Results-based Performance in a Virtual World

This posting is co-written with my colleague Stefanie Heiter, Bridging Distance.

In the emerging virtual workplace, do you miss the comfort of walking by an employee’s desk and feeling confident she or he is working hard and doing a good job? If you can’t see them working, do you wonder what they are really doing? Are you baffled by how to set expectations  that will drive results when you are not working in the same place? Are you concerned about whether your talent has the right competencies to hit the ground running when it all turns around?

Today’s workplace is characterized by people working in dispersed locations,  within matrixed structures,  with colleagues from multiple functions – even multiple organizations. Gone are the days when high performance was assessed by how much time someone ‘put in’ at the office. We are less likely to be ‘going to work’ and more likely to be ‘working’. Technology affords 24/7 access from almost anywhere. ‘Do more with less’ is now a mantra heard across countless companies via all communication media.

Despite these changes, managers are still expected to manage performance, regardless of location, time zone, function, or even language barriers, and often in the face of decreased budgets and reduced labor force. Successful managers have learned to overcome the challenges of virtual leadership, and move to results-based performance management. Here are strategies and tips successful virtual leaders use to create an effective results-based performance management approach:

Focus first on intentional, consistent relationship building.  Create presence with employees by checking in (not checking on) frequently.  Use more real-time technologies like telephone, instant messenger, chat, or text.  When you check in, ask questions focused on getting to know their locations, resources that are needed, what else is happening, sharing information and decision-making whenever possible, and asking about their lives.  Presence involves being available to people so they don’t have to make up reasons to be in contact.

Slow down to speed up.  Take time upfront to define how you are going to stay in touch, share status, keep people in the loop, and when and how you will ‘meet’.  Considerations here are protocols for high use technologies such as email (i.e., names in ‘to’ line means action required whereas ‘cc’ line means information only, when to ‘reply’ versus ‘reply to all’).  It means agreements about when and when not to use technologies, defining who should be included and NOT included in particular categories of information and meetings.

Discuss both the ends and the means.  Clearly understand the expectations you have of the individual.  What does success look like?  Make sure your definitions of success focus on the results the individual is achieving, not just the activities.  Think about using the SMART criteria – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound – to both set and communicate goals.  A goal of “Have 5 customer satisfaction meetings each month’ focuses on what you want someone to do.  The goal “Increase annual customer satisfaction by 10% through improvements identified in customer satisfaction meetings” focuses on the result.

Another thing to think about is how the individual will achieve the goal. What behaviors will they exhibit?  When people work virtually, they don’t have the opportunity to learn the culture and the way things get done.  Explicitly help them understand what works and what doesn’t in your organization.  How are people expected to behave?  How should they be working with others to meet their goals?  Sharing stories of how others have been successful is a powerful tool for communicating expectations. It paints a picture of the type of results and behaviors you expect.

Create a game plan.  Once you’ve set clear expectations, staying connected and establishing accountability is essential.  Specifically discuss which technologies you will employ for different communication needs.  Is status best delivered through email?  Do you utilize Sharepoint as a repository for different types of documents?  How should time sensitive conversations occur?  How should the individual communicate with others on the team?  When should they make a decision on their own and when should they make sure the two of you talk first?  Determine the most effective mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies.   A client recently shared that their geographically-dispersed sales team is using a private Twitter site to share product information, market intelligence and sales tips in real time.  They credit the site with increasing the effectiveness of their sales efforts.  Determine what suite of technologies you will use to assess progress against goals. Real-time conversations will be part of it but also consider the use of technologies that allow for asynchronous communication.

Create a feedback and coaching loop. Feedback on performance is most effective when it is timely and about performance that you’ve directly observed.  In a virtual world, the ability to physically see someone’s performance is not always possible.  Create processes that allow you to gain meaningful information about an individual’s performance.  For example, a sales director uses a survey with customers to get input into a sales person’s performance.  While she created the survey to get direct feedback from customers who interact with her salespeople in live situations that she is unable to attend, it has created better customer relationships.  The customers have told her that they are thrilled to be asked because it allows them to be heard.  Also use technology to coach.  For example, virtual meeting software could allow a less experienced team member to simulate a client presentation to you, providing you with the opportunity to coach them in real time.

Maintain the relationship. Our first tip was about relationship building.  Once you’ve built the relationship, take steps to maintain it.  When we primarily use technology to communicate, we often feel like we need to have a reason to communicate.  Develop a culture that says it’s ok to just check in – not check up on – by calling or initiating contact without a specific need.  Make it clear that you don’t see this as a sign that someone doesn’t have enough to do.  Also, make a point to communicate the positive.  Say thank you, recognize an individual’s achievements and results.  If we are in the habit of using technology as a vehicle for only task oriented communication, we miss an opportunity to use it as a vehicle for building capabilities and engagement.  Model this behavior with our team and you’ll find that when you do need to communicate because of a specific need, those conversations are more productive.

Effectively leading performance in a virtual world is similar in many ways to effectively leading performance in a more traditional workplace.  Leaders need to communicate expectations, monitor behavior and results, and establish an effective relationship so that we can work through the invariable issues and problems that arise.  In a virtual world, we have an ever growing toolkit to help leaders be more effective.  By understanding how to use each appropriately, leaders can get strong performance in any of the many work arrangements we find today.


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