If you’ve gone anywhere near the HR echo chamber, you’ve probably (perhaps even unconsciously) internalized the fact that feedback should be continuous.
The case for continuous feedback is grounded in solid data. For example, a 2015 Robert Half survey shows that just over half of employees want at least quarterly discussions about their career path and growth prospects.
In another survey, Deloitte found that 90% of companies that revamped their performance management model — usually to one featuring more regular feedback — saw improved employee engagement.
Clearly continuous feedback is the real deal. Yet, amid all the buzz, it’s easy to lose track of what continuous feedback actually is and whether or not it makes sense for your organization.
What is continuous feedback?
The term "continuous feedback" can mean different things to different companies. In a nutshell, continuous feedback is any feedback that is delivered on a regular basis.
For many companies, continuous feedback includes structured reviews. For others, it could mean an entirely informal system with no scheduled reviews whatsoever. At the end of the day, "continuous" is as subjective an adjective as "beautiful". Its value is held within the eye of the HR beholder.
Let’s take a quick look at how continuous feedback became the HR trend du jour and dive into some real-world examples that can help you decide if it's the right option for you.
A brief history of continuous feedback
Pinpointing the true start of any movement is always tough.
That said, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis put a pretty solid effort into finding out how continuous feedback became king.
The HR experts split performance review systems into three types:
- Accountability focused - Matches reward and punishment to performance. Tends to flourish when the labor market is flush.
- Development focused - Builds up employee skill sets and maximizes potential. Tends to flourish when the labor market is thinner and more competitive.
- Hybrid - Any combo of the above.
Data suggests consistent feedback is always good, but whether you focus on accountability, development or a hybrid depends on the situation you're in.
Over the last decade, labor markets fluctuated wildly. The financial crash meant layoffs and layoffs meant a thinner workforce. Then, as things picked up, the labor market got tighter. But "hiring" in the traditional sense has decreased as millennials entering the labor market rotated jobs more frequently and as the gig economy developed.
In comes continuous feedback, a hybrid tool focused on developing (and keeping) employees in a growing, but mobile labor market.
According to Peter and Anna, the earliest notable case of switching from annual to instant feedback was Colorcon, a big pharmaceutical company, back in 2002. The watershed moment however, came in a one-two punch when Kelly Services changed their review system in 2011 and then the big fish, Adobe switched to continuous feedback in 2012. Which leads us to our first example...
How Adobe uses continuous feedback
Adobe may have one of the most famous continuous feedback systems out there.
They even have a public Check-in Toolkit that can help you DIY your own strategy from their model. The Toolkit’s core recommendations can be boiled down to three stages of feedback:
- Establishing expectation
- Providing feedback
- Developing the business and employees based on the feedback
At minimum, Adobe encourages quarterly formal check-ins of 60 to 90 minutes each. They also encourage giving informal feedback more often.
But the Rome of continuous feedback wasn't built in a day. Being such a large company, it took Adobe months of testing, planning and extensive manager-training to make everything come together.
The essence of Adobe's continuous feedback model focuses on strengths and setting SMART goals. They regularly update goals and progress and make practical plans based on those performance metrics. Documentation and ranking play a much smaller role than they did in the pre-2012 days.
Continuous Feedback at Typeform
Unlike Adobe, survey platform startup Typeform didn't have a huge ship to turn around.
In fact, when the company had just started, it was so small that regular check-ins and reviews happened organically, without any system at all. But when their workforce nearly tripled, they knew they needed to get a structure in place.
Today, they've literally "baked" employee feedback into their culture. “Feedback is not a dirty word. When experienced properly, it fosters growth and reinforces trust.” says Typeform Head of People Operations, Georgina de Solà.
Typeform's continuous feedback strategy includes:
- Regular feedback for employees and managers
- Employee engagement surveys
- 360-degree performance reviews
It's worth noting that the young company also uses some more traditional feedback methods, like a suggestion box and opportunities to ask the founders questions.
They also improved the quality of feedback by hiring a communications specialist, taking on an HR platform to distribute bonuses, and doing feedback workshops called “The F-Word”.
Typeform is as "all-in" on feedback as Adobe, even if they're a bit less formal.
It's important to think about giving feedback not only continuously, but also critically. What aspects of these continuous feedback approaches would fit the natural rhythm of your industry? How drastic of a cultural change would you have to make? What system or approach will make the change as easy as possible?
Continuous feedback is great for good reason, but at the end of the day, no system is effective unless it meets the needs of your unique company and people.