Are frequent ‘check-ins’ the antidote to performance reviews?

Deloitte has launched a system of quarterly status updates—four-point questions that identify problems and successes and which initiate conversations about workplace issues. Check it out.

Performance reviews are supposed to keep employees on track.

At many companies, though, they turn into a time-consuming headache full of paperwork and tedious meetings.

Deloitte—which employs tens of thousands of professionals at independent firms worldwide—changed that with a system it launched companywide last summer after a years-long pilot program.

Using frequent, short, informal check-ins, which employees schedule when they want them, Deloitte keeps an open dialogue between employees and their managers. Feedback happens in real time, rather than in huge year-end batches.

The driving philosophy is that after a year, it’s too late to give effective feedback on the small stuff and annual evaluations tend to focus on the past rather than the future.

In contrast, the check-ins are a “forward look at near-term goals,” says Jeff Orlando, chief learning officer for leader development and performance.

“It’s not about someone telling you what you did right or wrong,” he says. “It’s about looking forward and setting yourself up for success.”

The other major element of Deloitte’s performance management technique is a system of monthly snapshots, which are slightly more official than the check-ins but still nothing like a traditional performance review. The snapshots consist of a four-point evaluation that leaders fill out for each member of their team quarterly, if not more often.

The prompts are geared toward the future, rather than evaluating the past:

1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus.

This question is intended to measure overall performance and unique value to the organization on a five-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team.

This measures ability to work well with others on the same five-point scale.

3. This person is at risk for low performance.

This identifies problems that might harm the customer or the team on a yes-or-no basis.

4. This person is ready for promotion today.

This measures potential on a yes-or-no basis.

Before the new system, Orlando says, Deloitte employees were spending 1.8 million hours per year on performance management—mostly filling out paperwork. Although specific results on time savings under the new system aren’t yet available, participants are confident that the time dedicated to performance reviews now is being spent more productively.

“We’re trying to reduce or eliminate that specific administrative burden. We’ve radically reduced the amount of paperwork. That’s about respecting people’s time,” he says.

Employees and managers have voiced improvements. “We’ve heard, ‘This is easier and better,'” Orlando says. “We’ve heard stories of people having real ‘ah-ha’ moments during conversations with their leaders.”

Andrea Schulz, senior manager of Deloitte’s tax branch, has been using the system for three years as part of the original pilot program. She has experience from both sides: She uses the system to give feedback to people who report to her, and she has her own with her supervisors.

“Sometimes when I’m delivering feedback [to employees], I relate it to myself and might ask the same questions to my manager,” Schulz says.

Schulz says the frequency of the check-ins has helped her address problems in a timelier fashion. For example, she recently sent a communication to a co-worker who misinterpreted her tone. Having frequent check-ins allowed her to hear about the problem and address it before it escalated into resentment or conflict.

“The fact that we’re sitting down so often allows things like that to be caught right away and corrected,” she says. “It’s casual, informal, which leads to more constructive conversations.”

In addition to catching problems soon after they happen, frequent check-ins also set expectations before problems even arise. Schultz recently gave feedback to a junior employee whose project turnaround time was slower than what’s expected at Deloitte, and she says that correcting that project before it got too far off course prevented it from becoming a bigger issue.

Being able to catch something like that right away means that the system also benefits Deloitte’s clients, who don’t have to put up with slow turnaround or inferior work for long stretches before their consultants get feedback and correct the issue. Orlando adds that clients also benefit because regular check-ins help employees feel confident: “When people are happy and energized, they do better work.”

Implementation wasn’t without challenges. Schulz says that in the early days of the pilot the biggest issue was getting people to perform their check-ins as frequently as planned. “We weren’t used to it,” she says, “so we’d go longer without them, which made the conversations longer.”

Orlando observes: “It asks more of you as a manager, to really know your people. The challenge now is supporting managers in taking on this responsibility.”

Despite the growing pains, the lengthy pilot allowed them to work out most of the kinks before implementing the check-ins and snapshots companywide.

“Initially, we thought we’d hold back the data from the snapshots behind a curtain,” Orlando says, but employees wanted to see them, so now Deloitte shows each employee an aggregate of their snapshots in relation to their peer group.”

By delivering concise feedback on more frequently, managers reduce the burden of annual reviews. In addition, employees are given the direction and feedback that spurs engagement and productivity, making it a win/win.

A version of this article originally appeared on OpenWork.

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