two times a year, once during midyear and once during end of year. However, we’ve made slight changes to the process throughout the pandemic,” said Melissa Fingerhut, AvePoint’s vice president of people and talent acquisition.

Employees now are evaluated based on the specific skills needed by their department, she added.

“This makes performance reviews more meaningful for employees to benchmark their progress and growth of foundational skills in their unique role,” she said. In addition, employees receive “specific feedback from their manager, even though they can’t meet face to face right now.”

AvePoint is not unique. According to Gerry Gibson, a principal in the career business of consulting company Mercer, organizations worldwide have had to rethink, revamp and retrain to address how to effectively measure remote workers’ performance.

Increased frequency of feedback

“Measuring employee performance meaningfully has always been a challenge, but the pandemic heightened the need to take a closer look at the performance-review process and the ways remote work has impacted it,” he said. “The nature of manager-employee relationships and interactions has changed, and people-related work processes will need to adapt.”

Kristy McClellan, a director of talent management for consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, also has seen a shift in almost every aspect of performance management.

An example was a partnership with a client in the food-services industry to increase agility in their process.

“The organization implemented a quarterly performance-management process to align with shifting business priorities and quarterly short-term incentive payout,” she explained. “This process also [provided] opportunities for employees to receive feedback frequently.”

McClellan has also seen an increase in continuous feedback.

“Without working together in the same location, managers need to be intentional about setting up time to provide feedback,” she advised.

AvePoint’s Fingerhut says the company also has empowered remote workers to initiate ad-hoc performance-evaluation conversations.

Team goal setting and increasing employee engagement

Another trend McClellan has seen is an increase in team goal-setting to ensure that “the entire team is working cohesively and towards a collective goal, even while working remotely.”

That tracks with what AvePoint has done.

“We tie our mid-year review process to three core values — to help showcase how employees have displayed agility, passion and teamwork,” Fingerhut said. “We narrow the feedback so it maps back further specifically to their team’s objectives, so the evaluation is relevant to their role and useful to reflect back on.”

AvePoint’s human-resources department also has increased communications and training for both employees and managers, giving them a greater understanding of how the process works.

“Employee engagement is important now more than ever with many of our staff working remote,” she added. “To get a gauge on engagement in this remote environment, it’s been important for us over the last year during our performance evaluations to discuss not only goals but also what areas [energize] employees.”

McClellan of Willis Towers Watson says managers and employees must shift their thinking about productivity — from the number of hours spent in the office to the outcome of the work.

“In the absence of working together in person, managers need to work intentionally to build trust with their employees,” she said.

While there may be a lot of “Zoom” fatigue, it’s still important to use videoconferencing when doing performance evaluations to ensure that body language can be read by both sides, she adds.

Auditing for bias

Minimizing bias is a crucial aspect of performance management, notes Debahuti Bora, a director of talent management for Willis Towers Watson. She suggests auditing the evaluation process to minimize bias and then training leaders, managers and employees about bias.

HR also should host “calibration sessions” with same-level managers to ensure that the same standards apply to all performance ratings, Bora says, adding that getting feedback from peers, direct reports and others is also critical.

These approaches “will become particularly important to ensure fairness in a hybrid environment when evaluating performance and making related decisions across remote and onsite employees,” she said.

When measuring performance, assessing and planning to upgrade skills are a critical component, adds Brian Fisher, a principal in Mercer’s career business.

Mercer’s US Global Talent Trends 2021 report notes that collaboration skills, openness to change and self-management are the top three skills that HR respondents said are needed for future resilience. Fisher also notes that preparing managers to lead remote teams will be “key to success in the new era.”

Best practices

Gibson of Mercer says some traditional practices will need to evolve to accommodate the remote-work environment. These include routine communication, traditional work habits (e.g., being on time), shifting focus from ratings to conversations in manager-team member interactions and the use of technology to link key processes such as career, workforce and succession planning.

He also suggests asking the following questions to prepare for the “new normal” of managing performance:

  • Are you evaluating the right things? This may mean rethinking what’s most important, especially if goals were set before the pandemic.
  • Are managers trained and able to perform their role and motivate their teams in a virtual environment?
  • Are “managers of managers” setting clear expectations about performance reviews and are coaching employees accordingly?
  • Are your organization and leaders demonstrating empathy? Because remote working circumstances may vary widely for employees, managers may have to be more flexible and have both “a little more heart and a little more leniency,” said Gibson.
  • Are you setting the right tone and environment? In the absence of in-person conversations, it’s important to have video sessions, which enables easy feedback and conversations.
  • Are your culture and core competencies aligned with reinforcing behaviors required to succeed in the new normal?

Fingerhut notes that AvePoint’s new review approaches have been well received.

“This has challenged our employees to be more intentional and thoughtful when meeting for performance evaluations and enabled them to communicate more throughout the process and during performance evaluations,” she said.

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