Virtual appraisals: Finding the opportunity in the challenge

A guest post by Doron Davidson, co-founder of Strevas

Davidson: Virtual opportunities offer invaluable opportunities

As the slightly adjusted old adage goes, when life gives you lemons, check the contract and, so long as there are no restrictive covenants to the contrary, turn them into lemonade.

With an unprecedented long period of working away from the office, many firms have seen a real impact on what their teamwork looks like in practice.

Research shows that, in working predominantly from home, employees have been much more productive and the number of hours they’ve been spending on their work has risen significantly. However, they’ve also become increasingly isolated from their colleagues.

As the majority of lawyers are time-poor to begin with, and in the absence of so-called watercooler moments in the office, team connectivity comes up against considerable hurdles.

The virtual setting

A primary hurdle is linked to the fact that, nowadays, casual chats often require an artificial push in order to happen, whilst feedback conversations only take place infrequently, during more formal virtual appraisal meetings.

When you’ve lost the physical proximity of being in the same office together, as well as the regular opportunities to talk about non-work stuff with fellow team members, the nuance of collegial relationships is tricky to maintain.

Consequently, having an appraisal in the online arena presents an unsettling prospect – not just for the appraisee but also for the appraiser.

As the focus of the team’s day-to-day dynamic invariably ends up diverted to targets, deadlines, time-recording and billing, appraisal conversations, which can already feel like perfunctory tick-box exercises, risk being nothing more than transactional endeavours once transposed to the virtual setting.

Such an approach to the process renders it stilted and overly formal, with managers habitually overlooking the human element underpinning the relationship. In practice, this can result in defensive behaviour and lack of openness.

Reframing the challenge

Despite the difficulties which appraisals in the virtual setting may pose, they offer invaluable opportunities.

Take, for example, the realignment of team connectivity, renewed focus on (individual and collective) goals and – importantly – the creation of a comfortable, relaxed space for employees to speak openly and honestly.

It is, therefore, important to view any trepidation one might feel about a non-face-to-face appraisal in the context of the transformative opportunities it opens up.

Whether you are an appraiser or an appraisee, this experience grants you a springboard for growth, development and reconnection. Approaching it from this perspective can really help with any nerves you may feel in advance of the meeting and place the conversation on a collaborative path from the outset.

Parameters for success

Collaboration is an important watchword when considering what parameters to set for the conversation. Viewing the appraisal meeting as a two-way exchange rather than a unilateral download of information creates a chance for both parties to learn and benefit from the meeting.

As the appraiser, it will probably fall to you to devise the framework for the meeting and this means that you have control about the choices you make.

For example, consulting the appraisee on a mutually convenient date and time instead of simply putting a time slot in their diary as a fait accompli is a good start. Checking with them in advance what they would like to get out of the meeting also demonstrates a collaborative attitude.

Asking open questions, listening carefully to the other person’s perspective and indicating an intention to address or resolve issues raised inspires confidence in the process.

Moreover, in the case of the appraisee, this also promotes psychological safety – a sense of reassurance that conflict will be resolved without a threat to the individual or indeed the integrity and unity of the overall team.

Consider what you can contribute to the conversation to elevate it beyond the cursory and make it meaningful for both you and the other person. If you’re given a negative or developmental message, pause and think before you respond.

It’s natural to feel defensive in those circumstances, particularly where such a message comes as a complete surprise. Yet this information could help illuminate something about your part in a particular situation or an impact of your conduct which you were not previously aware of.

As such, this sort of message may hold the key to your own growth and positive change.

Online stagecraft

How you come across during the meeting is crucial. I recently heard of a virtual appraisal where the appraiser had their camera off.

Video platform rectangles already narrow what we offer of ourselves down to mere head and shoulders. Depriving an appraisee of your facial expressions and gestures may further compromise the effectiveness of your communication.

Turn your video on. It’s the next best thing to an actual face-to-face. And be mindful of how others may perceive you online – nodding, smiling and maintaining ‘eye contact’ (by looking at your video camera rather than your own image on your screen) supports you in bridging the virtual distance.

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