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How To Better Navigate Remote Performance Reviews

By | Published on | 9 min read
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Tips for handling remote performance reviews

You ran a comb through your hair, brushed your teeth, and put on a fresh button-down shirt (hey, nobody needs to know you still have your favorite sweatpants on).

You sit up straight in your chair, click the meeting invite, wait for Zoom to load, and then see your manager sitting there. “Hey!” they greet you. “Are you ready to talk about your performance this quarter?”

Gulp. Did your heart just leap into your throat? Yep, I thought so.

Regardless of what side of the equation you’re on—providing feedback to a direct report, receiving constructive criticism from a manager, or delivering peer-to-peer remarks—performance reviews can have you biting your nails and breaking a sweat.

In fact, in one survey of 1,000 millennial employees, 22% of respondents admitted that they had actually called in sick because they were anxious about receiving their review.

Navigate performance reviews like a boss

Yikes. A looming conversation about job performance is nerve-wracking under any circumstances. But, now that so many teams are working from home, there’s a new wrinkle in this process: Performance reviews need to happen remotely.

Why Remote Performance Reviews Are So Challenging

Recent Stanford research found that a whopping 42% of the U.S. workforce is working from home. That trend doesn’t just apply to the U.S. All over the globe, teleworking has risen tremendously.

So, forget sitting across the conference room table to discuss goals, wins, and challenges. Like most of your social interactions over the past few months, your performance appraisal is probably going to happen over a video call.

For some people, that distance might be reassuring. You can give yourself a much-needed pep talk or indulge in a stress-relieving dance party without the judgment of a desk mate. You can keep some notes handy on your desk. Your counterpart won’t see you nervously glancing at your sticky notes underneath the table as you discuss your recent job performance.

Nervous for a performance review?

But, that doesn’t mean virtual performance reviews are easy. “It’s hard not to be in a room with someone to discuss, get their reactions, and to deliver critical feedback,” says Heather Freiser, VP of Content at Likeable, a social media agency. “It’s harder to connect via a screen.”

Even further, you might not feel like you have as solid of a handle on someone’s individual work and contributions when you’ve missed out on collaborating side-by-side for the past few months. “We don’t see the small wins or struggles that team members are having on a daily basis,” shares Haley Bryant, COO of Animalz.

Performance review nerves
Nervous for an upcoming review? Here's how to handle it like a boss.

And finally, there’s the diminished nonverbal communication. “Not being able to provide this information face-to-face can make it difficult to gauge a reaction,” says Meghan Van Thomme, a Nonprofit Fundraiser. “Are they surprised by the news? Are they nodding silently? Are they beaming for being recognized?”

Not being able to pick up on these body language cues might seem like a small thing—but it makes a big difference. While a video chat is as close to in-person communication as you can get, the two are still drastically different. One study found that the cognitive load is much higher with a video chat, meaning our poor brains need to work a lot harder to process the information that’s being delivered.

When our brains need to work overtime, it hinders our ability to be fully engaged in that conversation. That’s likely why a separate study concluded that job applicants performed much worse in video interviews than in-person ones.

5 Tips For Productive Remote Performance Reviews

Well, it sounds like the cards are stacked against you. Should you just throw your hands up and do away with performance reviews—at least for now?

Not so fast. Even if they’re done differently this time around, reviews are still important. Need proof? 68% of employees who receive accurate and consistent feedback feel fulfilled in their jobs.

But here’s the thing: To reap the benefits of these feedback conversations, they need to be handled effectively. Whether you’re reviewing a direct report, peer, or manager (gotta love upward feedback), here are five tips to help you make the most of a remote performance review.

1. Connect Via Video Call (Seriously)

I get it. You’d rather save yourself the stress and skip the video chat altogether. We’re all experiencing Zoom fatigue anyway, so can’t you just deliver performance-related feedback via email or a phone conversation? Not exactly. If you can’t be face-to-face, a video call still reigns supreme.

Allie Decker, Content Marketer at HubSpot says,

“I’ve always appreciated the video call aspect of our remote performance reviews.A lot can be lost in translation over email, and while video chats can take time and energy, they allow you to connect with your coworkers face-to-face. It’s also much easier to provide context for constructive feedback when you’re chatting over video than over email or Slack.”

So seriously, do the video chat. If you’re the one hosting the conversation, make sure you’re on the line first so you can troubleshoot any tech issues that could throw you off track.

2. Provide Feedback Ahead Of Time

“Shortly before meeting, provide a written summary,” advises Van Thomme. “This allows your direct report to scan through, understand overall how they are being evaluated, and then know what questions to raise during your discussion. It makes for a much calmer conversation.”

