As coronavirus was unleashed across the world in early 2020, Facebook did something unprecedented: It gave its employees a break. For the first half of the year, the tech giant granted each of its 45,000 full-time staffers an “exceeds expectations” performance review rating, ensuring they all got $1,000 bonuses. Google, for its part, skipped its midyear reviews altogether, and in the fall, promoted twice as many people as it usually does.
The pandemic has changed fundamental parts of work. As people continue to juggle personal and job-related responsibilities at the same time—often from the same dining room chair—employers are having to rethink the way they evaluate performance. The usual rigid metrics for success have flown out the window, and for many companies, it’s less about how many targets you’ve hit, but how well you’re doing overall.
“Empathy, caring, supporting people is really the theme,” Josh Bersin, a human resources analyst and consultant, tells the Wall Street Journal. He anticipates this grace period will last around two years. When “the pandemic is history and we’re back to ‘go, go, go,’ we’ll probably go back to the way things were.”
However, if we face this historic moment, , managers and teams can reevaluate some of our performance management tactics for the better. Here are a handful of recommendations.
Keep goals fluid
Goal-setting looks very different now than it did before the pandemic. Rather than trying to stick to fixed goals that are discussed at annual reviews and then forgotten, managers and teams should start thinking of goals as fluid, updating them on a weekly or even real-time basis.
The workplace management team at Gallup emphasizes the importance of an “agile mindset,” which encourages teams not just to expect change, but anticipate it. Ben Wigert and Heather Barrett write “managers should be given the expectation, authority, and flexibility to tailor goal-setting to the team and the individual as their work changes.”
Sticking to pre-pandemic expectations is setting employees up to fail. Rather than fixating on KPIs, look at how well your reports are doing with other, often overlooked intangibles: How well are they communicating, both with their managers and their team? Are they bringing clarity to complex situations? Are they contributing positively to morale?
As the goal posts for “success” continue to shift, it’s important to adjust expectations accordingly. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve strived to lead my team with compassion—understanding we’re all trying to cope with the changing landscape. This doesn’t mean letting everyone off the hook, but it does mean being realistic about what’s possible.
Stay privvy to bias
Prior to the pandemic, it was normal to maintain a stark divide between work and home. But now that Zoom meetings are often soundtracked by barking dogs or crying toddlers, we’re getting to know our colleagues on a whole new, more personal level—and that’s a good thing.
That’s because it challenges what’s called the “ideal worker norm,” an implicit preference for employees who enter the workforce at a relatively early age and do their job for 40-odd years straight, leaving their home life at home and climbing the ranks accordingly.
The problem with the ideal worker is that it’s disproportionately burdensome to working mothers, who face the incorrect assumption that their need for flexibility to perform caring duties conflicts with their commitment to work. The pandemic is only exacerbating those inequities.
To weed out bias when evaluating performance, the authors suggest implementing a system of “criteria monitoring.” To put such a system into action, first eliminate ambiguity in criteria by defining it in clear, measurable terms. Then, look for unintended consequences or hidden preferences in the language you’re using. For instance, “stepping up” favors those workers who can be on around the clock, neglecting to recognize those who have family obligations or other duties.
In order for this to work, managers must align on the most important criteria, especially if it differs from usual performance metrics. In the past, an employee who checked in on colleagues may have gone unrecognized. But now, in a time when burnout is a greater threat than ever, it’s a valuable behavior that should be considered a piece of their overall contribution.
Offer continuous feedback
Daily check-ins may seem like an undue burden to managers who are already overtaxed. But the reality is that good communication is the only way to navigate ever-shifting priorities.
Research from the asset management company Mercer shows that employees are three times more likely to be unhappy in their jobs if they are surprised by decisions that impact their work, and 1 in 5 employees say they are feeling consistently uninformed or in the dark since the onset of the COVID-19.
To keep employees and managers on the same page, establishing a strong feedback culture is essential. A 2019 MIT paper presciently revealed that organizations who pivoted to a flexible, development-oriented approach to performance management would have a clear edge. “The biggest cultural and organizational impact of next-generation performance management systems will be feedback time, tempo, and impact,” the authors write. “Instead of annual, quarterly, or impromptu reviews, talent- and accountability-oriented enterprises will encourage and enable near-constant feedback.”
Giving feedback takes practice, and a manager who shied away from it beforehand isn’t suddenly going to love it now. However, like many new habits, it can be practiced and improved over time. Feedback is so important, offering it intentionally and consistently is a skill necessary during a pandemic or otherwise.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.