Many learning and development (L&D) leaders started 2020 with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) goals for employees. The goals were carefully defined and measured, and businesses assumed that performance measures would be attainable and relevant within the calendar year.

Have you stopped laughing yet? Many of these assumptions have gone sideways, of course, as we all adjust to the new realities of COVID-19.

There may be a tendency to throw out your performance reviews altogether and forget about the goals you defined almost a year ago. But you may be missing a rare opportunity for growth and positive change. Times of stress expose the cracks in systems and magnify gaps that might have otherwise been overlooked. Rather than focusing on what we didn’t achieve in 2020, L&D has a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen, learn and adapt from an extreme environment to better prepare for a more inclusive and remote future.

Here are just a couple of the opportunities brought forward in 2020.

Opportunity 1: Improve Diversity and Inclusion at a Systemic Level

Most organizations have some materials during the onboarding process that address the importance of diversity and inclusion. Many L&D leaders are making a greater effort to represent diversity in training; you may have started offering workshops for employees on unconscious bias. These steps are much needed and valuable, and they will improve the workplace for everyone. But deciphering systemic bias is more difficult. It has to do with the ways that institutional structures support better outcomes for some people than for others.

While employees may not reach some performance goals because of overall business challenges in 2020, COVID-19 has also magnified existing system biases and other challenges for each employees that can affect their personal performance. Performance reviews will reveal more this year about employees’ unique circumstances, including access to high-speed internet, child and elder care, transportation issues, and other personal challenges that impact performance.

Consider whether some of these issues may be impacted by gender, disability, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity might be factors, and identify whether support and training can help level the playing field. Before COVID-19, people’s homes and lives outside of the workplace were hidden. Now, we are meeting in everyone’s homes.

Use this year’s performance reviews to listen more carefully. Ask why employees haven’t met a goal or metric, even if the answer seems obvious. Have them identify their gaps and needs. Ask them what resources, skills and competencies they need now that they didn’t need before these novel and complex times.

Opportunity 2: Build a Better Virtual Management System

The post-COVID-19 world is likely to continue to support a more remote workforce. L&D leaders are already preparing for this new world with virtual onboarding and the conversion of instructor-led training (ILT) to virtual instructor-led training (VILT). Even after some employees return to the office full time or part time, the trend toward virtual training will remain as a flexible alternative for all employees.

Virtual performance management and reviews are a next step. As you consider migrating to a long-term virtual management and review system, take this opportunity to learn from your employees about the types of communication and feedback that worked (or didn’t) this year. Use these unprecedented times to help build something that works for your organization.

Use employee feedback to help design and develop a virtual management program that supports them. Ask:

    • How often did you receive formal and informal feedback? Was it too much or too little? Why?
    • Which type of feedback was helpful? Why?
    • What training and support would have helped you achieve your 2020 goals? Why?
    • How could progress toward your goals have been communicated better? Why?

Notice the “Why?” after each of these questions. This important follow-up question helps reach the root causes of successes and failures. It’s a simple question with a large reward.

In every challenge, there is opportunity. This year, we have opportunities to connect with people and learn from each other like never before. Be open to new ideas and viewpoints. If you are having a difficult conversation, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes as you listen. Consider what he or she is saying as valuable feedback for you to use when considering ways to improve diversity and inclusion and performance through policy, management and training at your organization. Performance reviews in 2020 are the greatest needs assessments of our time. Listen well.