5 Tips for Navigating Remote Performance Reviews

This year has proved employees can work wherever, whenever, and still drive results. While remote work was already growing in popularity, odds are it will outlast the pandemic, causing businesses to shift their strategies to better serve a hoard of hybrid and remote workers. One such strategy both businesses and managers will need to navigate? Remote performance reviews.

Annual performance reviews were designed for organizations with in-office employees, a clear hierarchy, and static goals. Unfortunately, most growing companies don’t operate this way anymore, and yet, their performance reviews haven’t evolved to keep up with their business model.

What are remote performance reviews?

Remote performance reviews are an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with your employees about their performance. These quarterly, bi-annual, or annual reviews should also cover employee job satisfaction, career aspirations, and professional development to give you a pulse on your employee’s health and happiness, as well as to help you be the best manager and coach for them.

While performance reviews are often in-person, remote performance reviews allow you to connect with employees who aren’t in the office and share constructive feedback, no matter where you both are.

What should remote performance reviews cover?

Performance reviews shouldn’t be anything new. They should be a recap of all the ongoing feedback you’ve given your employees in 1-on-1 meetings, as well as an opportunity to highlight their accomplishments and have a more meaningful conversation about their career aspirations and professional development. Plus, performance management software makes reviewing your employees a painless, quick process, devoid of mind-numbing paperwork.

Look at your performance reviews as a way to encourage ongoing growth. Reviews are a chance to look back and reflect — they’re also a chance to steer the future.

To encourage growth, your reviews should focus on an employee’s:

  • Achievements;
  • Learnings; and,
  • Development Opportunities

In addition to feedback from you (their manager), the employee’s teammates, and a self-assessment.

Perhaps more importantly, remember that your reviews shouldn’t focus on:

  • Rumors;
  • Perceptions;
  • Who the employee is as a person;
  • Or, unsubstantiated negative feedback

Remote performance reviews are an extremely valuable tool for both managers and employees and an important part of the employee experience. Covering the right topics can show your team you’re invested in their professional growth and are willing to go the extra mile to help them succeed.

A manager kicks off a remote performance review with her direct report
Photo by Matilda Wormwood on Pexels

Why are remote performance reviews important?

Here are a few reasons why remote performance reviews are a crucial part of the employee experience:

Now that you’re convinced that remote performance reviews need to be a top priority for you as a manager, it’s also important to note that they need to be approached differently than in-person reviews.

Here are our five tips for conducting remote performance reviews for your distributed team:

Remote Management

1. Set expectations ahead of time

Annual reviews are scary. Employees may feel unsure of their performance and nervous about discussing it with you. Conducting a review over video may feel even more nerve-wracking than doing it in person.

Ease employees’ nerves by setting expectations ahead of time. Over-communication is key for a distributed team.

  • Two weeks ahead — Walk your team through the review process and make time for Q&A. Remind them that there will be no surprises as any major red-flags would have already come up in your ongoing 1-on-1 meetings.
  • A week ahead — Have employees fill out a self-assessment and explain this will help guide your conversation during the review
  • A few days ahead — Send each employee an agenda
  • In the first five minutes — Start by explaining your intention for the meeting: to review their individual achievements and discuss how he/she can continue to develop.

2. Focus on achievements

Remote teams can move away from outdated concepts of what a “good employee” looks like. Hours worked, time at their desk, and business casual dress are no longer viewed as direct indicators of performance.

Automattic, a remote company, has embraced this shift in its reviews. “As Automattic we focus on what you create, not whether you live up to some ideal of the ‘good employee,” said CEO Matt Mullenweg. The key, Mullenweg says, is to give employees clear goals outside of hours spent working.

Those goals could be a specific number of blog posts written for a content marketer, employees hired for a recruiter, or commits made for a developer. Just remember to make them SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based – or use OKRs, so everyone is aligned on what they need to achieve and how to define success. 

An employee jots down notes during a remote performance review

3. Discuss learning and development

Reviews should do more than discuss past achievements and performance. They should look towards the future.

The best way to do this? Ask your employee what they want to achieve in the future.

Here are some sample questions you can ask. To avoid putting them on the spot during an already anxiety-inducing meeting, send these ahead of time so employees can prepare their answers:

  1. What are you most proud of having learned this year?
  2. How can we continue building on what you’ve learned this year?
  3. Are there more areas you’d like to develop next year? What are they?
  4. To achieve [employee’s goal], you should develop [related skill set]. Thoughts on how we can do this?

Brainstorm with your employee. This should be a conversation about their growth, so you want them to actively participate and share their thoughts as much as possible.

4. Conduct a 360 review

Working remotely can be isolating.

Employees may struggle to gauge their performance without in-person indicators and context. When working in the same office, for example, employees can ask for casual feedback with a peer over coffee or pull a colleague aside after a meeting to ask how things went.

That peer input has an incredible impact. In fact, people with a “best friend” at work are 7X more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Don’t just give your feedback in a remote performance review, pull feedback from your entire team too.

Phil Haack is an engineering manager at Github, a remote company. When preparing for remote performance reviews, he asks each employee to recommend 3-5 peers they’d like feedback from. He then asks those peers to answer these three questions:

  1. What should the employee start doing?
  2. What should the employee stop doing?
  3. What should the employee continue doing?

As a result, employees will better understand how they fit within the team and can better collaborate with their peers.

5. Increase feedback frequency

Ongoing feedback is important for any employee. It’s critical for distributed teams. Because remote work can be isolating, employees may be out of touch with how they’re performing.

As a leader, you need to over-communicate what’s working and what’s not. Make sure your 1-on-1s always include casual feedback loops — give feedback to your employee, but also ask for feedback on yourself.

Using great tools helps ensure regular, open conversation. Turn to video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype for business to make calls more personable. Or use messaging apps, like Slack, to check-in with employees and keep them in the loop.

As a team leader, conducting annual reviews go a long way towards keeping employees engaged and motivated.

On a distributed team, the impact of a well-conducted remote performance review is even higher. Shift your approach to adapt to your team make-up, and you’ll see the results.