Managing Performance in a Virtual World

COVID-19 has necessitated businesses of all sizes and industries to rapidly move to a predominantly virtual workforce. With fewer day-to-day touchpoints between managers and their employees, organisations are facing the need to develop new strategies for managing performance in a virtual world.

According to Mercer’s 2019 Global Performance Management survey results, the number one reason across the globe for having a performance management process is to drive company performance and institutional goals.1 Performance management has always been a challenge in person, and now that people are decentralised for the foreseeable future, it will bring more challenges – but it won’t be impossible. As businesses adjust to their new normal, it is arguably more important than ever to work more closely with your employees to manage uncertainty and performance expectations.

Over the past several years, there have been significant shifts in how organisations ask employees to work in order to create a more agile workforce – from hot-desking to shifting entire teams to a remote workforce. Working virtually is not a new concept to every organisation though, and in fact, the number of employees in Australia that regularly work from home has steadily increased since 2015, with roughly 35% of Australians already regularly working from home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.2

For many organisations, the sudden move to a predominantly virtual workforce has accelerated understanding and comfort associated with working remotely. Given this is true across a diverse and wider breadth of sectors than ever before, there is increased need to keep employees connected, engaged, and aligned to priorities paramount for success.

At this time, performance management should provide: 

  1. Alignment to shifting business priorities. 
  2. Prioritisation of work that delivers greatest value 
  3. A focus on empathy, employee engagement, and providing support for employees.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, businesses need to keep in mind that employees are not only adjusting to new ways of working, but also dealing with increasing isolation from their extended support network, a halt to their normal daily life, and in many cases an increased need to care for their families. Without warning, this has become just a glimpse into how employees will work in the future in a world where working remotely and flexibility are required and demanded by both employers and employees. With fewer day-to-day touchpoints between managers and their employees, organisations are facing the need to develop new strategies for managing performance in a virtual world.

The following seven strategies to manage performance in a virtual world draw on Mercer’s 2019 Global Performance Management Study as well as best practices from organisations that have successfully transitioned to a more virtual or remote workforce prior to the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Communicate business priorities and set individual goals

"Every worker needs to have clear expectations and clear feedback – no matter where they work" – Wes Ward, VP of strategic growth at Five Q.3

Just as your business priorities and strategy have been upended, your employees will have been impacted both at work and at home. It is critical during this time to maintain regular contact with employees to share shifting business priorities and answer questions.

According to Mercer’s 2019 Global Performance Management survey results, setting performance expectations was the element of an organisation’s performance management approach most frequently cited as delivering the greatest value to the business.1 Employees should have clear visibility as to what is expected from them and be able to manage achievement against these goals. Goal clarity provides employees with a sense of how they connect to the overall business purpose and make an impact.

While ensuring goal clarity is important for employees to understand how they connect to the overall business and make an impact, now is also the time to look more holistically at your goal-setting requirements to ensure that employee goals have a direct link to achieving business objectives, especially if they have recently shifted.

Mercer found that 83% of companies globally require employee goal setting, however more than half of organisations surveyed do not appropriately cascade goals down through the organisation, essentially setting individual employee goals in a vacuum and limiting employee understanding of how they contribute to wider business objectives.1

2. Keep in contact with employees about both their performance and overall well-being 

In Tim Cook’s 2017 MIT commencement address, he warned graduates, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that empathy is an essential leadership skill. A study from Harvard Business Review found that empathetic companies outperform their more apathetic counterparts by 20%.4 When people feel understood themselves, they are more receptive to others’ concerns.

Having open and honest conversations with employees about how they are tracking with their goals, as well as how they are coping personally, is critical to building loyalty and trust.

Mercer’s own research shows that employees want to work for companies that get to know them on a personal level and help them navigate their professional development journeys.1

You should also look to develop a process to proactively identify any barriers or concerns employees have, and look to resolve these as soon as possible. CloudPeeps, which connects skilled freelancers with businesses, conducts monthly one-on-one feedback sessions referred to as “pair calls”, where they openly address any challenges and provide both positive feedback and constructive areas to improve.5 Introducing a mechanism for gathering regular feedback from employees will help your organisation identify and resolve barriers or concerns important to employees, making them feel more valued.

