Performance Reviews and Your Remote Workforce

May 17, 2021 | Shannon Shoemaker

While we’re still trying to figure out exactly how a year-long pandemic has affected our economy, jobs outlook and collective mental health, the business of work continues and employee performance evaluations are part of that cycle. So many employees have passed the one-year mark of working from home and we’ve learned a lot about communicating with a remote workforce, but putting performance reviews on hold until everyone is back in the office isn’t an option.

In PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, published in January of this year, 83% of employers now say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, compared to 73% in PwC’s June 2020 survey. By July 2021, 75% of executives anticipate that at least half of office employees will be working in the office. In comparison, 61% of employees expect to spend half their time in the office by July.

More recent research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that 27% of organizations plan to bring all employees back to the worksite when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available. Thirty-four percent of organizations are unsure when they will bring all employees back; 18% do not ever plan to have all employees return; and 5% of respondents reported that a return-to-work date has already been set.

In short, we’re likely to end up with a hybrid model of remote and in-office work and it’s important that we set up goals and evaluations with a remote workforce in mind.


How Remote Working Changes the Performance Review

One of the most challenging things about conducting performance reviews when your team is working remotely is that you don’t have as much data as you usually do because you’re not seeing your employees in person. However, the skepticism many companies previously had about maintaining productivity while working from home shifted when we shut down for the pandemic. Company leaders and managers no longer think that employees are less productive working from home; in fact, many employees are more productive.

However, working from home isn’t the same as working from home during a global pandemic. It’s imperative that we evaluate productivity and performance expectations and consider each employee’s experience individually. This doesn’t mean dropping projects or doing away with KPIs; it means we have to train our managers to assess performance without bias and give them the authority to make judgment calls about schedule flexibility and time off.

Unconscious bias is based on what we can see, which means our team members on screens, and we can unintentionally make judgments based on this. For example, if an employee is on a work call that gets interrupted by children that are learning virtually at home, it doesn’t mean that the employees attention is detrimentally impacted by this type of multitasking. It might actually mean that the employee is spending more time working later in the evenings so they are able to accomplish their tasks. Bias could also prevent us from seeing that an employee who appears to be cheerful and productive, who says that they are “fine” when asked, might not actually be fine. We have to avoid making certain assumptions based on what we see on camera during meetings.


How to Hold Performance Reviews Without Lowering Morale

HR leaders can set some guidelines for managers on performance reviews, empathy and alignment of priorities and key objectives. It’s helpful to begin by working directly with the managers that know the challenges of their specific teams, and what becomes more or less important will depend on what industry we work in. We do have to work harder to maintain an engaged and motivated culture with dispersed teams, but if the managers conducting the reviews have input into how expectations should shift based on the current climate, they are the front lines for HR when it comes to morale.


Start with the last performance review.

Whether you conduct them annually or on a different cycle, look at the goals set pre-pandemic and adjust them based on the top priorities of your company as they are now.


Be open and honest.

Any company that conducts performance reviews has employees that know where they stand when it comes to their performance. It’s helpful to begin reviews with remote employees by acknowledging the unique circumstances they have faced over the past year and how it has affected their ability to perform. Whether you’re talking to an employee who had never worked from home before 2020 or a long-time remote employee, acknowledging that you understand their efforts and obstacles will help them feel more comfortable discussing their goals.


Invite self-evaluation and goal setting.

Managers know their team members, and they know what obstacles their teams have had to work through for the past year. This is a good time to talk about goals for professional development, but it also allows the employee to offer his or her perspective on how realistic their goals from their last review appear to be today and make adjustments accordingly.

Finally, your managers can use this one-on-one time to talk about specific actions that the company is taking to help employees perform more effectively, such as scheduling flexibility (for parents and caregivers while children are still attending school virtually), and things like wellness programs (mental health resources may be particularly helpful to people who have felt isolated, for example). This is the time for giving credit, compliments, and constructive criticism; it’s also the time to cut a little slack, offer support, and hit the reset button.

The way we are working now isn’t what we’re used to. We’ve traded in-person interactions, watercooler conversations and workplace culture as social capital for a more empathetic version of a culture in which we’ve spent the last year seeing our coworkers in their homes, with their families and pets and real lives going on in the background.


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