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Roly Walter



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The rise of check-in culture: why HR must transform the appraisal process

The annual appraisal is dying – but what will take its place?

Employee appraisals are not a new concept. Their origins can be traced back to the early 20th century and became widely adopted until the 1950s. In those days, the pace of change was much slower, and a yearly review fitted in with the speed of business development and the needs of employers and their employees. Fast forward 60 plus years to a world dominated by instant information and the ability to connect to almost anyone in the world at any time, and the idea of reviewing objectives just once a year seems extremely outdated.

At a time where concerns over stress and the mental health of employees are so high on the corporate agenda, check-ins can act as an early warning beacon, helping to flag up when employees are struggling to cope.

Much has been written in the past few years about the death of the annual appraisal, but these eulogies are a little premature. Appraisd carried out a survey with 1,000 employees to find out what their current review cycle was in 2019. While 11% are having monthly reviews, 20% are having quarterly reviews and another 20% are on a bi-annual cycle, 36% are still have an annual review. A further 12% are having reviews less often than once a year or not at all.  

These figures show there is now a broad range of approaches to performance management across the UK, with a significant number of companies adopting a more regular, progressive review process, but there is still a large tranche of organisations rooted in more static, traditional cycles.

The role of check-ins

The annual appraisal has been a fixed feature in many organisations for a long time, therefore making changes to this process can be challenging, time-consuming and problematic, particularly in larger organisations with multiple stakeholders. Introducing regular check-ins or one-to-ones between employees and their line managers that involves reviewing objectives, constructive feedback and the opportunity for either side to discuss issues that matter to them, can help transform an organisation’s performance culture. These regular meetings help identify issues before they become too serious, ensure employees’ objectives remain relevant and keep everyone aligned to the overall business strategy.

Employees clearly welcome these regular catch ups. According to our survey, a massive 84% said they thought they were important. The youngest members of the workforce, those in generation Z, were the most enthusiastic supporters of these, with 40% rating them as very important. They were also vital to nine out of ten female employees in our survey.

How often are check-ins happening?

Similar to appraisals, there is a wide range of frequencies for check-ins. The most popular frequency was monthly, with a third (33%) of respondents saying they sat down with their manager once every four weeks. 12% of survey respondents have them fortnightly, another 12% have them every two months and 11% have them quarterly. At the other end of the spectrum, 8% have them less than every six months and 12% don’t have them at all.

Younger employees want more frequent check-ins

Overall, just over a fifth (22%) of employees say they would like their check-ins to happen more frequently. This rises to a third of employees (33%) aged 34 or younger.

This shows that the current arrangements that many employers have aren’t meeting the needs of their younger employees in particular. Having grown up in the digital age, this generation is used to having any information they need at their fingertips. They appreciate feedback being delivered in a timely manner and want reassurance from their line manager that they are performing well and making a difference.

There is clearly a demand for check-ins to happen more often and, as the clamour is coming loudest from the younger members of the workforce, this desire is only likely to grow in the coming few years.

What do employees want from their check-ins?

Feedback is by far the most important outcome desired from check-ins. Half (50%) of survey respondents agreed that this was the major benefit of these meetings. Other elements that were highlighted as important were direction on current and future projects (32%), exploring development opportunities (30%) and preventing problems from escalating (26%).

When asked what their line manager could improve, around a quarter (26%) said following up on issues effectively and being better prepared (24%) were the main concerns raised. In short, employees want their line managers to take their check-ins seriously, turning their words into actions.

Creating a check-in culture

For check-ins to work effectively they need to be championed by HR and senior managers, with training and a framework provided to all line managers to support them in adopting these regular meetups.

Check-ins should also fit into the unique culture of an organisation. “We found people wanted a way to do “little and often” rather than having to spend hours and hours preparing for a big review once or twice a year and the check-ins work for us,” says Marc Earnshaw, Group Talent Development Manager for Robert Walters. “The use of the check-ins has grown organically, so we know it’s genuinely something that managers and their people are finding really useful, and it’s not seen as an HR process!”

Check-ins not only support employee performance and development, they have other benefits too. “Check-ins help support employee wellbeing by providing an opportunity to raise any personal issues or concerns in addition to work-related issues,” says Lorraine Duckett, Head of HR at Confetti Media Group. “They also aid internal communications as it gives our managers a formal opportunity to pass on any relevant company or team information and record that the information has been passed on.”

At a time where concerns over stress and the mental health of employees are so high on the corporate agenda, check-ins can act as an early warning beacon, helping to flag up when employees are struggling to cope.

Top check-in tips

Marc and Lorraine both passed on their top three tips for creating an effective check-ins culture. Here is Marc’s advice:

  1. Change it up – don’t get stuck in a rut with the format, topics or locations. Try going for a walk occasionally or doing something spontaneous.

  2. Don’t skip it – even a quick 15-minute chat can be useful for both parties.

  3. Don’t get stuck in the weeds – sometimes it’s good to get into the detail of work updates but do use these opportunities to zoom out and think about the bigger picture, personal development and what’s going on outside of work.

Here are Lorraine’s tips:

  1. Line managers need help to have the right conversations – make sure you give them relevant training and support.

  2. Use a step-by-step approach – take your time and introduce one new thing at a time. This will avoid overloading or scaring line managers, turning them off check-ins before they’ve even had a chance to become established.

  3. Don’t be too prescriptive – check-ins work best when they are adapted to the specific needs of a particular line manager and employee. Provide guidelines and support but look for a tool that facilitates a flexible approach.

Interested in this topic? Read Three reasons why your annual appraisal process is failing your employees.

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Roly Walter


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