3. Schedule regular check-ins 

Switching to remote working may make you feel like you don’t have as much visibility towards individual projects or on-going work commitments as you did when your team was located in the office. Companies are addressing this issue by hosting regular project check-ins or utilising technology, such as Trello or Slack, to help keep team members up to speed.

Personal customer support provider, Groove, focuses on output rather than time spent. The company states, “We track our weekly goals closely to ensure that we’re doing what we set out to do. We also have daily stand-ups in Slack where team members share what they did the day before, and what they’ll be working on that day. It keeps us all on the same page as to who’s working on what.”6 While certain agile practices might not work for everyone, a weekly meeting over Zoom can go a long way.

4. Monitor outputs and impact to results 

COVID-19 has impacted how companies define and measure success. With reduced visibility as to how an employee spends their time during the day, ensuring employee outputs are positively impacting results and course-correcting swiftly as needed, will be paramount to success.

Working virtually makes it difficult to measure project inputs, such as time spent, meaning that now it is more important than ever to focus on the quality of the outputs. Productivity tool developer, Doist, uses an output-focused rather than outcome-focused system. The company states that this way of measuring success ensures that their quarterly goals consist of things they have full control over.7

With employees increasingly working on schedules that work for them, measuring outputs as opposed to measuring the duration they are working will become a new normal.

5. Look for bright spots and opportunities 

Continued focus on strengthening communication with employees, with an in-depth understanding of their skills and capacity, can lead to new opportunities. If employees have more capacity at a given time, this becomes an opportune time to encourage new ideas, develop new materials, complete training, or learn about other areas of the business.  

You can start utilising resources in new, more flexible ways. Periods of lower utilisation are perfect for providing learning opportunities to employees with an interest, or a business-identified skill gap they may or may not have had a chance to be involved with before. You can start by both encouraging employees to list activities they can take on to enhance the business, as well as identifying the areas your employees need to develop in pursuit of future business success.

6. Utilise 360 feedback

Feedback, now more than ever, is a useful tool for employees and managers to gain insight on their performance and virtual working style from a network of relevant and trusted colleagues.  While managers should try to maintain line of sight into their team’s performance, 360 feedback can be a useful supporting tool to help assess and support employee performance outcomes.

Providing effective feedback is one of the best ways to drive high performance. Unfortunately, feedback is not always “effective.” Feedback should be honest, specific, strengths-oriented, and focussed on behaviours rather than personal characteristics. It should come from a credible source who knows the recipients work and can provide useful insights to help the individual improve.

Feedback can be gathered using advanced tools such as Mercer360 and Mettl or simply by email.8

7. Don’t forget about culture 

According to Mercer’s survey results, 67% of organisations reference behaviours and 44% reference values as part of their performance management approach.1 Just because your team members are out of the office doesn’t mean that how they work with others goes out the door.

“The biggest fear is “culture cracks”, Chris Barbin, Appirio CEO calls it. “Since we have a significant amount of remote team members, it is crucial for us to keep a strong focus on culture and to ensure that we are constantly listening to our team and what is important to them.”

Are your employees continuing to exhibit organisation values and positively contributing to the organisation’s culture? Here at Mercer, we are keeping culture alive virtually by having daily “watercooler” video check-ins for teams where they start the day off as they would if they ran into a co-worker while grabbing a coffee in the office. The focus of these meetings doesn’t necessarily have to be about work - some teams prioritise team building in these sessions, others like to share and investigate creative ideas that can positively impact business goals and others like to catch-up on a more personal level. To help combat quarantine boredom, some colleagues have started a virtual book club on Slack.

It can be hard to feel connected or have personal conversations over the phone or video call, but we are living in a time that demands we change our ways. What may initially feel strange to some is already best practice and commonplace for others.

Depending on how companies act now, we have a unique opportunity to change performance management for the better in a post-COVID-19 word.

Mercer’s Global Performance Management studies in both 2013 and 2019 indicated that only 2% of companies believe that their performance management approach delivers exceptional value. With this amount of room for improvement, Mercer can help organisations of all sizes utilise this opportunity to revamp their performance management for success, speak to a consultant today.



  1. Mercer’s 2019 Global Performance Management Study Insights: Performance Transformation in the Future of Work. Available at: