Performance appraisals have always been surrounded by thorny issues of fairness and impartiality. In the post-pandemic work era, there is now a new dimension to consider: ensuring that remote-working and office-based employees can be assessed against a set of criteria that prejudices neither one category nor the other. Yalcin Acikgoz offers some sound advice.
Even before the pandemic-caused disruptions, performance reviews were generally considered an overall unpleasant activity1 for managers and employees alike. The often once-a-year task of filling out performance appraisal forms and then sitting for that dreaded performance review meeting, in which supervisors explain what ratings their appraisees received and why, has almost never been seen as a fun or rewarding activity. Sure, some employees enjoy and benefit from having that one-on-one time with their managers during which the topic of discussion is how they performed and how they can improve, but the overall sentiment was mostly negative2. In addition, the bulk of the literature on performance appraisals suggests that the ratings are usually not based on actual observations by managers but their overall impressions of each employee or, worse, their perceptions of how they can accomplish certain goals.
This sounds bad enough, but these were problems of simpler times – times when, for the most part, every employee reporting to a manager shared the same office space with that manager and every other employee, for 40 hours in a normal week. Times when managers had equal chances of observing and interacting with every one of their employees. However, the disruption caused by COVID threw a wrench into all this. In the span of two weeks, the employee who had been just a few feet away from the manager turned into a collection of pixels appearing on a laptop screen, and only during meetings.
There is no doubt that an employee who shares the same office space will have more opportunities to interact with the manager than an employee who works remotely. Employees who are in the office, in addition to communications that are part of their job responsibilities, will also have the chance to casually chat with the manager, or at least be seen by them several times during the day. This will breed more familiarity and liking, which are non-trivial factors when it comes to performance assessments3. Besides, when they have questions or concerns, the manager will be one quick walk and a knock on the door away, and this accessibility will likely improve their overall performance. Since the beginning of the pandemic until around now, while this issue made performance appraisals even less effective than they usually were, at least it did not cause fairness concerns, since it applied to every employee in most offices in more or less the same way.
However, with organisations now eager to bring their workforce back to their physical offices4, but at the same time with many considering hybrid schedules5 involving some employees being in the office full-time, some part-time, and some fully remote, the question looms: how will the organisations ensure that employees with different work arrangements receive equal attention and support from their managers? How will this affect their performance evaluations? Unless organisations either revamp their performance management systems to account for the hybrid work arrangements or take extra measures to give the remote employees equal face time with their managers, there is a non-trivial risk that performance appraisal will become even less effective in the post-pandemic era. So what recommendations can we offer to organisations implementing hybrid work schedules, so that their performance management systems are considered effective and fair? Below are some recommendations that apply to both situations, when employees spend some of their time in-person and some of their time working remotely, and when they work either fully remotely or fully in-person.
1. Focus on results.
While this sounds like a fairly obvious thing to do when reviewing the job performance of a remote worker, performance assessment based solely on results is often not very practical. The reasons for this include results not being immediately available for most jobs or, when they are, not being entirely under the control of the employee. However, to the extent possible, shifting the focus of performance appraisal from behaviours to results, both for the employees are who working in-person and those who are working remotely, would ensure that the appraisers would not have to worry about not being able to observe their direct reports on the job. In other words, if all employees, including those in the office, have the flexibility to decide how they will complete their assigned tasks and are only held accountable with regards to the end result, this will level the playing field and ensure that every employee will be held to the same standards when it comes to performance reviews.
2. Revise performance assessment measures.
If it is not possible to use a results-based system across the unit, and the current performance assessment tool includes behaviours such as arriving at work on time or showing collegiality, then it would be wise to revise the instrument to remove behaviours which can only be performed in the office, or replace them with substitutes that can be shown remotely as well (e.g., responds to emails in a timely manner). Alternatively, if the behaviour being rated can be performed both in-person and remotely, but the way in which it is done varies between these two arrangements, then it may be a good idea to train the appraisers so they know what to look for in a remote worker and how that differs from an in-person worker. Never create two separate performance appraisal forms, one for remote workers and one for those in the physical office, as this may cause fairness concerns and may lack legal defensibility in the event that there is an imbalance between the two groups of workers in terms of rates of promotions or terminations.
3. Increase communication.
While revising performance assessment will help with regards to ensuring that the rating process will be fair and equitable between remote and in-person workers, the difference between the two groups in terms of how easily they can access their supervisors when they have questions or when they simply need support will still be very different. In order to make sure that remote workers can access their managers as easily as employees who work in-person, organisations should create communication channels and/or protocols between employees who follow a remote/hybrid schedule and their managers. This can be in the form of a chat room or a messaging app which is always running, through which remote workers can message their supervisors and quickly get answers to questions they have. Similarly, organisations can schedule a few 5-10-minute meetings throughout the day, in which managers make themselves available in a videoconference room and employees join to ask questions and/or simply catch up. In addition to ensuring that remote employees will have adequate opportunities to have their questions answered, such arrangements would allow the managers to get familiar with remote workers and thus allow them to stay on top of who is who in the organisation, which is an important factor influencing performance ratings.
4. Use technology.
Electronic performance monitoring6 (EPM), while it is controversial and may lead to adverse outcomes7 if not done right8, has the potential to become mainstream with the increase in remote work arrangements. With EPM, organisations can easily track how remote workers are spending their time (unless they are being evaluated based on results), such as when they are actively working on their computers vs when they are not, and what they are doing on their devices. In using these systems, it is important to be extremely transparent with regards to what the system is tracking and what data is being collected, so as not to hurt perceptions of fairness and cause a real or perceived invasion of privacy. Excessive use of EPM may also cause stress and burnout . However, when done right and used for the right jobs/employees, these systems can be very useful.
These are a few of the measures organisations can take in order to make performance appraisal more effective in a fully or partly remote work environment. However, it is important to note that these recommendations are based on research done in overwhelmingly in-person settings. It is critical that researchers test the assumption that what works in-person will also work when employees are working remotely, and then adjust recommendations regarding best practices accordingly.
There is an earlier version of the article that was published in
The Conversation on 23 May 2022. It can be accessed here:
About the Author
Dr Yalcin Acikgoz is an industrial-organisational psychologist at Appalachian State University. His research interests include employee recruiting and selection, remote/hybrid work, and social media use by organisations. He teaches staffing and performance management courses at the graduate level, and personality and industrial psychology courses at the undergraduate level.
- “Is It Time to Put the Performance Review on a PIP?”, SHRM, 1 April 2015, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/0415-qualitative-performance-reviews.aspx
- “Performance Appraisal Reactions: A Review and Research Agenda”, SpringerLink, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-30915-2_5
- “When will office workers go back? Here’s what companies are saying”, New York Times, 7 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/05/business/office-workers-return-dates.html
- “Going Hybrid: The Future Of Work Is Here”, Forbes, 4 June 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/06/04/going-hybrid-the-future-of-work-is-here/?sh=51f3f95d2cb9
- “Electronic Performance Monitoring in the Digital Workplace: Conceptualization, Review of Effects and Moderators, and Future Research Opportunities”, Frontiers, May 2021, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.633031/full
- “Some companies are tracking workers with smartphone apps – what could possibly go wrong?”, Washington Post, 14 May 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/05/14/some-companies-are-tracking-workers-with-smartphone-apps-what-could-possibly-go-wrong/
- “Employers are spying on Americans at home with ‘tattleware’. It’s time to track them instead”, The Guardian, 16 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/16/tattleware-employers-spying-working-home
- “Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person”, Harvard Business Review, 6 April 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person