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The annual performance review was once a standard office practice, no matter if you worked as an ad salesman or an X-ray technician. But like fax machines, carbon copies and so many other once-prominent office features, it will soon be a relic of the past.

The performance review as we know it gained popularity in the mid-20th century when organizational theorists and early HR professionals wanted to establish more positive and less rigid models of employee engagement. But the slow and steady pace of the mid-century office doesn’t exactly line up with how companies work today, which involves fewer people, more responsibilities and nearly all tasks being completed at warp speed, notes Thomas Koulopoulos, founder of the Delphi Group, in an essay for Forbes.

“But, as with most industrial era models, [annual reviews] were built primarily for scale in large organizations that were rapidly growing. Their rigor, checklists, metrics and once or twice yearly application was never particularly good, especially for smaller organizations, but we accepted them as just part of the corporate tedium,” Koulopoulos writes. “Things have changed.”  

And, frankly, the traditional review can’t keep up. This doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook when it comes to providing employees with performance notes, however. Now, many companies are moving toward a continuous performance review process. But for organizations that are currently on an annual or even a semi-annual track, it can be a complicated switch.

Here’s how to show the value of a continuous performance review process to employees and managers, as well as tips on how to start the process.

What Are the Benefits of a Continuous Review?

Like with any other initiative you propose for your company, it’s important to realize the benefits of a continuous review process and not just suggest one because everyone else is doing it.

Not only does it create less anxiety for employees and improve the culture of an organization, but it also makes employees more likely to come to managers with issues that pop up throughout the year, says Jessie Salsbury, a recruitment specialist at A-1 Careers in Kansas City and SHRM certified professional.

“I’ve equated it to: If you’re upset with a family member, you don’t save up and write it down and tell them a year later,” Salsbury says. “It’s a more natural way to talk to people.”

A continuous review also allows employees to take charge of their own goal setting and increase their autonomy at work, which Gallup research notes as one of the key ways to increase employee happiness.

How Do You Convince Your Company to Switch?

So how do you get the rest of your company on board? It’s simple: Explain how much time and money will be saved as a result. Come to a board meeting prepared with research on the business-specific benefits of continuous review (and take this opportunity to remind them of how unpopular annual reviews are, which are just slightly more popular than commuting).

Want a good place to start? When Adobe eliminated their traditional performance reviews and opted for a continuous “check-in” with their employees using a mobile app system for feedback, they saved an estimated 80,000 staff hours and decreased voluntary turnover by 30 percent, according to an article in SHRM.

Moreover, a continuous review process is likely already being done by your top-performing managers, Salsbury says. “If you’ve ever had a good or great boss, you know they’ll always tell you how you’re doing and help you to figure out how to be better,” she says.

If having frequent, transparent conversations with your direct supervisor is already the informal norm in your organization (or at least in certain subsections), then it will be much easier to make such a systematic change in the review process throughout the company.

How Long Does It Take to Make the Switch?

Although the timeline can vary widely from organization to organization, it can take anywhere from six months to one year to make the switch from a traditional annual review to a continuous performance model, Salsbury says. This can also depend on how you plan to implement the continuous review—whether through an app-based system or a highly responsive and interactive performance management software.

Of course, there needs to be a plan in place for making the transition, and it’s best to let all management and employees know at the final annual review that the review process will be handled differently going forward, Salsbury adds.

The Seven Critical Questions for Managers to Ask Employees

Knowing why continuous performance reviews are more effective and presenting a strong case for the switch doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. So what can you do in the meantime to get away from that traditional focus on ratings and really hone in on the performance of employees? We suggest starting with these seven critical questions during your performance feedback conversations:

1) What’s on your mind? This serves as a good open-ended question that can potentially lead you somewhere unexpected.

2) What's the real challenge? Understand what your employee is struggling with and how she is dealing with her challenges.

3) What do you want? Where does your employee see herself growing in the company? How can you help her achieve this goal?

4) How can I help you? This is a standard question of a manager that can go a long way in helping the employee achieve goals and perform tasks better.

5) What are you saying “no” to? Is your employee afraid to try something? Does he not like or understand a task that he is assigned?

6) What are you putting off in terms of your own developmental needs to take on other tasks? Ask this question to determine what items should be shifted on an employee’s plate to help him reach his full potential.

7) What was the most useful to you? Find out what is most effective and what your employee is  excited about currently in her role.

Although growing pains are expected while changing from an annual review to a continuous performance review, you’ll be amazed at how employees can thrive, grow and become more productive under this new system.

Photo: Creative Commons