As the world continues to change with ever-evolving technology, the advances have allowed for more individuals from various occupations to transition to working at home instead of the confines of a cubicle. As a result, companies that adopt a telecommuting option must be able to account for challenges that may transpire. These challenges can stem from telecommuting employees being isolated and disconnected from fellow co-workers and the work environment. To help employees stay motivated and on-task while working from home, an organization should develop goals that are a tangible link to performance and that provide a basis for communication that a manager can reference regularly.
In order for a healthcare call center to scale down their internal operations, 65 employees were reassigned to a telecommuting team (TCT) to take calls for their Physical Therapy, Outpatient Lab, and Diagnostic Testing facilities. When the transition was decided, leadership knew that there would be challenges in keeping the remote employees motivated and on-target. To guide efforts and keep the employees on-task, goals and measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) were established, and an action plan was given to the TCT on how they would be monitored.
Because of the nature of telecommuting, the TCT needed goals for time spent on-and-off the phone and in-between calls. Average call length was set for less than 3.5 minutes and Not Ready Time (time between calls used to complete after-call work) was set at less than 1 minute. The metrics were based on a time-series study over a six-week period, showing the averages of the current staff when compared across the organization. In addition, total calls were shared with a differential of plus or minus 2% of the median of all telecommuters as the goal.
Since customer service was a primary focus, a quality assurance program was created to monitor and score calls that were observed by supervisors. The program was used for internal employees, as well as the TCT, to drive patient satisfaction scores. The quality program rated various aspects of the call, including, but not limited to: following proper procedures to get the best outcome, resolving issues on the first call, representing the organization’s core values (friendly, helpful, genuine), and providing conflict resolution. Scoring was performed by rating 30 parameters on the following scale:
Call Quality Scale
64 - 85
46 - 63
Does Not Meet
0 - 45
Scales and parameters were established through a combination of national benchmarking, observations of current staff, and direct data from partner organizations.
In addition to establishing goals to drive daily performance, management looked ahead to the possibility of career advancement for telecommuting employees, especially since the department’s projected three-year growth was 200%. For example, they thought about creating positions for remote supervisors and quality assurance representatives. Leadership development goals were created to encourage growth amongst those who chose to participate. Additionally, educational programs were offered with the condition that the participant score 92% or higher on a corresponding test to advance in the program. Successful participants would continue on with the program and shadow a supervisor.
Each month, the metrics were evaluated with the TCT as a group and with each member individually. They were given opportunities-for-improvement feedback and asked to write their own follow-up actions in order to establish new sets of goals. The leadership team tracked the progress of the TCT to reevaluate whether adjustments were necessary based on averages.
Six months after the telecommuting team’s establishment, results showed that at least 89% of the staff met KPIs every month and were scoring at a “Meets” or above on observed calls. The members of the TCT showed high engagement during individual meetings with their supervisors, and half of the staff were participating in the leadership development program. After a year, employee satisfaction scores were showing that the TCT had a 5% higher overall satisfaction (93%) with their positions as compared to staff who worked on-site; they scored higher overall on observed calls with a larger ratio of TCT employees exceeding the KPIs.
Main Outline of the Theory
Goal Setting Theory is the most researched and applied theory of work motivation in I/O psychology (Pennsylvania State University World Campus [PSU WC], 2015, L. 6). It asserts that motivation is derived from the desire and intention to attain a goal. This motivation could result in desired performance and behavior. The theory is cognitively-based, and involves goal mechanisms and a combination of goal conditions used to explain how goals can motivate people, specifically employees. When all of these criteria are met, goal setting can be an incredibly effective motivator (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). It is also thought that employee participation in goal setting can aid in motivation; however, research support is not as strong for this assertion as it is for the rest of the theory (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). There are also consequences related to ineffective goal setting behaviors. The main Goal Setting Theory wiki page provides a detailed analysis of the components and history of the theory.
