Conducting Annual Performance Reviews in the Age of COVID-19

You likely have a process in place for delivering an annual performance review for each member of your water lab team. Performance reviews provide an ideal time to align on lab goals and objectives, recognize a job well done and suggest ways to improve, and discuss opportunities, promotions, and compensation.

But 2020 changed everything. Now, you may be tempted to put off reviews or not hold them at all. Both managers and employees find reviews stressful and anxiety-provoking, and who needs more of either? Further, the criteria you set at the start of 2020 may have changed considerably, for the lab itself and for your team. You may find it harder to assess employees fairly, especially if some work on-site and others work remotely. And, your conversations will likely have to address some of the challenges your employees are experiencing on a personal level.

Going forward, you need to consider how you'll modify performance reviews based on your learnings from 2020. Whatever changes you make, be sure to communicate them to your team and invite their input on potential impacts.

Adjust Review Frequency

If you normally hold performance reviews, then you should continue to do so. Employees value consistency — especially now. In fact, only 5% of companies put reviews on hold or canceled them entirely in 2020, according to the Washington Post. If you haven't had a chance to deliver your reviews with the hectic end-of-year priorities, try to make time for them in January to start the new year off right.

With the change of pace, however, you may find a single annual review isn't the most effective option for your team. Instead, you may want to add more check-ins that are less formal every few weeks to discuss performance and your lab's continually evolving needs. Make sure to offer regular feedback and timely recognition to boost your employee engagement.

Reconsider Evaluation Criteria

The Washington Post reports that 30% of companies have adjusted performance evaluations to account for pandemic challenges. For example, if your lab productivity declined due to shutdowns or demand decreases, then objectives for your team must change, too. If employees were forced to move to virtual work or change protocols to ensure social distancing, then your assessment needs to reflect that.

The competencies you once valued may have shifted, as well. New criteria, including adaptability, agility, creativity, and innovation, may be more critical now. To keep morale high and retain employees, continue to give high performers the praise they deserve. But, be gentle with poor performers, especially if they're normally among your better workers. It's been a difficult year for many, and replacing employees may not be easy.

Be Transparent

Performance reviews are often a time to discuss promotions and compensation. If finances won't allow you to offer raises, promotions, or bonuses this year, let your team know as early as possible. Reassure them that even though you won't be able to offer financial incentives right now, you will do everything you can to support their career development so they continue to progress. Be transparent, too, about when your lab is back on stable financial footing and these conversations can start back up.

Address Remote Working Challenges

You may struggle to assess performance for remote employees as fairly as you do for on-site ones. Managers at Twitter decided it would not be fair to compare the two, as noted by the Washington Post. Ideally, you check in with off-site staff members via video conference or phone every week. To evaluate them, you may need to gather additional data by asking colleagues and clients about their performance.

Also, understand that a review conducted in person will feel different from one held online. You may have a harder time reading the facial expressions and body language of an on-screen employee — and you both may be weary of video meetings. You may need extra energy to conduct a review well remotely, so space out your performance reviews on your calendar to avoid "Zoom fatigue."

Account for Personal Circumstances

You may normally hesitate to discuss your employees' personal lives in a review, but that will likely change this year. If your employees are working remotely while also caregiving, supporting online learning, navigating financial difficulties, or even dealing with a COVID-19 diagnosis in the family, they need empathy. Without being intrusive, you may want to ask how they're coping and what adjustments might help them be more effective. You should revise your goals for employees to take into account the difficult circumstances they are facing.

Going Forward

You don't know yet what next year will bring, so focus your goals on what your water lab needs now to perform its best. The future may depend on circumstances you have no control over. You may find that the changes you implement this year — whether that's more frequent feedback, different criteria, remote versus in-person evaluations, or discussions of personal circumstances — may improve your performance reviews and help strengthen your employee relationships and organization as a whole.

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Diana Kightlinger

Diana Kightlinger is an experienced journalist, copywriter, and blogger for science, technology, and medical organizations. She writes frequently for Fortune 500 corporate clients but also has a passion for explaining scientific research, raising awareness of issues, and targeting positive outcomes for people and communities. Diana holds master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism.