Did COVID-19 change think tanks’ annual staff assessments?

22 January 2021
SERIES OTT Best Practice Series 15 items

Two recent developments may be having significant effects on the way think tanks are structuring their staff assessments.

First, is the simplification of elaborate systems with more streamlined ones that emphasise more frequent, less formal feedback and discussions partially or fully taking their place.

Second, while such changes were being undertaken or considered, explosive growth occurred in the number of white-collar staff working remotely in response to the threat of workplace COVID-19 infections.

Before COVID-19, think tanks and other organisations with broadly similar missions were beginning to assess, and in some cases adopt elements of the ‘simplification paradigm.’

But my sense from investigating this phenomenon in 2019 is that while more frequent feedback was being adopted in some cases, supervisors were also devoting more effort to improving the quality of their performance analysis and their interaction with direct-reports.

This article, from the OTT Best Practice Series, provides early information on adjustments made by a small sample of four think tanks (broadly defined) in the course of their 2020 end-of-year staff assessments to provide early insights into what is happening.

The four organisations are ones that I view as well-managed and that have generously served as the panel for my series of OTT on management topics.

  • The Urban Institute, a 50-year-old think tank with a staff nearing 800 located in Washington, DC.
  • The Institute for Urban Economics, a 25-year-old think tank located in Moscow, Russia with a current staff of around 35.
  • NORC at the University of Chicago, an 80-year-old think tank with about 800 staff.
  • The Results for Development Institute (R4D), an international non-profit organisation with think tank roots located in Washington.

The good news emerging from this study is that the pandemic, with its effect of inducing staff to work remotely, was fairly easily accommodated by the usual think tank staff assessment protocols.

This result is particularly important because of the widespread view that post-pandemic a larger share of think tank staff, and white-collar workers more generally, will be working remotely.

That said, one should be honest about the countervailing forces at work in promoting the status quo. In my conversation with one respondent about developments at her think tank, she said the lack of adjustments to date made sense. Change is expensive. Hence it is rational to first acquire significant experience with working under the new conditions to be sure that change is required; similarly, confidence is needed that working remotely is here to stay for at least the mid-term.

In short, continued monitoring is warranted before investing in system revisions. More changes may arise in the next couple of years.

Read best practice article.