Are performance reviews still necessary?

It’s performance review time, but not as we know it. ArtsHub takes a look at the value proposition and expectations of post-pandemic performance reviews.
performance reviews

How we work, and how we interact as teams, has changed dramatically in the past two years. In many ways, our relationships with our team leaders and managers have become more personable – less formal – so does a place remain for office formalities?

One such formality is employees’ performance reviews, often anxiety ridden and dreaded by both parties.

Before the pandemic, the Harvard Business Review (HBR, 2016) opened up the conversation around a trend for nixing reviews. It quoted Brian Jensen of the US company Colorcon, who in some HR circles, was viewed as heretical for his methods back in 2002.

Jensen believed it was more effective for supervisors ‘to give people instant feedback, tying it to individuals’ own goals, and handing out small weekly bonuses to employees they saw doing good things’.

Many companies agreed. HBR estimated that by in 2016 more than one-third of US companies had replaced annual reviews with frequent, informal check-ins, while business researcher Josh Bersin put the figure at about 70% for multinational companies. Known for its research, Deloitte similarly reported that 58% of HR executives considered reviews an ineffective use of supervisors’ time.

The pandemic saw this trend only grow and ArtsHub suggests that those numbers are much higher today as we have settled into the ‘new normal’ workplaces.

So, what’s the alternative, and better post-pandemic fit, for assessing staff?

What is the value of a performance review… today?

Browsing the internet, you can find a thousand reasons touting the professional value of performance reviews. Case closed; full stop.

But wait. How can we review concepts like ‘employee engagement’ or simply employee attendance, in the same way we did pre-pandemic? Clearly, the questions have to be reframed, or dropped.

Before that can be done, it’s necessary to get our heads around the expectations of the manager of the manager. Confused? Traditional performance reviews have been all about ascertaining how an employee sits within an organisation’s business goals and assessing productivity levels. Yes, they say they are about you, but really they are not. They are more a case of excessive paperwork and Board report fodder.

There has been a recent rupture in that system. Think about the bigger question: how is your company wanting to kick goals – not its strategic plan goal rhetoric, but rather how is it using pandemic learnings to shape its future and workplace culture?

Your manager is going to have to answer to their next tier of management on how your performance is lining up with that broader company zeitgeist and, importantly today, a culture of well-being.

So while Person X may be a total champ in delivering their core job, a great bubbly team member and always present even when working digitally, they may also show zip in the self-drive, visionary, initiative bucket, and be happy to coast along.

The bottom line to any performance conversation – online/office, pandemic/pre-pandemic – is to provide feedback to employees that may motivate them, and help direct their career progression. Person X may simply need to be encouraged. Or there’s the flipside – Person X may be in ‘quiet quitting’ mode.

Enter the value of a performance conversation in our times.

Read: Are ‘quiet firing’ and ‘quiet quitting’ real in the arts?

Shifted goalposts: from ‘review’ to ‘conversation’

ArtsHub has dipped a toe into the management pool and taken the pulse on the value of post-pandemic performance reviews – are they still necessary, and is there greater space for leniency, and team building, rather than team eroding?

Any performance-based conversation should be about nurturing a culture where employees feel that they are in a safe space to disclose any worries or concerns that they may have about their role, their working relationships with their teammates or broader management concerns.

They are not a simple box-check exercise: achieved/failed, or self-directed ranking from one to five, which marketing executive Pete Juratovic described as more like ‘a bad homework project’ and ‘the Twitter effect’ reducing what you do to 150 characters.

While accountability and efficiency measures are the new milieu of the arts sector, so too are workplace conversations around mentorship, discrimination, access, mental health, burnout, transparency (or lack thereof) and safe spaces.

In this climate, more regular check-ins work over a formal process, what The Washington Post  colourfully refers to as an ‘annual rite of corporate kabuki’.

The traditional format followed this line of questioning:

  • what they’re doing right
  • where they need to improve, and
  • how their work dovetails with the company’s long-term goals.

But in a post-pandemic environment, performance reviews will also consider how an employee may be managing in a hybrid workplace environment, discovering whether they are getting the support at home to do their job, ascertaining if they have concerns about returning to the physical workspace and finding out what their mental health situation may be.

These are questions that should not wait for that yearly review to come around.

An extra layer of care and mindfulness is required now, and while workplace performance has been disrupted and the thinking around ‘assessments’ has skewed with the times, the recommendation would be to not put off reviews, but rather to review more regularly.

Read: Yes, you can say that: a guide to tricky workplace conversations

The pandemic has created a climate where workplace retention is a growing problem. Regular, relaxed conversations assist in eliminating ‘dissatisfiers’ (to use a review term) that drive employees away.

The pandemic has also demonstrated the need for agility. It has been a period populated by special projects, many of which sat outside general business. Some of those projects have continued into hybrid models today; others were responsive and short-lived.

The traditional review system is not geared toward quick change or successive project review. So, rather than trying to compare ‘apples with pears’, conversations have become more cyclical and project or situation-based.

Regardless of old school/new school thinking around performance reviews, one thing remains: their effectiveness depends on the manager’s tone, their openness and, especially today, their capacity for care. We can be grateful to the pandemic for breaking down some of these barriers between management tiers, and raising the tolerance levels regarding human emotion and capacity.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina