Leading remote teams: the role of performance management

Virtual team management
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“At the core of effective performance management are frank, yet supportive performance conversations that include ongoing feedback. Occasional processes, such as annual performance reviews and pay setting, can be useful, but shouldn’t be the main focus.”

This is a quote from the CIPD Factsheet  of 31 July 2017. The essence of performance management remains the same whether our employees are remote or not. The role of the manager is to help employees review their work and make sure they continue to add value to the team and organisation.

We have finally woken up to the fact that sitting down with employees once a year is not the best way to support them. The trend in organisations seems to be to switch the focus “from dictating what employees should do at work to helping develop their skills as individuals”.

In order to support our people and to be able to evaluate their results realistically, we need ongoing communication and feedback: feedback to employees about their work and results and feedback from employees, to make sure organisational constraints (and even our own management styles) are not getting in the way.

The importance of talking

When working with employees remotely, it is easy to assume that if we don’t hear from them, all must be well. On the other hand, we might misinterpret silence as an indication that no work is getting done. Regular conversations, as well as transparent systems that show the progress of the work, can go a long way towards removing this guesswork.

In the previous post of this series, I highlighted the need to focus on tracking the work and results rather than monitoring when and where people are working from.

Building on that “remote mindset”, in this article I will cover how to make a team’s work visible, support team members through ongoing feedback, and how to help the team remain visible within the organisation.

Making your work as visible as possible

  1. What do people do in your team?
  2. What outputs do they generate?
  3. What tasks need to be completed for the team’s goals to be achieved?
  4. What stumbling blocks do team members come across?
  5. At what stage do they need input from you, and from other team members?

When each person holds this information in their heads, it’s difficult for others - including the manager - to know whether progress is being made and results achieved. Having an online space or a communication system where team members “narrate their work” can keep the team aligned.

Depending on the type of work your team carries out, you might prefer a project management tool (such as Basecamp or Trello), long-form text-based communication (eg. internal blogs), checklist-type communication (such as short emails or IDoneThis) and even regular online meetings.

Creating a feedback rhythm

While making your work visible will help to assess the progress of the team’s work, regular feedback conversations will help team members to review their work and performance.

Set a regular schedule for one-one conversations with your team members. This will depend on your work and preferences, but decide on how often you want to review the work, and stick to the schedule. (I recently heard of a remote employee whose manager had been postponing his one-to-one for six months… Just an anecdote, but don’t let that manager be you…)

Using a framework for giving and receiving feedback can help you to get straight to the point, and make your conversations more effective. It can also help team members structure their self-evaluation.

Employees at Automattic, the 500+ employee fully remote company behind Wordpress.com, use the format “3-2-1-Ohs.”

The team member reports on 3 things they have done well, 2 areas/skills which need improvement and 1 way in which the team lead and the organisation can support them. Finally, the “Oh” is made up of one or two sentences on what they’re most excited/grateful for in the organisation, and how they’d like to develop their career.

If you are unable to talk in real-time either on video or audio, then a framework like the above can help you condense your thoughts in writing. If you are giving feedback in the written form, try to find times when you can use a real-time chat application, so that both of you can ask for immediate clarification and avoid misunderstandings.

While remote teams rely mainly on written, asynchronous communication, it’s important to also have real-time conversations with team members too, so that they can express the importance of the issues they’re raising. Whereas a team member might not have the skill to express in writing the urgency or significance of their points, you might be able to pick that up from their tone of voice or facial expression.

In any case, putting aside the time to hear from our team members is a great way to help them feel appreciated.

(Source WLP115 Managing Up When Being Remote, conversation with Eva Rimbau-Gilabert  https://www.virtualnotdistant.com/podcasts/managing-up-in-virtual-teams)

You must identify problems early

Holding one-one conversations regularly - even when everything seems to be going to plan - is important, as it makes it easier to raise or identify problems early on.

Think about it... Picking up the phone to raise a problem with your manager when you haven’t had a decent conversation with them in two months takes a lot more energy than bringing up your concerns during regular fortnightly conversations.

And in order to facilitate team members asking for help (which not everyone finds easy to do), why not end your conversations with, “Is there anything you need from me?”

Regular conversations and “working out loud”  (making your work visible in a way that might help you and others) can help identify problems and constraints early on, especially when innovating or tackling new ground.

Beyond their role

When thinking about giving feedback to employees, think about how you can help them develop professionally beyond their current roles. For example, as remote employees, their ability to communicate online (in writing, by audio, through video) will affect how others view them in the organisation and what opportunities are presented to them.

How are team members coming across online, through their emails, on collaboration platforms? How are they coming across in video meetings? Is there anything they could improve? (such as, could they buy a screen to hide their messy lounge when talking to others outside the team?)

Encourage all-round team feedback

Sometimes team members will be more candid with each other than with their managers -  status still matters to some people.

Why not recommend that team members arrange feedback conversations with each other too? Team members can ask specific people to be in their “feedback circle” or you can leave the pairing process in the hands of apps like Donut. (This particular app has been built to introduce people to each other, but it can also be used to pair up people randomly in your team for purposes like this.)

Learning from success

“Fully remote workers are 29% less likely to strongly agree (than their colocated counterparts) that they have reviewed their greatest successes with their manager in the past six months.”

Some people don’t like to brag, and will not share their accomplishments unless asked. Formalising celebrations in remote teams will not take the joy away from sharing our achievements. On the contrary, it will “give permission” for team members to celebrate their own success, as well as that of others’.

Having a “#humblebrag” channel on Slack or holding Success Video Chats are two of the ways in which companies make it more than OK to celebrate top results.

You can also turn these achievements into learning opportunities for the individual involved, and even the whole team, by dissecting the conditions that contributed to the success.

I am aware that in this article, I might have painted a picture of very happy remote teams. But teams are still made up of individuals and as such there will be disagreements and miscommunication. In the next article in this series, we will look at how to deal with conflict when it emerges in a remote team.

About Pilar Orti

Photo of Pilar Orti

I'm the Director of Virtual not Distant, a company specialised in helping teams and organisations transition to a remote set-up through workshops, coaching, consulting and facilitation. We also run raining on managing and leading remote teams, both in person and online.
I host the 21st Century Work Life podcast and Management Café.


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