Three Key Steps to Optimize Team Performance in a Virtual Work World

It’s beyond cliché to say that we are living in times of disruption and change. The global pandemic has forced organizations to put the meaning of ‘agile’ to the test, which has included many work teams becoming virtual ones overnight. Surveys are underway for how Covid-19 will affect work from home statistics. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work and that 25-30% of the workforce will be working at home for more than one day a week over the next two years.

Many employees favor working from home too. According to FlexJobs, 65% of workers said they would be more productive in a home office than in a traditional office space, and 75% of people say they are more productive working remotely due to fewer distractions. At this point, many teams are operating virtually, while organizational goals are changing and shifting. It might be time for organizations to adjust and refine performance management processes to ensure employees perform work that is continually valuable to the organization as priorities change. And let’s be honest, broad goals and infrequent feedback never really cut it before the crisis, but they certainly won’t cut it now.

Here are three key steps to help your organization optimize team performance in a virtual work world.

1) Create SMART goals that are flexible. A goal typically goes beyond routine, day-to-day job responsibilities. It generally represents a change or something “new,” it may be finite in duration or focus on change over time. It could also raise the performance bar, provide a “stretch” opportunity, or promote skill development to improve competence. Employers Council recommends developing SMART goals for employees to help keep them on track, especially during a time of disruption. The SMART acronym is defined in more detail below.

  • Specific: Be as explicit as possible, clear. There is a massive benefit to both the employee, supervisor, and organization if goals are detailed and clear. There will be no grey areas or second-guessing what needs to be accomplished. Employees can more easily take responsibility for the goal, and supervisors will track progress or hold employees accountable.

For example, the goal of “Improve customer service” is vague. A better example would be “Improve customer satisfaction ratings by 50%.” A specific goal statement shares what improvement or success looks like.

  • Measurable: This is often the piece that is missed when creating goals, but it is so important. In what ways can you measure if a goal has been achieved? Measurement can often be the most challenging area when developing goals. Below are four different ways you can measure.  

Quality: Describes how well something is done or how accurate it was completed. How does it look when it is done well? How complete is it? How do people respond to it? Generally, quality is measured against a standard specified by the organization, industry, customer, or client.

Quantity:  Here, you might think of things like units per shift, calls per hour, the number of applicants processed, shipments per quarter, customers gained or lost, new products, or services.

Cost: For managers, a goal often relates to meeting the budget, managing overtime costs, reducing waste, reduce shipping costs, or save money on goods or materials.

Time as a measure: Here, we are looking at schedules or deadlines, priorities, cycle time (designed to make processes more efficient, eliminate unnecessary steps). Regarding time, we are looking at how often it happens or how long it will take.

  • Achievable: If the goal is not possible, employees may give up on it or become disengaged. Don’t forget; we can all attain more than we think we can. Goals should be challenging.
  • Relevant: The goal should align with current organizational and departmental goals. If it doesn’t, it may need to be revised.
  • Time-bound: This gives a realistic deadline on a goal, which allows for task prioritization and motivation.

Keep in mind that goals need to be flexible and not set in stone as we need to be agile to respond to the market in a fast, effective way. As we have seen throughout this year, conditions change. They can affect the organization’s direction—set goals based on a reasonable prediction of what may happen in the future as anticipated today. A recent article by Gallup articulates, “Goals need to be immediately adjusted to focus an aligned effort on business needs and how employees can best deliver value to the organization. Managers should be given the expectation, authority, and flexibility to tailor goal setting to the team and the individual as their work changes.”

2) Focus on outcomes, not activity. It’s not possible to manage every aspect of the work done by a remote team. Having employees who work virtually makes it challenging to measure project inputs, such as time spent, meaning that now it is more vital than ever to focus on the quality of the outputs. With team members increasingly working on schedules that work for them, measuring outputs instead of measuring their working time will most likely become a new normal.

For what it’s worth, you shouldn’t be trying to manage every single aspect of any team’s work, particularly if your team is distributed across different locations. Instead of focusing on activity or hours worked, focus on the outcomes and measure (as discussed previously) your team accordingly.

3) Check-in frequently. Goals may continuously change as an individual or corporate priorities shift, even more so in unprecedented times. Managers may find it more challenging to keep track of what their employees are working on. It’s also easy for employees to feel isolated without regular interaction, leading to disengagement and lack of motivation.

Managers can combat this by giving frequent coaching and feedback to ensure employees stay on task and feel valued, recognized, and included even without daily face-to-face interaction. Employers Council recommends that managers have a one on one meeting with their employees once a week. To keep the discussions useful, have employees send an agenda to their manager ahead of time, including the following information.

  • A positive thing that has happened since our last meeting on [DATE].
  • Things you need to inform me of, such as progress on projects or outcomes you’ve achieved.
  • What you need support for, either from me or from someone else—information, advice, encouragement.
  • What you need me to take action on.
  • What I could be doing more/less of to help you be most effective.

Creating opportunities for teams to meet together, even if it’s not for work-related, may also help reduce the feeling of isolation and help employees feel more connected.

Constructing well-defined goals, focusing on outcomes, and having frequent check-ins with employees will help your organization optimize team performance in a virtual environment. It may be time for your organization to refresh your current performance process as our marketplace will most likely be shifting for many months, maybe even years. Employers Council is here to help you navigate through these changes. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for additional information and resources.