Performance reviews have never been more important. Between the stunning rate of change the pandemic required of businesses, and the fact that many people are still working remotely, evaluating employees’ performance and providing them with timely feedback is vitally important — but it’s also placing more demand on many managers. Getting the mix right for your organisation is crucial, and this is a good moment to re-think your approach to employees’ performance reviews, especially if your organisation has traditionally relied upon one or two reviews a year.

More frequent feedback, in terms of quarterly reviews backed with a monthly check-on against goals, for example, can ensure a leader has enough visibility into what an employee is doing, so as to avoid the need for a significant course correction. More frequent feedback also provides your people with timely and relevant communications and coaching – both of which should help a leader improve employee performance continually. Another benefit is less obvious but especially important for those with teams working remotely: more frequent conversations create more visibility between manager and employee, ensuring leaders have a clear view of all on their teams – even those working from home.

A framework for effective performance reviews

An effective review is more than a question of format, though we do recommend using Zoom or the equivalent, simply to provide an element of “face to face” connection.

An effective review – meaning both parties feel understood and are satisfied (if not enthusiastic about) the agree upon actions and outcomes – is the product of good preparation and frequency.

  • Frequency and consistency are important. At Engagement Multiplier, we always do reviews every 90 days with mid-point progress check-ins, meaning we have these discussions 8 times a year.
  • We also adhere to a clear, documented process, enabling both parties to prepare. We ask employees to submit their prepared information three days prior to the meeting, so the manager has time to review and respond.
  • An open, collaborative conversation is the goal. We follow the agenda outlined in the process but allow time for employees to talk openly.

The benefits of quarterly performance reviews & frequent employee check-ins 

For all the same reasons that an annual employee survey doesn’t work, one or two reviews each year aren’t enough, either. The system of quarterly reviews and mid-point checks we employ with our own team ensures the conversations are timely and topical, and more importantly, capture what is really going on in the business and that employees are able to get feedback and help if needed.

A review every 90 days means you can align employee goals with business quarterly goals. A mid-point check-in (typically a short, 30-minute meeting) enables a quick check against progress, meaning the manager can course-correct or re-prioritize as needed.

Finally, consistent 90-day reviews demonstrate the organization’s commitment to employees and their development.

What topics should performance reviews cover? 

Measurable goals and objectives

First, it’s important that each employee starts with measurable goals for the quarter. We like to make setting those a collaborative effort between leaders and their teams.

Once goals are established, employees and managers break those down into monthly objectives. Our review discussions focus on progress toward those goals, as well as what has worked over the review period, and what isn’t working. This mix ensures two important things: accountability, and the employee’s perspective.

More than job performance – wellbeing and mental health are key conversations 

Our regular cadence of meetings enables leaders a high degree of visibility with their people, and, in particular, the questions we ask about what has and hasn’t worked over the preceding period are fantastic for opening up new avenues of conversation.

Using that format, leaders can also probe if employees don’t raise a particular issue. It’s vitally important that leaders set aside time during these conversations to ask how people are doing, really.

It won’t surprise you to hear that as an employee engagement company, we also survey our team regularly, to ensure employees have confidential means of sharing their opinions or concerns. We use the surveys along with conversations during the reviews to keep tabs on employee wellbeing and other concerns.

Motivating strong performing employees 

By giving employees ownership over their goals and objectives, we find that we create an environment that encourages people to not just bring their ideas to the table, but think through the “whys” behind the idea, such as the outcomes and how it would be implemented, which in turn sets the foundation for a great conversation.

To provide context and give employees a look into the future, we start each quarter with a companywide meeting that reviews the prior quarter, updates results, and establishes the objectives for the next 90 days. Then, with that context in hand, each team develops its own goals for the quarter. This is chiefly an employee-led process, to ensure they can see clearly how their role contributes to the overall success of the business. Of course, managers will fine-tune goals as necessary. This is also where some great thinking happens – simply because we’ve provided the latitude that invites it, rather than simply assigning work without allowing input.

We fully expect our team members to come to their performance reviews prepared with some goals they’d like to achieve over the next quarter. The manager will also have goals outlined, and we devote part of the performance review meetings to aligning on those and looking ahead. Sometimes you have to push someone out of their comfort zone but if you’re operating with the right culture, they will be open to this, if they understand the goal, the benefits, and the support they can expect.

For strong performing employees specifically:

    • We set goals aligned to the career progression the strong performer is looking to take, delivering value to the business while ensuring the employee is satisfied that they are making progress towards their desired next step on the career ladder.
    • Don’t forget that even strong performers need attention and support! In today’s busy world, it’s too easy to focus on the underperformers. The high performers are entitled to the same level of support to achieve their goals. As a leader, make sure you don’t over-commit and let them down.

How to talk to an employee that is underperforming? 

We’ve been fully remote for a year, and I’ve found this structure lends itself very well to all situations – including when we need to help someone get back on track. The frequency of the performance reviews and mid-point check-ins ensures things don’t get out of hand if the employee is struggling. Any issues/problems/signs of underperformance are addressed in real-time before they’re allowed to snowball.

My personal opinion is that reviews shouldn’t be used as a conduit to store up praise or concerns – this should all be done in real-time. The review should simply be there as a quarterly point in time to step back and invest in the employee, and for the employee to invest time in themselves to review (and recognize!) their progress.

When a conversation about underperformance is needed, here’s the approach I take:

  • First – understand what circumstances are contributing to this:
    • The company – has something happened in the business (eg, a change of structure/process, losing a team member, etc) that is impacting performances?
    • The individual – is there something that’s happened personally that is creating a conflict/impacting performance?
  • Next, have an open conversation to discuss the performance issue – approaching with the mindset of listening, not blame. The “what worked/what didn’t” format we use so often works very well here.
  • When both are aligned on the reason for the underperformance:
    • Agree whether there’s a desire/motivation to address/move forward. If the answer is yes, provide a commitment to support them through to resolution.
    • Create a clear plan of action with measurable, timelined actions that they/the business will take. Agree to use the next review point to track progress.
    • Where possible, give the accountability for resolving the underperformance to the employee – they’re more likely to take ownership of the issue. There’s a joint responsibility, however, to resolve and move forward.

It may seem to some that this is a huge investment in a leader’s or manager’s time. We’ve found there’s no better way to ensure the team is staying aligned and focused on the same priorities than a structure like this one that encourages the free and proactive flow of information.

That’s probably a better way of looking at these conversations, truth be told. Ideally, we’re not reviewing job performance, we’re facilitating better communication and clarity that enables employees to continually improve.