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How to give a remote work evaluation

Remote work evaluations have the potential to be downright awkward or stiff, especially if you’re giving feedback to someone whom you haven’t built a strong working relationship with. Remote work isn’t new, but remote work at the scale of the current climate is. We’re all still learning how to work most effectively in our new normal and remote work evaluations have some major catching up to do. Remote relationships rely heavily on asynchronous collaboration. And while asynchronous work can be very helpful in creating a more focused and strategic culture, it also has the potential to increase friction around feedback.

By the nature of only meeting when you have something to say, bouncing from back-to-back Zoom meetings all day, and far less body language to rely on, it’s challenging to find openings to give feedback. Six months can easily go by and before you know it, you’re writing a performance review without ever giving less formal feedback first. Continuous feedback throughout the year is critical to unlocking the best performance and work relationships possible. 

Why remote feedback is harder to give 

Giving feedback is hard, period. Giving feedback to colleagues you’ve only met in Zoom meetings can feel impossible, forced, tense, and scary. Even though our post-pandemic work climate has changed in several positive ways, strong distributed or remote-first cultures are still relatively rare, and that’s why we’re all feeling the pain in remote work evaluations. There is less space to connect more deeply and strengthen trust bonds, making it hard to give high-quality and regular enough feedback.

Most remote interactions are during scheduled meetings, one-on-ones, or in work-focused emails or chats. The "get down to business" mode of remote communication in many cultures leaves very little time and space to use our interactions resourcefully. Taking one-on-ones as an example, most of them are only 30 minutes a week, and busy managers tend to stack their one-on-ones back-to-back, cancel unexpectedly, or get into the minutiae of the latest projects. This makes it tough to talk about anything in-depth and circle up to the higher level of performance feedback.

When managers are less present and focused in their one-on-ones, they miss opportunities to give employees growth-oriented feedback. That lack of relational space is a risk we want to avoid in remote cultures as it often causes this type of sandbagging effect with feedback. It disadvantages employees who don't have the information they need to continue to improve. 

Biased feedback is causing attrition

See how performance feedback is affecting retention in 2023

How to conduct good remote performance evaluations 

There’s a lot of investment that is required for strong working relationships in a distributed world, but when you get to the performance review, there are a few ways to make sure it goes well.  

1. Share the review before meeting   

Everyone processes feedback differently. To set yourself up for success, make sure you offer your direct report a preview of your thinking and the conversation to come. This will also take the anxiety out of the process for both of you. Frame the conversation by making the implicit explicit, and leave room for their reactions and responses. This way, you’ll end up spending your time on the more valuable discussion points.

Aim to share the review at least 2 days in advance so your direct report has plenty of time to sit with it, process it fully, and come to the conversation in the right headspace. 

2. Bring discussion prompts to guide the conversation 

In presentations, everyone says to not read off the slides. Well, that’s true for performance reviews too! Anything that could be emailed or written, shouldn’t be something you’re wasting your limited face-to-face time reading for them. If you sent the review in advance, lean into more targeted conversation prompts.

Here are a few ideas of what you can ask:  

  1. What is one area we can prioritize working on together this quarter?  
  2. How can I better support you in this next year at work and personally?
  3. What are barriers or bottlenecks that we can remove from your workflow?
  4. What part of the review makes you most proud? 
  5. Which feedback do you want to dig into most during today’s conversation?

3. Do an engagement pulse check 

When you go to any doctor, regardless of the reason, they check your blood pressure. Consider any performance interaction as an overall health check. Performance reviews can increase (or decrease) employee engagement, so this is a really important opportunity to see how your direct report is feeling about their work, your team culture, and their career path at your company. Ask for upward feedback and learn how you can improve as a manager. Also, ask questions about their growth and ambitions. Learn how you can be more supportive in helping them achieve their goals.

A sense of growth is important for retention so this is a critical time to make sure that you are supporting their growth and staying attuned to their engagement. 

3 commonly missed opportunities when evaluating remote employees   

The way to successfully land any feedback, particularly performance-related feedback is to invest in a year-round feedback practice. When you are missing those foundational precursors, you'll have a much harder time getting your feedback to lead to any desired action or outcome. Below are three commonly missed opportunities in feedback exchanges with distributed employees.  

1. You don’t have enough social credits

Have you ever heard the saying that relationships must have at least 5 positive interactions for every negative one? It’s great advice, especially for work. If you think of your relationships with your team as bank accounts, it follows that you need to have more credits (positive interactions) than debits (negative ones). What does this mean for remote work evaluations

As a manager, you must invest in building trust, psychological safety, and candor in your relationships with direct reports before the evaluation ever takes place. Otherwise, remote work evaluations can feel like a sudden relational withdrawal to your employees. This doesn’t mean that offering critical feedback has to be seen as negative, but that your relationship with your direct report requires scaffolding, trust, and a felt sense of commitment to them as a person. When your team can trust that you’re invested in their success, feedback—especially critical feedback—is more likely to be implemented. 

2. You haven’t built the feedback muscle yet  

Feedback is a practice. Habit and consistency are your friends when it comes to all feedback and especially remote performance reviews. Make sure your feedback muscle is there by the time the remote work evaluation takes place so that it doesn't become an obstacle. 

A common pain point for individual contributors is inconsistent feedback. If feedback only comes out during the mid-year review and annual review, it’s far less valuable. Try to make feedback a ritual. Perhaps your team adopts a norm of ending projects with structured feedback or maybe you commit to exchanging feedback team-wide once a quarter. Whatever your norm is, habit and consistency are key to managing remote employees skillfully.  

3. You’re trying to reinvent the wheel  

There are many think pieces on feedback and too many methodologies to count. Most of them are getting at the same thing—have a structure when offering feedback to make sure it’s relevant, actionable, timely, etc. So pick your favorite framework and stick to it. Stay consistent with all of your direct reports, and avoid open-ended feedback which can lead to bias.

Good feedback is grounded in business outcomes. That means you should be going back to the goal-setting you did at the beginning of the year and looking at objective indicators of performance based on those goals. Then you should prioritize feedback and make sure that it’s clear where to go next. Offer a balance of praise and concrete suggestions for improvement. Adopt a common language around feedback on your team and stay consistent. 

With a consistent process, a strong feedback muscle, and enough trust in your social bank account, you’ll be unlocking the best performance and collaborations possible. 

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