Back up Your “We’re a People First Company” Poster with some Actions!

Check Out the Check-in Process.

“You don’t build a business — you build people —and then people build the business”. — Zig Ziglar

A little over a year ago, the time came to put our money where our mouth is when we said that we are a “people-first,” startup company. This forced us to start asking ourselves and our employees more difficult questions on how we’re doing at attracting and retaining the best people, and how we can improve in doing so as a company.

On one hand, we decided it was time for our company to embrace some type of (formal) review and feedback system. On the other hand, I wanted to adopt a system that would be simple and easy to implement, preferably automated, and one that would exert use and value throughout the year. It was important that this would be built to be dynamic and updated as we go, and not only as a once a year, painful and bureaucratic HR requirement. The timing we chose could be considered as “too early” given the stage of the company, the size of the team and the shutter of horror I got from the senior managers after first raising the idea of a Check-in process.

As an early stage startup (and growing), proving the value of such a process, especially at its early adoption stage, was crucial. This idea of structural people management was the least of our managers’ worries, and was considered by some of them as an “overkill” (mainly due to the size of the teams). More so, at the time I first brought this idea to the table, there were many other urgent fires to put out, such as product versions for launch, tech research, customers, design partners, and fund-raising to name but a few.

The Writing was on the Wall

For the past couple of years, there has been an overwhelming shift from the once accepted Annual Performance Appraisal to the ongoing, periodical “Check-in Reviews;” a process of short, continuous monthly/quarterly/bi-annual assessments and 1:1’s between employee and manager, meant to create a lean and more efficient performance review system. The HR equivalent of “agile” business.

An early example of this new check-in format can be seen with Adobe’s performance management change, which caused waves in the industry. The understanding that employees are looking for a more holistic and rounded employment experience, encompassing both their personal and professional growth needs, has led to this shift and to the way today’s employers manage their employees’ performance and development life-cycle.

For those looking to introduce some kind of performance review, or to upgrade their current format to fit the changing workforce, here are three initial tips, discussed in depth, about how to get the process started:

1. It’s Never Too Early

When should you start thinking about implementing Check-ins?

he employee review process is known to many. Unfortunately, the common misconception is that it should only be introduced and implemented at a stage when the employee admin documentation becomes a never-ending pile of files, the org-chart grows beyond fitting in one PowerPoint slide, and the cascading levels of the inter company hierarchy look like a pyramid scheme.

If you ask most employees in the tech sector today, they will agree that there is a direct correlation between implementing structural and robust HR processes to the moment the company values become (just) plaques on the wall.

I was set on never having our company’s values become simply plaques, so I needed to find a way around the bureaucratically cumbersome, corporate HR processes.

Following some in-depth research on a few different options, and with the company only accounting for 15 employees (6 of which were managers), I introduced my chosen HRIS, (Bamboo HR). Though our managers and employees sit across from each other in an open space, and are constantly chatting regarding tasks and deliveries, this is not to be confused with proper conversation time and “checking-in” with the employees. No coffee break chatter can provide answers to the real important questions that allow a business to put its people first!

Questions such as:

1. How is the company perceived by the employee?

2. What is the employee’s contribution value to his/her team and manager?

3. how could my company help me do my best work more often?

The reasons for avoiding these conversations are endless. The check-in process, however, gives a unique opportunity to have an nonthreatening dive into the depths of employee performance, engagement, progression, and personal opinions about the company and their coworkers- all through a few short and simple questions directed to be answered by every single person in the company.

Even with a small, tight-knit team- “giving the stage” to voice concerns, feelings, achievements and weaknesses between manager and employee, can empower both sides to engage in meaningful discussions that otherwise could easily “fall through the cracks” or be delayed to when there isn’t as much work on the To-Do List (Which we all know is around the 24th of NEVER).

The way we see it? It’s never too early to start. Early start = Easy scale.

2. Fitting the Glove

What format is right for us?

f you ever had the privilege of working at a hi-tech R&D office, side by side a software developer, algorithmic engineer, QA, etc… you will know that the day to day office chit chat is many times in a language more native to computers than humans! The workload is always intense, the teams work in sprints (which are rightfully named after a sport where you have 0 time for air) and the actual time for genuine feedback, is slim.

I wanted to create this check-in process in a way that’ll benefit even the most introvert developer, who would usually respond to the question of what his/her professional strengths are, with an answer ranging from “writing good code” to “writing really good code in a few languages”.