Giving team members access to the review ahead of time means they can process your points before the conversation, and you can ask more thoughtful questions during the meeting as opposed to just reciting a bunch of information in front of them.

Record these feedback notes on a 1:1 Trello board. This gives your employees a centralized place where they can get details about their performance.

[Trello] Your Guide to Handling Remote Performance Reviews

Create Board From Template

Additionally, this board increases transparency between managers and their direct reports. They have a spot where they can consistently leave comments about goals, progress, and challenges (not just during review season!). And, that standing resource boosts accountability to actually follow through on action items that are discussed.

Once you’ve provided a written summary of the performance review, you can dig into the nitty-gritty during your conversation. “Ask them questions about their reactions,” says Bryant. “What resonated with you? What surprised you? How does this align with your own perceptions? What areas will you focus on next based on these reflections? What do you need to succeed?”

Beyond giving people a chance to process this information independently, delivering feedback in writing first can also boost retention. A University of Iowa study asked students to listen to sounds, look images, and hold objects. When asked to recall that information at later intervals, their auditory recall lagged pretty far behind their visual and tactile recall.

So, if people can both read and hear their reviews, that information is more likely to actually stick with them (which is key for it being implemented).

3. Jot Down Some Notes

If you’re the one receiving the review, don’t assume that you’re merely a passenger in that conversation. You should come prepared with some notes of your own.

“It’s useful to make a list of highlights,” shares Bryant. “What high-impact work have you done in the last year? How does that align with the company’s goals and your own goals? What growth have you experienced or created for yourself? What have you done for your team, customers, or company? How does this align with company values?”

Not only will this serve as a nice confidence boost ahead of what can be an anxiety-inducing conversation, but it also means you’ll be prepped and ready with some talking points you can use to support your performance.

How to prepare for a remote performance review

4. Ask For Peer Feedback

Working remotely can be isolating. In fact, Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work Report states that loneliness is one of the biggest struggles of remote work—tied only with communication and collaboration.

When we’re all working from our own couches and kitchen tables, we have decreased visibility into what our direct reports, managers, or colleagues are doing. “It can feel like your achievements aren’t seen by others,” Freiser says.

So, if your team isn’t already collecting peer feedback as part of the performance review process, you should start. Even if you don’t do full 360 reviews, asking team members for some quick feedback about working with one another will help round out review conversations. “Plus, bringing some of that team positivity in the room is important,” Freiser adds.

Keep in mind that many people feel awkward providing feedback about their colleagues and might be more comfortable offering anonymous insights. Platforms like Culture Amp or Honestly make it easy to collect valuable information (anonymous or not), track it, and then act on it. You could even set up a simple survey using SurveyMonkey and adjust the settings so that all responses are anonymous.

The point is that you can’t expect to sit people in a room and have them openly spill the beans about their coworkers. Put a tool in place that allows them to talk candidly—without fear of judgment or repercussions.

5. Pause And Breathe

This tip isn’t just about squelching your nerves and keeping yourself upright—although, yes, I want you to do those things too.

This is more about making sure you leave space for a two-way conversation. That’s already tough during a performance review, which can quickly spiral into a one-sided lecture. And it becomes even tougher when you’re delivering feedback remotely and dealing with lags and echoes.

“Make sure you pause to let them respond or ask questions,” Freiser says. “It’s harder sometimes to have that open dialogue remotely, so leave room for them to respond and give them the space to speak.”

Before you move on to your next topic or piece of feedback, make a conscious effort to pause for five seconds. If you’re worried you’re going to forget to do that, make a note to end each review section by asking that person if they have questions or input. That opens the conversation up to them, without you feeling awkward or rushing through silences.

Gather Your Courage And Make The Most Of Remote Performance Reviews

Despite the fact that working remotely means you can do performance reviews while wearing pajama bottoms, these feedback conversations are still enough to make your mouth dry and your knees shaky.

The good news is that remote performance reviews don’t need to be a cringe-worthy experience. In fact, they can be super beneficial—provided you do them right. The above tips will help you do just that.

Oh, and one more thing to remember: Performance reviews don’t do any good if you don’t follow through on what’s discussed during those conversations.

How can you hold yourself and your direct reports accountable? Remember to use that 1:1 Trello board. If you’re a manager, set up one of these boards for each of your direct reports. This will be your hub where you and your employee can set goals, monitor progress, and even jot down talking points for your regular one-on-ones.

Even better? The next time you need to have a review conversation, you can both return to the space to get a grasp on recent tasks, wins, and challenges. Yep, that means there’s less prep work for you. Cheers to constant improvement!

Good or bad, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!

Next: Struggling To Focus? How To Be Accountable While Working Remotely

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