Goal mechanisms explain how goals can affect motivation, and in turn, performance. The key facets of motivation include: direction, intensity, and persistence; it is in these ways that goal setting can influence performance and behavior (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). In order for TCT members to be fully successful and effective in their jobs, goals were created. These goals affected performance and behavior through direction, intensity, persistence; these goals also resulted in strategies for effective performance.
Since telecommuting often involves unstructured and unmonitored work hours, it was important for management to be able to direct behavior, which was made possible through goal setting. The TCT was given specific time-frame goals for resolving phone calls and completing after-call duties to motivate them to stay on-task. This direction helped prevent workers from procrastinating or spending too much time on one task. The goals also served as a means to energize the staff to be efficient and timely with their responsibilities in an effort to maximize their productivity and effectiveness, as well as their scores on performance reviews. The goals themselves also helped sustain certain behaviors, illustrated by the fact that 89% of employees were meeting or exceeding KPIs on a monthly basis. Finally, in order to meet these goals, employees had to search for effective strategies to maximize their efficiency. This included restructuring work habits to meet the time requirements.
It was made clear for the TCT that performance and behavior were linked to the established goals, or KPIs. Customer satisfaction was an important factor for the TCT. Subsequently, Management by Objectives (MBO) strategies were used in order to ensure that customer satisfaction was a reality. First, measurable goals were set, so the TCT knew what management was looking for in their interactions with clients (i.e., following procedures, resolving issues on the first call, representing the organization's values, and conflict resolution). Then, those goals were consistently observed and measured through a performance review grading scale. These goals and performance reviews helped the TCT: direct their customer service behaviors, mobilize their efforts to work harder to receive desired scores, strive for goal attainment over time, and search for effective strategies to improve and/or maintain the desired scores.
Finally, by giving them a long-term goal to strive for, the opportunity for future career advancement also served to motivate the telecommuting team’s direction, intensity, persistence, and search for effective strategies; evidenced by more than half of the TCT participating in development opportunities.
Goal setting theory suggests that in order for goals to be effective, certain conditions must be met. These conditions include goal acceptance/commitment, goal specificity, goal difficulty, and feedback (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Goal acceptance and commitment was an important factor to ensure the telecommuting team’s success in meeting the organization’s KPIs. Goal acceptance/commitment by the TCT meant that the objectives had to be realistic and believable (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). This was attained by making sure that the goals were based on a six-week time-series study of the current staff’s averages. In addition, as we discussed earlier in the case study, the quality assurance program’s standards were based on scales and parameters derived from national benchmarks, observations of current staff, and direct data from partner organizations. This data ensured that the standards were realistic, which would enhance the believability factor. Contrast this with organizations that arbitrarily choose performance metrics that lack any established evidence on how they are derived, which may hinder goal acceptance/commitment.
Instead of “do your best” goals, which are vague and could produce a wide variety of performance levels (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6, p. 4), the healthcare organization specified the exact outcome it wanted from the TCT. For example, average call length was set to no more than 3.5 minutes, and Not Ready Time was set at less than 1 minute. Note the specificity of these goals, which are easy to measure by today’s call center technology. The specificity of these goals also allows one to objectively compare how well he/she is performing to established standards, in contrast with “do your best” goals, which elicit a subjective comparison based on personal feelings.
Goal difficulty is the third important factor in influencing the employee’s efforts; challenging, but not too difficult goals, could drive higher levels of performance (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Locke and Latham’s (1990) meta-analysis of the relationship between goal difficulty and performance shows an impressive range between .42 to .80 (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L.6). Additionally, Locke and Latham (1990) found a consistent positive relationship between goal difficulty and performance (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L.6). However, if goals are too difficult, or not believable, performance can be hindered (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6); a factor the healthcare organization controlled for by establishing its goals and quality standards based on previous studies. Without knowing the exact benchmark data, one could reasonably assume that the goals set by the healthcare organization were moderately difficult, evidenced by 89% of the employees attaining the “Meets” or higher level standard. Had the goals been too difficult, one would expect a poorer outcome.
