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How to make performance reviews less terrible – especially given the challenges of supervising remote workers

Few office workers seem to like performance reviews, those annual examinations of how well workers are doing their jobs. And many seem to outright hate – or fear – them.

A 2015 survey of Fortune 1000 companies found that nearly two-thirds of employees were dissatisfied with performance reviews, didn’t think they were relevant to their jobs – or both. In a separate survey conducted in 2016, a quarter of men and nearly a fifth of women reported crying as a result of a bad review. The figures were even higher for younger workers.

And that was during the much simpler pre-pandemic times, when pretty much all professional workers were in the office daily and could be assessed similarly. Things are trickier today, as some employees work entirely from home, others come to the office and still others split their time between the two. Almost 75% of U.S. companies are adopting a hybrid model, with 55% of employees saying they want to work remotely at least three days a week.

I am a professor of industrial-organizational psychology, a field that conducts scientific studies to better understand the workplace. Here are three challenges that I believe employers and their employees will face and ways to overcome them.

1. Familiarity gap

One of the biggest challenges involves the difficulty of creating a connection with your boss.

Employees who share the same physical space as their managers will have more opportunities to interact with them on a regular basis than those working remotely. This gives officegoers a leg up over peers who work remotely most or all the time.

For example, Matt comes to the office five days a week. Jake, who does the same job, makes it in only on Wednesdays. Over time, their mutual supervisor, Jill, will naturally become more familiar with Matt than she is with Jake, as Matt is available to join her for lunch, engage in a quick chat in her office or say “hi” as they pass in the hall.

The more familiar we are with other people, the more we tend to like them. And research has found that how much a manager likes you can have a significant impact on their evaluation of you.

The best way to even the playing field is by making it easier for workers to interact with their bosses when they’re working remotely. Employers can do this by scheduling short but frequent check-ins with remote workers throughout the day or providing virtual office hours when managers are available.

Another strategy is creating always-on chatrooms that all workers can use to communicate with supervisors in a similar way. To encourage more social interactions, companies can bring back the Zoom happy hours that became popular during the pandemic – though ideally in a way that make them more fulfilling.

Performance reviews can be painful.

2. Fewer observations

I teach my students that the most accurate performance ratings are obtained when reviews are based on observable behaviors rather than subjective evaluations of traits.

This is because while it is possible to define and standardize behaviors and to train raters on how to observe and rate them, traits are inherently subjective.

Take the trait “creativity.” How do you define creativity? How would you rate it, for example on a scale from “below expectations” to “exceeds expectations?”

Now imagine converting that into a behavior, such as “generates practical ideas in novel situations.” That’s something that could be reasonably and objectively assessed on a scale of never to frequently.

The problem is that observing behaviors is difficult if not impossible when employees are working remotely. One way to address this is for employers to adopt a results-based system, in which employees are evaluated based on productivity metrics such as client satisfaction, sales volume or number of units produced – criteria designed to fit the position.

Shifting the focus of performance appraisal from behaviors to results for all employees ensures that managers do not have to worry about being unable to observe their direct reports on the job. And employees get the flexibility to decide how they will complete their assigned tasks by being held accountable only for the end result. Thus, all workers are held to the same standards.

One other option that can help rate workers evenly is by applying tracking technology – though this can be controversial and problematic, for example by eroding employee privacy and creating more stress. In general, these systems track how remote workers are spending their time on their computers and phones.

But it’s vital to implement these systems right – for example, by being extremely transparent regarding what is being tracked and what data is being collected. When done right, tracking can be a useful way to more fairly evaluate certain types of employees, such as customer service reps or administrative assistants.

3. One review to rule them all

Alas, performance reviews based on results may not work for every job.

For example, evaluating a teacher based solely on student test scores may be problematic, since scores are also influenced by environmental factors such as poverty or a lack of family support. Similarly, an employee responsible for long-term strategic planning cannot immediately be evaluated based on results since it is impossible to know whether the plan will succeed before it is implemented.

The key thing here is to use only one type of review system for all employees. Evaluating employees by different standards may create fairness and even legal concerns if doing so might lead to different outcomes for groups explicitly protected from discrimination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information.

Since the evaluation helps determine who gets a raise or promotion and who might be fired, it is a particularly sensitive document. For example, imagine that a group of employees using one type of review gets more promotions than another batch that follows a different system – and that also happens to include a higher proportion of racial minorities. The organization may then face a discrimination lawsuit in which it may be required to prove that the two evaluations are equivalent.

At the end of the day, an employer should use a type of evaluation that can effectively measure any employee’s performance. If judging on results doesn’t work, an organization could try a behavior-based system but revise it so that it doesn’t favor employees working in the office. Another system is competencies reviews, the most popular type, which assess employees on competencies such as attention to detail, timeliness and quality of work.

Performance reviews will always be a drag for many workers – however vital they are to an organization’s success. By their nature, they can be excruciating, and not everyone can get a raise or promotion. But at least the reviews should be fair and not put anyone – such as those working primarily from home – at a disadvantage.

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