Our company, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), has grown to 230 employees since we opened in January 2008. As a virtual public school, we face unique challenges in providing high-quality online instruction for a growing number of students. We want to be responsible with using public funds while also maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit of a young, private company.
As we grew, our performance management needed to grow as well. With 85 percent of our staff working remotely, we needed to create systems that supported our culture of building relationships with students and families, as well as relationships within our organization. After a short and unsatisfactory stint using Google Docs, we looked for a simple, comprehensive tool – one that could also scale with our growth.
Supporting remote employees
Another challenge we faced was training new instructors. Because our instructors work remotely, we needed a way to provide systematic support during the four-month training period. The training included three face-to-face days and multiple virtual meetings, but lacked a way to provide the day-to-day support needed to learn our systems and protocols. In order to meet our enrollment growth, we hire new instructors in cohorts – sometimes training and supporting multiple groups of new instructors simultaneously, and supporting the growth of 15-40 new instructors at once required an easy-to-use, scalable infrastructure.
Our instructors are different from traditional teachers. Our students are empowered to customize their learning, including how they learn and at what pace. So VLACS instructors don’t create traditional lesson plans, write tests, or develop classroom management techniques as seen in traditional schooling. Their most important work is developing relationships with their students and families and fostering learning that is fully customizable based on individual student needs. Thus, traditional teacher performance measures were not going work for us. We needed a customizable tool that would allow us to support our instructors using our metrics, not those of a typical school setting.
Finally, as a non-profit, we had to address all of these challenges in an efficient and cost-effective way. On top of this, our ideal solution also had to scale with a growth rate that could cater to us employing more than 300 people by 2020.
After researching several performance management options, we decided to test Small Improvements with 30 office employees in the spring of 2014. It didn’t take us long to expand Small Improvement’s reach. By the end of that summer, all VLACS employees were on board. While first used for annual reviews and goal setting, we quickly realized Small Improvements would be able to address the challenges identified above using its full complement of tools.
Performance Management and Employee Support
Google Docs were adequate when we were a small organization, but as we grew past 100 employees and rapidly toward 200, we knew the application would not scale to meet our growing needs. Small Improvements, with its easy intuitive interface and powerful customizability, was just the tool we needed.
Our use of Objectives, in particular, quickly evolved. Instead of the traditional annual goals found in most schools, we realized the online space demanded a more malleable approach. We simply couldn’t wait a year to review and redevelop objectives. Over time, we learned to set goals (with key results) with short timelines (sometimes as quick as a month) to allow our employees to hyperfocus on a goal (or two). After the “sprint”, our employees meet with their managers to either extend the objective, edit it, or develop an entirely new one. As a result, we developed a responsive, flexible, and nimble performance management and goal-setting process.
New Instructor Training
We knew our newest instructors needed four months of ongoing support, which was challenging because they all work remotely. By creating a separate Objective Cycle with five specific training objectives, key results, and sharing visibility with an assigned mentor and all members of our Instructional Support Team, we were able to provide comments and feedback to new instructors as Key Results were checked off and Objectives were met. This way, our newest instructors had the constant support they needed to grow within our organization.
As we saw the growth in our newest instructors be fully supported though Small Improvements, we realized that similar structures should be in place for all employees. So we began to use Objectives and Key Results to also foster regular communication between employees and their managers.
Working virtually is not always easy, especially for those employees who are fueled by real-time feedback on their work. By using Private Notes and Praise with custom badges, we found a way to honor the hard work of our office and remote employees both privately and publicly. Soon, we found our employees were praising their peers and bestowing upon them the “Thanks,” “Innovator,” “Essential Friend,” “Facilitator,” and/or “Great First Step” custom badges to recognize their work. These small tokens of gratitude went a long way in building a sense of community between staff members who lived and worked great distances from one another.
We have also been very protective of the Small Improvements space. We don’t use Small Improvements to track training mandates. We don’t want Small Improvements to be seen as a place where learning is put onto the employee, but instead as a place where our employees feel safe to experiment, reflect and learn, and reconstruct best practices with the help of their manager. Because we are able to see all performance and growth-related information in one place, managers are able to position themselves in a supportive role first. The result is that by the time we get to the more formal annual review, it’s just an extension of the ongoing conversations and relationship building that the tools in Small Improvements foster.
We were able to transition our entire organization to Small Improvements very quickly and successfully. Our organization of 230 was able to adopt the tool and integrate it into our regular routines. Recently, we have begun using the 1:1 Meetings module to support all learning and development meetings with our employees. The private notes section has proven to be invaluable in providing a space for meeting preparation.
Since using Small Improvements, we have launched 20 Objective Cycles, created over 1,000 goals, and sent more than 2,000 messages with nearly 1,400 replies. Small Improvements has proven to not only provide a simple and efficient performance management tool, but also support our need to have a relationship-based culture that cultivates ongoing development and growth.