Finally, feedback, the fourth important factor (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6), was necessary for the TCT to ensure continuous adherence to the goal program, to know how they were performing against the objectives, and if the necessary behavioral adjustments they needed to make to stay on-track were effective. Similar to goal specificity, “feedback also needs to be specific” (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6, p. 4). As discussed earlier in the case study, the leadership team regularly reviewed the metrics with the TCT as a group and with each member individually. This feedback could have possibly consisted of both “outcome and process feedback,” (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6, p. 4). For example, outcome feedback would have included how many times the staff represented the organization’s values, whereas process feedback would have discussed where and why an individual succeeded and/or failed against this objective and how they could be more effective in the future. Earley and colleagues (1990) posit that process feedback can be more effective than outcome feedback because it enhances task strategy (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). In other words, knowing how to represent the healthcare organization’s values is more effective than knowing how many times the person succeeded or failed in doing so. In addition to discussing areas for improvement, the leadership team allowed the TCT to create new goals, which possibly served the role of continuous improvement for the organization.
The healthcare organization succeeded in combining the four goal conditions to create a motivated workforce through commitment to specific and difficult goals and by receiving appropriate, regular, and specific feedback to make necessary adjustments along the way (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Additionally, the organization’s goal setting process was SMART, a widely used acronym to summarize the successful goal setting practice that helps increase motivation (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). For example, the TCT goals were specific and measurable (e.g., 3.5-minute average call time), assignable to each team member, realistic (since the standards were established based on previous time-series studies), and time-related (e.g. six-months and one-year).
Employee Participation in Goal Setting
Along with commitment, difficulty, specificity, and feedback, another important factor in goal setting is participation (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Although, the TCT employees at the healthcare organization did not create their own goals, they accepted the goals that the leadership team created for them. The acceptance of assigned goals is key to successful goal setting because it helps to increase commitment to the goal. Although research from two studies, one by Latham and Locke, and the other by Wright, show that participation is an important motivational factor in goal setting, it has also been found that assigned goals can be just as motivating if they are accepted (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Latham and Locke (1979) suggested that one reason for this is because inexperienced employees may be uncomfortable setting their own goals and would rather look to a manager’s expertise (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Because the healthcare organization had never employed telecommuters, these remote employees may have felt hesitant in creating their own goals or may have not known the appropriate metrics. Without these metrics, the TCT would not have known the performance expectations that needed to be met.
Since this was uncharted territory for the healthcare organization, they conducted studies that resulted in appropriate goal levels for their TCT. As discussed earlier, as the TCT employees gained experience and confidence, they started becoming more comfortable with setting their own goals and increasing the goal difficulty. In addition to assigning goals to the TCT, it is recommended that leadership provide its remote employees with explanations on why those goals are important (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). If management could successfully demonstrate that the assigned goals would support the organization’s goal of providing quality customer service, the TCT would be more likely to recognize the value of the goals and accept them (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).
Negative Consequences and Things to Avoid
Adam Galinsky states that "goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength medication," (as cited in Bennett, 2009). With that in mind, although goal setting theory had a positive effect for the TCT at the six-month and one-year review cycles, there are a few negative consequences of goal setting that should be understood. Through this understanding, certain behaviors can be avoided and goal setting can continue to be effective in the future. These consequences are outlined by several researchers, which we will discuss below. Each provide recommendations for how management and remote employees could avoid these possible negative consequences.
Abrose and Kulik (1999), along with Wright (1994), have found several drawbacks in goal setting and MBOs (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). One such stumbling block includes concentrating so much on the outlined goals that other job duties or goals are placed on the back burner. Simons and Chabris conducted a study in which they asked participants to count the number of passes during a basketball game. The participants were so engrossed in ensuring they did not miss counting a pass that they did not notice the person in a gorilla costume walking onto the court (as cited in Bennett, 2009). As posited by Simons and Chabris, a goal could result in an employee concentrating solely on meeting one metric that they may miss other important facets of their jobs. For example, a TCT member, wanting to adhere to the one-minute Not Ready Time metric, could miss replying to an important email sent by his/her supervisor. Although these job duties are not a main goal for the TCT, they are still important. If these job duties are not completed, they can reduce the effectiveness of an employee, such as neglecting to reply to a supervisor’s email could negatively affect their relationship. Additionally, working on one goal could result in ignoring another goal. For example, adhering to the 3.5 average call wait time metric could conflict with the goals of representing the organization’s values and providing customer satisfaction (e.g., making the customer feel rushed). An employee could become solely focused on meeting the time requirements, resulting in his/her score on the call quality performance reviews suffering.