Instead of trying to push the employees into the mould of a review template, we fit the length and content of the process to our own employees’ DNA. In part, thanks to the questions provided by Bamboo HR, but also through feedback gathered from employees and managers and extensive research.

For the managers (who are at the end of the day made from the same foundational material as their employees) and would usually answer me with “everything is fine, my team is delivering” when I asked about how their people are doing, I designed review questions that forced them to make a clear cut differentiation on how they view each employees in relation to others on the team. The system automatically collates the data in real time, and with a click of a button I could see what percent of our employees are in the highest performance or engagement bracket, what managers would do if employee X or Y would decide to leave the company tomorrow and (my personal favorite), which manager/ employee still had to send in their assessment or follow up notes- and I’d be able to immediately send them a reminder.

What I advise most in this initial search process is taking advantage of today’s wide array of automated apps and softwares for this purpose. Whether you want it to aggregate all of your HR needs (from time off requests, employee documents, time-sheets, on-boarding etc…) or solely for the purpose of performance management- it can save so much valuable time, and the reported results- which as an HR manager you’ll spend very little time on- will impress even the most HR-skeptic/ data driven managers.

Keep it personal. Keep it simple! And preferably- keep it automated.

Setting it up is Easy, Making it Stick is the Hard Part!

How to Implement a Lasting Process?

After researching different systems, gathering feedback, fears and ideas from the management team, implementing and teaching the employees how to use- and successfully kicking off the first cycle, you’ll realize that the most important part of the work is just starting.

Without following up and reinforcing the steps in the process, the review becomes useless – and making the shortcomings of the first check-in cycle become the highlights of the next requires relentless reminders, and personalized process management- at least for the first couple times, until the process is self- sustaining and beneficial.

Some examples of continuous efforts are:

  1. After our first review period- in our senior management overview and result meeting- our biggest “next-time” goal was to ensure writing immediate follow up notes after the actual 1:1.
  2. In the time after that- we discussed how critical concrete examples throughout the assessment were necessary for referencing.
  3. As the HR in charge of both employee and manager execution and improvement- don’t just take the managers word for it that this is happening, and see where you can step in to assist.

One of our top managers and brilliant researching minds, kept writing one sentence answers to the check-in questions, which he (of course) meant to explain in person during the 1:1’s, but didn’t know how to elaborate on the assessment itself- so I sat with him to “copyright” his thoughts in a way that would be both truthful and respectful to his employees.

Checking in on the check-in process itself is just as important as using the previous review for reference to the new one. Gather feedback from managers and employees on the relevancy of the questions, the ease of use, the value of the format and be ready to shake it up if needed.

In the third blog of this series i’ll review in more depth, some interesting revelations and tips for Managers- whether new to the position or seasoned veterans- on how to create valuable check-in processes with any employee.

Ultimately, when drilling down on what process to go with, and how to bring it into your organization, consider the following:

  1. Don’t just do it for the sake of doing. In order for this to implement seamlessly throughout the company, you’ll need backup from the senior management- and to do so you need to prove the value of changing or introducing new practices.
  2. Start early to scale easy!
  3. A self- sustaining cycle. Not only does it assess and help improve performance, it passes the responsibility and ownership of the employees development onto the manager and employee themselves.
  4. Decreasing employee turnover through a greater number of interactions designed to deepen the manager/employee relationship and to catch early signs of disengagement before possibly losing good people.
  5. Raises flags on the necessity of difficult decisions- an employee with the same points to improve for the past three cycles- or that continually isn’t an employee the manager would fight for if he were to want to leave- is one that as managers we can easily call out and say goodbye to in a timely manner without causing damage to the employee, team or company.
  6. A system that is fit to the employee DNA- both current state and future ambition (length of assessment, content of questions) and have an option to be flexible- we’ve just finished our third round where we changed and added some questions thanks to our feedback sessions.
  7. Check-in on the check-in process- get feedback on the timing, format, and actual 1:1’s during each review period to ensure you are role modelling the purpose of the process- to each time get incrementally better – whether it’s in assessing with more examples throughout the review period or making sure the managers are entering follow up notes after the 1:1 meeting- it doesn’t have to be a fully rounded process before launched, but with checking-in on the process you’ll have all the tools to get there!

Once you’ve laid the groundwork and gotten the managers and employees onboard, keep your eyes out for the next blog in this series, for a deeper dive into the actual check-in format and how to continually get the most out of it at your organization.