(Illustration by Marrio31/iStock by Getty Images)

Among the many tough questions companies had to tackle during the multiple crises of the past year, one of the most important has been whether to continue with employee performance reviews. Some companies scrapped parts of their performance-management systems, like mid-year reviews and numeric ratings. Others lowered sales quotas or urged bosses to avoid labels like “does not meet expectations.”

For many employers, it was a chance to make over the traditional performance-management process. At the cloud-computing company Nutanix, for example, the decision to continue with reviews presented an opportunity to open a conversation with employees about why and how that decision was made. The company’s leaders then simplified the review process and made 360-degree feedback optional. New questions were brought into the process with a focus on empathy.

“We re-purposed the purpose of the conversation itself, from performance-oriented to more alignment-oriented, to more support-oriented, to being an exchange between the manager and their teams on what support is needed and any new goals that needed to be articulated,” said Deep Mahajan, Nutanix’s senior director and head of people development and culture.

Mahajan was a speaker in a From Day One webinar in December focusing on “Performance Management With Empathy in Mind,” moderated by Myla Skinner, chief of staff of OneGoal, a college-access organization. The panelists stressed that empathy and compassion, in fact, are key ingredients for managing performance in an inclusive way. While the global pandemic and remote work have turned many businesses upside down, the speakers suggested that the crisis has prompted innovative thinking about how to establish more productive conversations around feedback and how to maintain connections with what employees are thinking and feeling.

The speakers on performance management, top row from left: moderator Myla Skinner of OneGoal and Sarah Sheehan of Bravely. Center row, from left: Jaison Williams of Fitbit, Robin Malmanger of Genpact, and Cynthia Brown of NetApp. Bottom row: Deep Mahajan of Nutanix (Image by From Day One)

Jaison Williams, VP of global talent management and inclusion for Fitbit, shared his company’s own adaptations. “Instead of a typical mid-year review, we just said every employee needs to have a one-on-one with their manager in which they get feedback.” Fitbit sent out a simple one-question survey to confirm the conversation happened.

At year end, Fitbit planned to ask employees to share their own thoughts on performance and challenges they encountered. Secondly, the company will rely on manager feedback and insight as opposed to 360-degree feedback or talent calibrations.

Cynthia Brown, a senior HR director for the data-services company NetApp, echoed the importance of managerial attention. “It forced our managers to think about what it is that you have to do,” she said of the pandemic. “What are the roles and responsibilities for this individual? And to be very clear about the expectations can help to manage that. It can be anything, from why they can or can’t do something–and when they can do it.”

It’s also important to understand the reasons for underperformance by an employee, noted Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of the employee-coaching firm Bravely. Sheehan was candid about her own struggles running a company while caring for her baby at the same time: “My stress levels were through the roof in a way I’ve never experienced.” Sheehan said leadership should make an effort to understand personal experiences of employees before bearing down on performance.

By example, Sheehan demonstrated that leadership should also be frank about their own struggles, especially at times when a lot of pressure is being placed on managers. “Our guidance is always that managers have to give themselves permission to be vulnerable and share their own personal circumstances, so their teams are able to come and do the same with them,” Sheehan said. “Our belief at Bravely is that if you’re not able to have the open dialogue, and ask people to come forward and share what’s really going on, you won’t be able to solve the performance issues.”

One big challenge, panelists acknowledged, is how to distribute tasks based on employee availability and their roles in the company. If an employee without children is consistently taking on additional tasks, for example, how can a company be sure they don’t burn out or become resentful? Mahajan, of Nutanix, spoke on the concept of “community performance,” in which individuals are responsible for certain deliverables, but the larger team is held accountable for its goals. “In a phase where some of us are busy taking care of our families, and others are more available … you can take our boundaries of performance from the individual and shift it to the team and community level,” she said.

At FitBit, the company uses one-hour “monthly manager forums” to provide space for their concerns and identify specific stressors among employees. “We’re slicing and dicing our engagement data, so we can bring in management and share groups where we are seeing high levels of stress and issues impacting well-being,” said Williams. “We can also use that to tailor our sessions–we did one last month on going through the change curve, for you as a manager.”

Companies also shifted policies and culture to address what’s going on. Robin Malmanger, a global HR leader for Genpact, a professional-services firm focused on digital transformation, said the company has expanded its definition of what qualities are recognized, beyond just rewarding top business performers. “We still do that, but we’ve made space to reward people demonstrating good work-life balance,” she said, “those people who can put up the boundaries and say they’ve gotta shut it down right now.”

NetApp started “Pandemic Prevention Days,” essentially treated as sick days, but not deducted as such, for employees who need to take a day off for situations related to the pandemic. “Anything from taking care of someone for the day, getting tested, or whatever you feel you need to do,” Brown said.

The webinar’s speakers shared a variety of company decisions, like allowing employees to turn off their computer video while teleconferencing or designating no-meeting days. Genpact established a “Work From Home Pledge” that includes promises not to make judgements about worker’s homes, or about family activity in the background, and to show respect for other employees' time. “It gives employees a freedom to open themselves up and be aware we are coming into each other’s homes,” said Malmanger.

Throughout the discussion, common themes like honesty, open communication, flexibility and empathy all came up as qualities needed to change performance reviews for times like these. “Empathy is not separate from driving performance–it’s an integral part of the process,” as Sheehan put it. “Any great leader that I’ve worked for has been empathetic.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.