Bennett voiced another concern about the limitation to goal setting; when individuals regularly have goals set for them, they may lose the ability to self-motivate, or as Latham and Locke feared, the inability to think independently or take personal initiative (as cited in Bennett, 2009). As the telecommuting team’s responsibilities continue to grow, the remote employees may neglect new responsibilities that are not necessarily assigned by leadership. Further, they may not even see the need to take initiative and assign themselves new responsibilities, even if those responsibilities are crucial to the job. Another concern to be aware of is the possibility of employees cheating or lying (e.g. taking shortcuts) as an act of desperation in dire situations (Bennett, 2009). For example, an employee may hang up on a customer without resolving the customer’s issues in order to meet the 3.5-minute time restriction. This behavior can be especially reinforced if the customer does not complain. As previously mentioned, a telecommuting employee could be short with a customer, neglecting the organization’s values, but then lie to his/her supervisor about it.
Lastly, although Gergen and Vanourek (2009) cast goal setting theory in a positive light, they suggest a few behaviors that should be avoided to prevent negative consequences from arising. Management of the healthcare center should avoid: 1) setting too many goals, 2) setting inappropriate goals, 3) neglecting to verbalize and publicize goals, 4) viewing goals as needing to be attained quickly, and 5) setting one-dimensional goals that cannot be articulated. Similarly, the remote workers should avoid: 1) lowering expectations after small goal-related victories, avoiding the loss of intensity and perseverance, and 2) becoming fixated on goals in an unhealthy way (Gergen & Vanourek, 2009). By adhering to these recommendations, the healthcare organization can avoid the potential negative consequences of goal setting and the TCT can continue producing desired and expected outcomes in the future.
Goal setting theory, as the most researched and applied theory in I/O psychology, provides a comprehensive model for how goals can motivate employees. It asserts that certain goal mechanisms and conditions, as well as participation, can help employees direct their behaviors towards goal attainment, which will, in turn, affect performance and outcomes.
The mechanisms of goal setting theory – direction, intensity, persistence, and search for effective strategies – describe how goals can affect motivation. The goals assigned to the TCT helped them stay on-task, energize their efforts over a long period of time, and search for new ways to meet the goals. In order to motivate these mechanisms, management met the conditions of goal setting theory by assigning goals that were reasonably difficult, specific, and accepted by the TCT. The feedback provided to the TCT allowed them the opportunity to assess how they were doing and make the necessary adjustments to further improve the organization’s call center standards. The feedback also gave the TCT confidence to begin participating in setting goals rather than only having goals assigned to them. Lastly, in alignment with the SMART acronym, the assigned goals were specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related goals that aided in motivating the TCT.
Finally, in order to maintain the positive outcome that resulted in the case study, the healthcare organization should also recognize and understand the potential risks of goal setting. For example, negative behaviors like lying and cheating, can be avoided if these risks are understood and controlled.
Bennett (2009, March 15). Ready, aim...fail. Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.
Gergen, C., & Vanourek, G. (2009, January 14). Properly set goals aid success. The Washington Times, B03.
Goal Setting Theory. (2015). Retrieved from Work Attitudes and Job Motivation - Brian Redmond Wiki: https://wikispaces.psu.edu/display/PSYCH484/6.+Goal+Setting+Theory.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2015). PSYCH 484 Lesson 6: Goal Setting Theory: What am I Trying to Achieve in My Work?. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa11/psych484/001/content/lesson06/lesson06_01.html.