Mid-March seems like forever ago, doesn’t it?

That’s when most of the “lockdowns” went into effect, and when companies started closing doors and requiring people to adapt to a work-from-home reality.

A lot has changed in that time. We’ve realized video call fatigue is desperately real, and we’ve breathlessly debated the future of work, “the new normal,” “the better normal,” and our eventual return dates over and over again. We still don’t know answers to a lot of those core questions, honestly. But one thing we do know, and have repeatedly seen, is that employees are becoming more actionable around the idea of feedback.

It makes sense: We can’t accidentally bump into people virtually, so we need to reach out and schedule a time to talk about bigger issues. These topics can’t just come up in the flow of a break room conversation, as they often do with in-person situations.

This all raises an interesting question: Once people are back in physical offices more, will they be better equipped to ask for feedback?

A brief level set on feedback

Considering that one of the core arguments for in-person work is the immediate availability of feedback, it’s frankly a bit stunning how bad many companies (and individual managers) are at providing feedback. And we’ve known this for years: HubSpot was blogging about the lack of feedback in offices a half-decade ago. OfficeVibe and others have been doing infographics on this topic for years.

At this point, many of us understand the inherent issues with feedback, including the awkwardness to both give and receive it, the fact some people’s feedback carries more weight, and that some managers aren’t around enough to give feedback that feels meaningful, among others.

What future are we creating?

Ideally, the working world will navigate to a place where feedback is just embedded in how people have conversations. In that way, the whole concept of “performance management” becomes “feedback management.”

In 2017, we gathered over 200 companies in Silicon Valley to discuss that exact topic. We’ve long held the idea that any talent management approach was more about the right conversations than the right technology (at the very least, a healthy mix), but it actually surprised us at our 2017 forum how many times leaders came back to needing better mechanisms for everyday feedback.

The COVID-19 pandemic will ideally empower that, simply because people will have spent the better part of 2020 having to actionably and purposefully ask for feedback, so some of the awkwardness may fade away.

Of course, there are ways to make that process intentional, to build a better normal in how your company asks for feedback.

Use growth mindset language: This can frame the conversations in a different way, reducing the inherent social threat involved in feedback (“Am I not performing well? Am I bad?”) and moving it closer to a “quality conversation” where each side feels like they grew, gained new insight, and accomplished something.

Focus feedback more on employee strengths: Get ready for some insane stats. Companies that focused their feedback and review processes around strengths—emphasizing where employees already excel, and pointing them towards plans to excel in new areas—saw some ridiculous growth figures, per research from Gallup:

  • 10%-19% increase in sales
  • 14%-29% increase in profit
  • 3%-7% increase in customer engagement
  • 9%-15% increase in engaged employees
  • 6- to 16-point decrease in turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 26- to 72-point decrease in turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 22%-59% decrease in safety incidents

If you found yourself in a tough spot due to the pandemic and were looking for solutions, and you saw those numbers, you’d be ecstatic, right? Such is the power of putting employees in the driver’s seat to ask for feedback.

Have leaders model the asking of feedback themselves: Modeling the ask starts to normalize the otherwise nerve-wracking challenge of seeking out feedback on purpose. It reduces the threat we associate with feedback, and puts the mind more at ease headed into these conversations.

Build a better normal for feedback

As people do return to more in-person work, there will be increasing gratitude around seeing coworkers and friends, making contact, small casual conversations, and the reduction in video calls (which, we’ve all seen, can get tedious).

That gratitude alone may foster more transparency across coworker interaction, and when you bring in the fact that we’ve had to tangibly ask for feedback for perhaps a year, we might finally be ready to start putting some of our feedback demons in the rearview.

Some conversations might still be awkward, yes. Those will probably never fully go away. But by building a better normal around feedback, your organization stands a good chance to be a more actionable, purposeful location for feedback and helping employees grow.

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