Issue # 10 - Virtual Performance Reviews

by Randi Brenowitz

Issue # 10

Brenowitz Consulting is pleased to bring you this issue of Tools for Teams, our bi-monthly electronic newsletter.

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Issue # 10 – Virtual Performance Reviews

The response to Issue #8, Working Virtually was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Since it became clear that virtual teams are a major concern of my readership, I decided to dedicate several issues to that topic. The first in this series was about Virtual Meeting Etiquette. This issue deals with the complexities of Employee Performance Reviews in a virtual organization.

If there are other topics about virtual teams you'd like to see addressed in future issues, please email me at

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A performance review is not merely a means of finding out what a team member is worth, but of finding ways to make him or her worth more. This is true whether your team is co-located or virtual. Performance reviews create opportunities for:

  • team members to give and receive feedback about their goal achievement;
  • team leaders to learn more about the tools and help the team members need;
  • the creation of a training and development plan for the team and its members;
  • giving input into the reward & compensation systems;
  • defining future goals.

Since some of these uses are in conflict, performance review systems can be fraught with unpleasant emotion. Both team members and leaders seem to dread this time, and frequently avoid it or do a sloppy job. Fortunately, there are creative and innovative HR and Compensation people who are trying to create new systems for Performance Reviews. In the meantime, whatever system your organization has for its co-located employees must be adapted to your virtual team. In co-located organizations, the impact of a sloppy performance review can be decreased with regular, informal contact and feedback. In a virtual situation, where regular and informal communication is not the norm, the impact of a poorly done performance review can have huge impact. When team members are not clear about their goals and expectations and when they don't know if they're doing things the best way, it is hard to keep up high energy and motivation. On the other hand, a positive review experience will go a long way toward team members feeling included in and valued by the organization.

Defining the Process
Since your virtual team members may come from different cultures, different geographies, or different parts of the organization, different cultures, you have no way of knowing what assumptions they have about the performance review process. As part of your team start-up process, the team should decide what adaptations they want to make to the corporate system so that it will best serve their needs. It is helpful here to have the advice of your HR or Compensation organization. Once the process is clearly defined and articulated, individual team members will know what to expect no matter where they are located.

Setting Goals
Clear goals are the foundation for every Performance Review system, as they allow for more objective measurement at the end of a review period. This becomes more important in virtual teams as team members cannot actually see what others are working on. The informal hallway conversations and visits to each other's cubicles that help facilitate goal alignment are not available in the virtual environment. Clearly defined goals and expectations must take their place.

There is a tendency with co-located teams for the team leader to measure such things as how late the team member stays in the office or at what times over the weekend their car is in the parking lot. Although these are never measures of how efficient or effective the team member is, many leaders are concerned when they cannot "see" the team member working. In any team, co-located or virtual, goals that are results-based will help the team member understand the expectations and will move your team closer to high-performance and goal completion.

Defining success criteria is always a good idea, but if your team members are from different cultures, it is a necessity. What constitutes completion may vary from culture to culture and the difference in definition of terms can lead to some comic (or catastrophic) results. In many cultures, it is not acceptable to ask for help, so periodic check-ins will help the team leader assess progress along the way.

The Review Meeting
If possible, the review meeting should be face-to-face. If that is not possible, you can still have a meaningful meeting via the phone if you have prepared well. Although you may be tempted, do not use a video-conferencing system. The technology is still awkward and does not really let you see the body language of the other person.

The timing of conference calls is frequently a problem. In this case, if one person has to be inconvenienced, it should be the team leader who is making the call at a peculiar hour and not the team member. Both the leader and the member should arrange to be in a private area where they will not be overheard or disturbed.

Each goal should be discussed: the degree to which it was completed, the quality with which it was completed, and any extenuating circumstances that made it difficult to complete. It may be necessary to speak more slowly and carefully than you might in a face-to-face meeting and to check for understanding more frequently.

The level of direct feedback that is considered proper differs from country to country, and so it is important for the team leader to know in advance what the norms are for the team member's culture. Although the review must be an honest assessment, it may be necessary to modify some language or style in order for the review to be useful.

Plan some one-on-one time together the next time the team meets face-to-face to review your discussion and to make sure that any concerns are being addressed.

Development Planning
Development planning (including training, developmental assignments, and promotions) is frequently the forgotten piece of the review process. It may be even more difficult in a virtual environment, as certain training programs and developmental opportunities do not exist in every location. Team members still want to know that there is a future for them even if they are located far from others on the team. Be honest about what is available, but also be creative. Are there other places or ways for this team member to get what he or she needs in order to be successful? Ask the team members and then take their advice.

Re-defining the Process
This is an additional step when working in the virtual environment. After one cycle of reviews has been completed, ask the team members what worked well and what they might like to see done differently. Virtual Performance Reviews is a new phenomenon and your process may need to be modified to best meet the needs of your virtual team.

When team members help define the process, they will participate in it in a more energetic and meaningful way.


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Additional Resources

Working Virtually: Managing People for Successful Virtual Teams and Organizations by Trina Hoefling (Stylus Publishing, 2001), see issue #8.

Mastering Virtual Teams by Deborah Duarte & Nance Snyder (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

HeiterConnect ( runs a series of workshops ( and free virtual mini-camps related to work in the virtual environment.

GEO Group Strategic Services, Inc. ( offers a unique blend of traditional and on-line tools that can be helpful in preparing for the review meeting and the final document.

Startwright ( has assembled a comprehensive list of links and articles on virtual teams and virtual team management.


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What's New at Brenowitz Consulting

Randi in person:

Thursday, September 25, 2003
Silicon Valley Chapter
Institute for Supply Management
Santa Clara, CA
Team Essentials & the Supply Chain

Tuesday, November 4, 2003
Consorta Resource Management Conference
Chicago, IL
Leadership & Team Essentials for Supply Chain Management

Wednesday, January 28, 2004
IEEE Engineering Management Society
Santa Clara Valley Chapter
Sunnyvale, CA
Virtual Engineering Project Teams

Tuesday, April 1, 2004
UC Santa Clara
Santa Clara, CA
HR as an OD Intervention

Randi in writing:

"Workforce Collaboration: Building a Strong Team Foundation"
August, 2003 or



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