The roots of performance feedback go back to 1911, when mechanical engineer (and Olympic golfer) Frederick Winslow Taylor published his popular book, Principles of Scientific Management.
In those days, the vast majority of the workforce was involved in manual labour. Winslow’s studies on time and motion were designed to maximise efficiency on behalf of the company, with little attention to the wellbeing of workers (and to the detriment of skilled labour). Despite these shortcomings, his ideas served as a foundation for the standardisation of best practices, the transfer of knowledge to new workers, and other key areas of modern management.
The first inklings of performance feedback as we know it emerged in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, a library worth of material has been written on how managers can be effective at giving feedback. What to include, what to avoid, how to find your own style – these are important considerations for any manager who wants to keep morale and performance high.
Is the rulebook changing again?
The sudden, wide-scale necessity of remote work has more than a few managers’ heads spinning.
How can we talk about performance feedback when we’re still figuring out how to perform remotely, both as a team and as individuals?
Fortunately, remote work was becoming more common before COVID-19. As a result, the picture around remote feedback was already being developed. Many of the principles we know from pre-COVID office work are perfectly applicable, but there are some reminders and new insights to consider as we go forward.
1. Stick to KPIs and formal evaluations
A lot of managers give formal evaluations twice a year. Whatever your schedule, maintain it and follow through. Keep in mind: A blurred line between work and home can cause some employees to feel adrift and invisible. Aside from the well-known benefits (individual development, team dynamics, company culture), formal evaluations now also help to ground us in a shared context.
2. Go public with positive feedback
Before the pandemic, some managers were naturally good at calling out a great individual contribution in front of other employees. Other managers had to work a little harder at it. This remains true. For the same reasons mentioned above – namely the tendency to feel invisible in a remote work environment – this kind of positive feedback is powerful. It lets us know that great contributions will be recognised, and reminds us that the work we do – even though it may be done at home – fits into the collective goals of the team.
3. Use your voice
In a managerial setting, you want to be respectful and constructive. You don’t want to walk on eggshells, but you don’t want to be flowery either. Video has an important place at the table, but some people are more comfortable than others in front of the camera. Talking on the phone (i.e. voice chat) with one or more employees is a good tool to keep around. It allows more freedom of movement – and perhaps in some situations, more freedom of thought. Plus, it’s common wisdom that text messages and e-mails have a higher chance of being misconstrued.
At a time when life seems isolated and hyper-digital, phone calls facilitate feedback that is quick and constructive without being cloaked in written words or requiring a trip to the mirror beforehand.
4. Empower team members to share feedback with each other
Remote feedback doesn’t have to be a one-way, or even a two-way street. With the right guidance, it can be a thriving intersection of ideas and conversations in which employees effectively share constructive feedback with each other, leading to better workflows. A culture of constructive feedback is good for business – this has been one of the most important overall themes in HR these past few years.
A new era of feedback
Perhaps in the future, the ideas we have about performance feedback in 2020 will seem as antiquated as Frederick Winslow Taylor with his time and motion studies. In a vast number of professional contexts, optimising performance is more complicated. Building better feedback practices with your team is a good place to start.
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