Q&A: Part 1: How do I make remote reviews work?

Danny Speros, Director of People Ops, Zenefits
Feb 9, 2021

Remote workers need to feel connected. In this two-part POPS! series, we look at ideas on how to consistently engage your team: from regular performance discussions with your existing staff, to special care in hiring and onboarding people you may never meet in person.

In this, the first of a two-part remote work series, we take a close look that the performance review. Not only how to do it remotely, but actually how to reframe the practice overall — like many things in the new world of work, it’s in need of fresh thinking.  Keeping in touch with your people and their work progress is arguably more important now to help them feel connected to your business, engaged and productive. But what are better ways to evaluate their progress and provide meaningful feedback, remotely?

In this episode of POPS!, Zenefits Sr. Director of People Danny Speros describes why “performance alignment” is a better way to frame reviews, and how to have conversations around feedback that will help people achieve their goals.

In this Q&A, you’ll hear:

  • [01:11-02:14] Rephrasing the term “performance review”
  • [02:15-03:48] Make sure you measure things that matter
  • [04:29-06:25] Why constant feedback is more valuable than retrospective feedback
  • [06:26-10:04] Ways to make reviews more conversational 

POPS Star Bio

Danny comes from a family of entrepreneurs and spent eight years running the family construction business including roles in HR, Sales, Operations and Accounting. He understands the joys and challenges of building a business and learned a lot about how to avoid some common pitfalls. This context fuels his passion for working with other small businesses at Zenefits. Today, Danny taps more than 20 years of People Ops and small business leadership in his role as Senior Director of People at Zenefits. This makes him a great guest expert for the podcast; plan to hear from him often!  And you might just catch an occasional cameo from his young daughter in the background.

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Didi D’Errico: Welcome to POPS, the show that shows you how to shift from human resources paperwork to people operations for the new world of work. How by answering one question at a time, today to help us answer your question. Here’s Danny Speros, the Director of People, Operations at Zenefits. 

Danny Speros: The employee review. It’s an important thing because it’s even more important, especially in remote environments to make sure that you’re keeping your employees engaged and productive. Uh, there’s the old adage out of sight out of mind, and your employees should never really be out of sight or out of mind.

And so it’s important to really keep them engaged, um, keep them productive and, and make sure that this is a, a positive work experience for them. For a lot of employees, remote work is better work. And so, uh, it’s an opportunity to just make sure that you’re capitalizing on that. Now let’s get down to business here a little bit.

First off, I want to talk about just the word employee review. Also known as the performance review. Also known as performance management in my 20 or so years of HR and people work. I’ve started to see those as a necessary kind of a challenge. Uh, not necessarily positive language. I know managers typically dread the annual performance review employees also dread the annual performance review.

One of the things that we’ve been talking about is really just changing the semantics around that. The goal of looking at employee performance is really to get alignment between employees. And the work that they’re doing and the incentives that they have and the goals that they have and aligning those with the company’s goals, incentives, targets, metrics, and things like that. So we’re really talking about aligning performance. So for the purpose of this conversation, I’m going to use the phrase performance alignment, and I feel like that’s a better choice, uh, to really. Have this conversation around, uh, the next thing I really want to talk about, and some of the things that have really helped us as an organization, as we shifted more and more towards remote work it’s really just making sure that we’re measuring things that matter I’ve delivered, facilitated, helped countless performance reviews. So to speak over the years that talk about, does this person contribute well in meetings? Uh, does this person make good decisions? Do they involve the right kinds of people? Those are all great questions and things to consider when we’re talking about employee performance, but are they really the things that matter and deliver results?

And so one of the things that’s critical to. Looking at employee performance and aligning employee performance in a remote environment, especially is making sure that the goals of the employee and the things that we’re measuring employee performance on making sure that those align with things that are actually driving the business forward, uh, make sure that these goals and measurements, uh, not only.

Do that, but also that they’re available to the employees on a regular basis. So employees should have a clear understanding of what the company’s goals are. They should have a clear understanding of what their own personal goals and metrics are and how those two align. And then also they should have a clear understanding of how they’re doing against those.

And so the more we can make these things, uh, objective and measurable, the better. Granted not everything was purely objective. There’s always going to be subjective things in here. Um, and so it’s just important to make sure that we’re having. Alignment conversations around that, which brings me to the next point.

The goal of performance alignment is really to drive achievement and not so much to measure. So it’s tough to sort of break out of that. At times it’s easy to fall into, well, you’re at 80% on this and so-and-so is at 50% on this, but really the goal of all of this is not so much to have a conversation about measurements as it is like, how do we get things done?

How do we achieve our goals? And so it’s important, um, to sort of frame the conversation around feedback that’s going to help people achieve now doing so on a regular basis is going to help you achieve that. So rather than just doing. Uh, an annual employee performance review or the old, uh, quarterly performance review.

Essentially all those are really doing is giving, uh, an organization the opportunity to measure as opposed to aligning. Um, but really it’s giving the organization the opportunity to measure after the fact. To be frank, after the fact is too late. It’s important to have those conversations as the actions are happening so that we can make sure that the performance that we’re expecting the goals that we’re hoping to achieve is actually achieved rather than just having some sort of arbitrary period at the end of it.

So, uh, what we’ve really done here at Zenefits and some of the things that we’re seeing other customers start to shift to is doing, um, performance and employee alignment conversations. We just call them check-ins or conversations but doing those on a regular basis. So we’re doing them on a monthly basis and it’s been a great benefit to both our employees and our managers.

