October heralded the beginning of federal performance appraisal season. But how should managers conduct performance reviews for a year with so much upheaval in the work environment?

The past 12 months began with widespread telework mandates, affecting up to 60 percent of federal employees. In June, the country’s strong COVID-19 vaccination program and falling case numbers allowed President Joe Biden to lift the 25 percent occupancy restriction for federal offices. More agencies began bringing employees back to the workplace. Then came the halts or reversals, as the Delta variant started gaining momentum.

Teleworking and minimal or sporadic in-person attendance have several implications for the performance evaluation cycle. At a baseline, office attendance can no longer be used as a proxy for performance or engagement. Although managers have known for some time that presence does not equal performance, “presenteeism” continues to exert a powerful, if subconscious, influence. We are psychologically biased by the “mere-exposure effect,” which says the more we see someone, the more we like them, and the “halo effect,” which causes us to associate liking someone with positive judgments about their character and performance. As managers, what may influence us to evaluate our in-person workers and teleworkers differently?

On a related note, the lives of men and women have evolved differently during the pandemic. Research has shown that women have taken on the bulk of additional responsibility for caregiving and children’s education. This may mean that they are unavailable at certain times, work non-traditional hours, or take longer to respond to a text or call. As presenteeism has gone digital, managers need to make sure they are not penalizing parents for trying to balance work and family responsibilities.

Clearly, the most important question managers need to ask is, “has the employee been delivering on what they are expected to do?” This shifts the emphasis away from presence — or even activities which may not be visible to a manager — to deliverables that are clear and measurable. It also raises possible distinctions about “normal” job deliverables, extraordinary pandemic-related responsibilities and those most critical to fulfilling an agency’s mission.

Beyond being alert to possible biases and diligent about addressing them, what can federal managers do this year to ensure accurate and fair performance evaluations?

1. Clarify expectations in terms of deliverables or results

Make sure you understand and can list the deliverables or results each employee has been responsible for over the past 12 months. While there is no way to know exactly what each employee is doing day-to-day, communication is key. Ask employees to frame their self-assessments in terms of contribution, results and impact, rather than activities.

2. Seek out more diverse sources of performance data

For many employees, working from home means less regular connection and communication with their supervisors. So, the employee or evaluating manager may need to reach out to a broader group of people for feedback. Important information should also come from the employee through their self-assessments. The employee has a responsibility to inform leadership about their contributions to the mission, including their personal impact and accountability for specific initiatives and overall productivity.

3. Recognize and reward extraordinary efforts

The past year has been challenging for everyone. Some employees may not have performed to their usual standards. But along with reflecting on people’s performance in their normal roles, managers should seek to understand what above-and-beyond measures may have been necessary as work shifted online and individual needs and capabilities changed from one week to the next. Recognition can come in many forms, including direct feedback, public praise, honorary or time-off awards and more. Taking time to figure out what is most meaningful to each individual is critical to enhancing morale and celebrating success in a difficult time.

4. Shift from a management to a leadership perspective

Much of the management of daily work has shifted during the pandemic from managers to their employees. Teleworkers increasingly control how and when they work, and for how long. This means managers conducting reviews must consider their own role from more of a leadership perspective. Are they clear in their expectations? Are they inspiring and motivating employees to contribute their best efforts? What are they doing to create a shared sense of purpose or build urgency around important changes? How are they fostering a culture of performance, customer focus, safety and inclusion? And most importantly, how can they be a better leader to each employee, and help the employee better manage themselves?

5. Spend more and better time with each employee

Use this performance appraisal as an opportunity to check in on people. How are they doing, really? How are they adapting to these new ways of working? What do they need in order to succeed? Spend a bit more time in the appraisal conversation. Make sure employees feel heard and engaged. Remind them that we are all in the process of establishing a new work culture and learning as we go. Hold well-planned, well-executed, two-way discussions.

Martha Kesler, MSOD, is a principal at Kotter, who directs Kotter’s federal portfolio. She can be reached at martha.kesler@kotterinc.com. Dr. Katy Paul-Chowdhury is an affiliate at Kotter. She can be reached at katy.paul-chowdhury@kotterinc.com. Angela Carsten is a director of human resources at Defense Acquisition University.

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