Remote goal setting in the startup environment

It’s been a tale of two halves for the startup scene this year. The pandemic has created both challenges and new opportunities - and for many, it’s been a mixed bag of muddling through and innovating out of a crisis. 

As we turn our attention to 2021, one of the most important areas of focus will be setting goals and objectives for the year ahead. Adaptable goal setting has always been essential in the fast-changing startup environment but in the remote working world, where distance has created new complexity and ambiguity, it’s now business-critical. 

So what are the specific challenges that startups need to be aware of when it comes to remote goal setting?

Fragmented communication

The transition from the office to remote work has had an unprecedented impact on the way we communicate - especially for close-knit teams, and face to face interactions have been replaced by fragmented virtual communication. The result? Conversations are less frequent, tend to be scheduled in advance, and typically take place through online mediums such as video conferences, phone calls, and instant messaging. 

Of course, most organisations are feeling the absence of in-person communication, but perhaps none more so than those at an early stage of growth. Startup teams are particularly reliant on "watercooler chats" which, until the pandemic hit, presented a key platform for spontaneous, face-to-face conversations that help to foster collaboration, creativity, innovation and culture. With these conversations temporarily off the table, business leaders are having to engineer new ways to replicate these in an online setting. 

Heightened need for clarity

Before the pandemic, it was relatively easy for employees to have regular check-ins with their managers and collectively discuss their objectives. These catch-ups provided a useful means of tracking progression and keeping employees focused on what they needed to do in order to achieve their goals. The shift to remote work has taken this away however, leading to a heightened demand for clarity with regards to daily, weekly and quarterly goals. 

Clarity is key to eradicating confusion about priorities and ensuring efforts are focused in the right place at the right time. Without it, employee motivation can wane and problems with teamwork can quickly arise. So how do we add more clarity? We give remote workers very clear policies and structures to support them through remote goal setting processes - and we adopt the right tools and technologies to track progress over time. 

The potential for misalignment

Organisations that fail to provide laser-focused clarity around remote goal setting will also suffer from a lack of overall alignment and team direction. Communicating team goals and getting employees on board was hard enough pre-pandemic but add remote work into the mix, and alignment becomes all the more challenging, especially in the fast-paced startup environment.

But why is this? To put it simply, the impact of goal misalignment is made worse because issues cannot be resolved face-to-face, and feelings of isolation and disconnection are therefore more likely to fester. 

Reduced employee visibility

The reduced visibility here is two-fold: yes, employees are less visible to their employer in a physical sense but more than this, employees themselves are feeling less visible. Even worse, some of these isolated employees are also working to outdated objectives. The fundamental problem in this scenario is that the employee cannot see how they’re contributing to the organisation’s success because, crucially, their goals are not tied to the company’s overarching objectives. 

It’s a situation that’s driving many employees to feel disconnected - and left unresolved, detached employees will begin to work in silos, with poor transparency, limited communication, and growing disengagement. 

The solutions for startups

So how can we best manage the challenges outlined above? Here’s five ways startups can optimise remote goal setting for better business performance:

  1. Create clear virtual channels of communication - and use them
    Whether it’s Slack, Zoom, Teams or Trello, embrace the communication platforms that provide the best fit for your team and company culture. Most importantly? Build them into people’s everyday work as a means of creating meaningful conversation, facilitating regular feedback, and encouraging transparency in the world of remote work.

  2. Goals are the guiding light - make them crystal clear
    Key to successful remote goal setting is not only clarity and keeping a record, but making that record readily accessible to the entire team.

    On top of this, employees should have visibility of wider company goals so that they can see - and buy into - the company’s vision, understanding how their work, and that of their team members, is contributing to the ‘bigger picture’.

  3. Set clear metrics and adopt best-fit goal setting methodologies
    Above all, the aim is to let employees know exactly what is expected of them - and methodologies such as the SMART framework and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) can really help here.

    SMART goals are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound, and are especially useful for defining clear and measurable objectives that support improved productivity (and we know all how important that is in the startup scene). 

    In his book, ‘Measure what Matters’ John Doerr offers another methodology that provides a
    particularly good fit for fast-growth companies that have a high propensity for change. OKRs are centred around agility and are designed to be regularly reviewed and easily amended in line with evolving organisational needs. There’s plenty of evidence to validate the efficacy of OKRs in the tech industry too, with Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Salesforce - and indeed, most of Silicon Valley - all using this model to establish goals and priorities, create transparency, enable collaboration, and measure progress.

  4. Don’t forget soft skills!
    Sticking to the theme of measuring what matters, the pandemic has forced business leaders to re-evaluate how they work under the so-called ‘new-normal’. And, when it comes to conversations around re-skilling, it’s important for leaders to factor in the soft skills that will help employees to achieve high performance in the home environment. Just some of the many soft skills that remote workers will need include virtual communication, good time management, self-efficacy, and digital skills.

    As part of this, startup leaders will also need to create and share new metrics for success given many of the previous go-to measurement methods no longer align with the new skills that company leaders need to assess.

  5. Re-align with care
    To say that strategic direction was upended in 2020 would be an understatement. On the one hand, startups have been able to adapt more quickly due to their agile nature, but nevertheless, the majority were still left scrambling to realign goals and ensure survival.

    Of course, goal realignment isn’t a one time fix. It’s a continual process that, if done well, will support improved performance and productivity. But here’s the thing: it’s important to re-align with care. Why? Because as humans, we have in-built resistance to change and employees who are invested in, and already working towards, an objective will naturally be frustrated if the goal posts are suddenly moved. To avoid this, startup leaders should approach the process openly, clearly explaining to employees why there is a need to realign. In addition, teams should be asked to test and validate assumptions, and must be able to give continual feedback on the process - and in this regard, an
    online performance management platform can act as a key facilitator.