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3 things to improve the quality of performance appraisals for (newly) remote workers


COVID-19 has created a huge cultural change for managers and teams with an expected shift to remote working for many people


What’s the issue?


A manager recently told me they were upset because one of their people didn’t respond 15mins before the end of a ‘normal’ working day, but what is a normal working day? And what impact will that employee’s action have on their annual appraisal? In Australia, before COVID-19, a third of the working population worked remotely either full or part-time (ABS 2015). Now, more people than ever are working remotely. Many businesses have had to rapidly re-think or adapt their HR policies. As the way we work has changed, we need to change how we measure performance and align it with organisational goals.


Why it’s an issue?


For many workers who are new to remote working, there is an uneven playing field with their more seasoned counterparts in their ability to demonstrate performance and their manager’s ability to acknowledge performance. If this imbalance manifests at appraisal time, it could lead to employee dissatisfaction and potentially to employees seeking alternative employment.

Working remotely often means a lack of face-to-face supervision, which also reduces the opportunity for teams to ask questions and request guidance. That face-to-face interaction is also missed amongst colleagues; it can take longer to search for information which they could otherwise have asked people for. Given the current circumstances, many people have unavoidable distractions at home either due to not designed for workspaces or domestic situations. It can be a shock to the system to be suddenly working in isolation.

For leaders of teams, there are additional challenges. Leaders have responsibilities to maintain organisational performance. Working remotely physically detaches leaders from their teams, amplifying bias or existing conditions. Not all jobs are suitable for home working and not all employees are cut out for it. We also trust what we see and for managers who are suddenly detached from their teams, there could be a risk that bias creeps in and wrongly skews perceptions of an individual or team performance because they can’t see it.


Its within everyone’s grasp to work together to make performance appraisals more suitable to current conditions, it just requires change.


What can we do about it?


Here are three things you can do to match performance appraisals to new ways of working.


  1. Focus on results. Appraisals give teams a tangible target which is part of the motivation; so it makes sense to focus on results of activities. However, some organisations collect measurements for measurement's sake such as attendance monitoring and non-organisational aligned goals. Results are what matters for an organisation; this isn’t new for lots of managers, but research shows that it is for some.

  2. Don’t forget behaviours as a metric – but remove the bias. There is a change in human behaviour caused by increased feelings of fear associated with disease and infection. Fear is a powerful emotion which encourages avoidance, adds a cognitive distraction and increases pessimistic judgement. During this time stop using self-evaluation as part of the performance appraisal process – teams are already being impacted with additional cognitive load. When working remotely for extended periods, people’s frame of reference is also likely to be subject to cognitive bias in self-evaluation and they may under or overestimate their failures. One way to try and remove this variable is to use peer feedback or carefully designed 360-degree reporting.

  3. Use simpler metrics. Using simpler metrics can enable managers to apply them to a broader population for efficiency. Simpler metrics are easy to understand which is important for employees as they often have an impact on incentives. But beware of unintended consequences as evolutionary game theory tells us teams fundamentally will try and maximise their own economic benefit. Software development has gone through cyclical phases of measuring developer performance by the length of their code, then brevity and back to length; developers changed their programming to adjust to the metrics. In call centres, many employees are measured on how many calls they receive or make, but that might not be appropriate for your organisation. Zappos is obsessed with customer service so their measure is an absence of customer complaints.


For many managers and teams, working from home has been a necessary shock to the system to support the organisation’s survival. The cost of this is an adjustment to a new way of working for many. There is the opportunity to reduce the cognitive and emotional loads on our teams, and for managers to improve organisational performance by changing the way they view success, recognising good and bad behaviour and simplifying how we view performance.


I’d be interested to hear your experiences of how and if your organisations are tackling performance management at the moment. Please do comment, like and share the article. If you would like to see more articles about business leadership subscribe for the latest content.

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