And so what we’re doing is just having our managers sit down with their employees and I supervise a handful of people. So I get to sit down with my team on a monthly basis, in addition to just our regular one-on-ones, where we talk about a lot of these things. Um, but to talk about specific things with respect to performance, and also talk about things that maybe just are timely.

So we’ve set up a calendar. Where every month is a slightly different topic, just to make sure that I’ve got to remind her, I’m having these types of conversations with my team and our managers, you’re doing the same as well, but doing it regularly has been hugely helpful because it gives us an opportunity to make sure that we’re still focused on the right things on a monthly basis.

Make sure that the, uh, the work that we’re doing is actually contributing towards achieving those things. Uh, it’s real easy to get sidetracked or lose sight of things. And also to make sure that we’re both aligned on what is a good outcome and are we achieving it? Um, some helpful hints that we’re sort of sharing with our managers as they go through this process are for the first part, have a conversation. So we’re doing it again, like I said, on a monthly basis, although we can’t always do these meetings in person anymore in a remote environment, it’s important to do them in real-time and face-to-face, even if we can’t do them in real life. So we’re doing them over video conference. Uh, it’s every bit as important to make sure.

To read the person, read the room, to see how the other person’s reacting to some of the conversations. But it’s important to have you ever been in a performance conversation with either your boss or with an employee that reports to you and felt uncomfortable? I have. That happens pretty regularly. So it’s important.

Even more so in a remote environment to try to make it as conversational and relaxed as possible. Again, doing that on a monthly basis certainly helps that, but also just being, um, intentional. With, uh, making sure it’s conversational as opposed to reading off of, um, metrics or read off of, um, performance review type things.

Um, so what we’re telling our managers is keep it light, keep it conversational. It doesn’t have to be weird. It doesn’t have to be angst-driven or written. Um, it really is just a conversation. How are we doing? How are you doing? How do you feel about the goals that we’ve got in front of us? Do you feel like we’re on target with those?

Are they still the most important things that we’re working on? Um, are they still the most impactful to our overall organization goals? Is there some adjustment that needs to be made? Is there some way that I can help you? And that’s a big one. How can I help you? And take it from there. And then it’s important to just be straightforward and give actionable feedback to help achieve the goals and desired behavior.

If there’s something that somebody could do differently or just insight or a question, feel free to share it. But the goal of that straightforward and actionable feedback is to achieve the goals and to achieve the desired behavior. And when it’s done like that, it’s oftentimes received like that by the employee.

So rather than feeling criticized for doing something wrong, they just understand that they’re getting help to do it the right way. And if we’re doing that on a regular basis, we found that it just works so much better, especially, in a remote environment where. We’re just not able to see people full-time all the time, especially for people that have sort of transitioned from working in an officer, perhaps your organization is able to work in an officer and facility, but you’ve got water two remote employees.

These types of things in these types of cadences will help sort of keep, everybody, on the same page. From a tools perspective, and I’m sure there are lots of different tools out there. Uh, Zenefits helps us facilitate this cause we’ve got a performance management tool in there where we can just set these conversations up and have them repeat on a monthly basis and give, give our managers.

The, uh, the whole month. So from the first to the 31st managers have any time in that month to have these conversations, document them, share them. And, uh, and we just try to keep that light. There’s plenty of other tools out there that would allow you to do that. Um, but just set it up so that it’s a, um, a constant reminder at the beginning of the month and maybe a reminder in the middle of it a month to make sure to have those conversations.

It’s helpful. What we found is managers are often. Having these conversations and, uh, on a regular basis. But. Making them intentional so that we’re making sure to touch base on certain things. Every single month has been a big help. Remote work is a new challenge, but it’s also a new reality and it’s also a huge opportunity.

And if we can make this work, uh, it gives us the opportunity to give employees the flexibility that they’ve been desiring, um, sort of have the hybrid approach, maybe that works for other people and really. Take advantage of, um, the talent that exists, uh, in a lot of different places and work well together.

And these are things and tips and tricks that even as we come back into office environments for many organizations, keeping these types of levels of communication and cadences of communication up could really be helpful in managing to a strong performance and strong achievement over the course of time. A couple of tips and hints and things like that. I’d like to share with you. First off, first off, the Forbes council is, uh, on HR is sort of a group of senior HR professionals. Tracy from, um, Zenefits is on there as well and often, uh, has some great tips and tricks in there. They’ve got a, uh, an article on tips on how to conduct employee reviews.

We’ll call it performance alignment, but there are some tips in there that could be really helpful. And then also in work. So I’ve got an article that I’d like to share where a handful of small business leaders talk about things that are really making remote work. And one of the things that they really kind of hit on is just making sure that goals and expectations. Uh, and those kinds of things are clear to all employees, put them out there, let everybody see them, let everybody know what they are. Um, refer back to them often and make sure that you’re living up to those and working towards those on a regular basis. Again, now that we’re sort of not seeing each other in the office every day, it’s important to just double down on some of these techniques.

Didi D’Errico: Do you have a question for our experts? Click the link in the show notes, or if you’ve got other ideas and feedback about our show, send them to [email protected].

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Every week, we share the decisions, struggles, and successes for keeping up with an evolving workforce and a changing workplace. No matter if you’ve been in HR or are just getting started, this combination of transformational stories with actionable ideas, as well as context on hot issues, keeps you up-to-date while answering the questions you didn’t even know you had.

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