“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much”
Remote Teams comprise people who have to collaborate to achieve a goal, but who are not based at the same location.
Far from being a new concept, people have been Remote Working and Home Working (a specific type of remote working) for decades. Territory Sales people have always worked remotely, going into the office perhaps once a month. Matrix, multinational based teams, have been around since the 1960’s, while IT people have been writing code from home since at least the 80’s.
So, working from home is not unusual, even for people doing highly detailed work requiring concentration. My mum, for example, was a home worker throughout the 1960’s/70’s. She was a master at embroidery. Coats – the world leading thread company – would produce embroidery kits for home enthusiasts to sew. The designs were highly complex; they covered a wide range of scenes from flowers, through to landscapes, animals and, on one occasion, Tutankhamun. As such the new designs first needed to be embroidered by experts to check their feasibility, assess the amount of thread that needed to be in the kits, and provide a ‘model’ for what the end result should look like. This was precise, demanding work, and my mum did it with four rambunctious kids to feed, entertain and get to school and back. I remember Mum sitting in her arm chair in the lounge surrounded by masses of coloured threads, silver thimble on her finger, looking at the cloth through a huge magnifying glass hung round her neck. We were all told to keep out of the way on Fridays as that’s when her status report went in the post, when a kit was completed that went off too, and the following Monday a fresh kit would arrive.
Thus, not only is remote working a common practice, the principles involved in managing a remote team are no different from managing any other type of team, namely: hire ‘good’ people; provide training; set clear goals; give feedback and reward success. The difference between managing remotely and ‘face to face’, is about nuance not substance!
The five key elements involved in running a Remote Team well are:
- Developing a Vision
- Setting Clear Goals
- Creating a Formal Communication Strategy
- Actively Build Team Spirit
- Helping employees get their Home Working Strategies right
Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…
When you are not on hand to answer questions, people have to take a lot more initiative than might otherwise be the case, so it’s crucial to give them a clear frame of reference about what the general priorities are. The simplest way of doing that is to have a clear (written) Vision Statement explaining the team’s raison d’etre. I.e. a statement of 50 words, or fewer, explaining what the team does and why that matters.
An example of a Corporate Vision Statement for an Online Retailer might be: “We provide our customers with the best online shopping experience for ballgowns and formal dresses, from beginning to end, with a smart, searchable website, easy-to-follow instructions, clear and secure payment methods, and fast, quality delivery.”
For (say) the merchandising department of that retailer, their Team Vision might be…“To source the best possible selection of high quality, mid-priced ballgowns and formal dresses, from a wide range of trusted suppliers, so that our customers can find a dress for all formal occasions. From classic to trendy, from sultry to conservative and chique, to elaborate embroidery.”
Will it make the boat go faster?
In addition to the Vision Statement it also helps to have a Motto or Strap Line that can focus people’s attention.
For example, in the 1990’s the GB Eight Rowing Team struggled to win any races. In fact, their usual finishing place was 7th. In desperation, after another poor showing in the Cologne regatta in 1998, they decided to base all their decisions by reference to a simple strap line: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’
Every decision point was tested against this Strap Line e.g. a new fitness regime for the crew is proposed, should it be adopted? Well, “Will it make the boat go faster?”
By relentlessly adopting this approach the team won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A similar clarity and focus can be given to any Team, or Remote Team, with a well thought through Strap Line. What would the Strap Line for your team be?
It’s hard to discover what a remote worker is doing on a day to day basis, so it’s difficult to assess their work ethic, but you can measure their achievement. As a result, a focus on goal setting (and monitoring the results) becomes of paramount importance.
It is important not to set too many goals as things get confusing and tracking becomes tiresome, the advice that’s usually given is to keep it to no more than 7 objectives at any one time.
The Power of the Weekly ‘One to One’ Meeting
The feedback component of goal setting is significant as people respond to being told how they are doing (in a constructive way). It is important to praise people if they are on track, and provide advice and/or coaching if they are not. In addition, if people know they will be rewarded for hitting a target, then that increases their commitment to getting it done.
The simplest way to track performance against goals, and to keep people engaged more generally is to have a weekly, scheduled, ‘one to one’ catch up call. Such calls should make use of a standard agenda so that everyone knows what topics will be covered and consequently they can prepare accordingly e.g. results for the week, any issues, open forum, next steps.
Just one thing – Sharing abbreviated to-do lists
One very effective way of keeping people focused on their goals, while simultaneously promoting team cohesion, is to require all employees to email every evening, at a set time (say 5.30pm), Just One Thing they will do the next day, and a report on how they got on with the task they set themselves for the day before. On Friday they report on how they got on with that day’s task and set a new task for the following Monday.
This short, sharp report should go to all the members of the team as a way of sharing what people are focusing on. It is a very effective method for keeping people in touch with one another.
People who work remotely can’t afford to leave staying in touch to chance as there is nothing in the work environment to remind them to discuss issues (e.g. they won’t see each other by the coffee machine). So, formally ensuring that people engage with each other, by having a range of scheduled meetings on a regular basis, is a core leadership function of Remote Managers.
Three important meeting types
The structured meetings plan will, of course, depend on the type of work being done and the experience level of the team, but typically a standard meeting programme would include:
- Weekly ‘one to one’ with each employee and the manager (lasting 20-30 minutes) – usually by video conference
- Monthly team briefing meeting – to discuss the team’s progress against goals (lasting 20-30 minutes)- usually by video conference
- A daily time slot when the manager will be available for ad hoc chats (like a ‘walk in service’ at a doctor’s surgery) – usually by phone
These meetings can be complemented by a weekly (one page) Progress Report – produced by each team member and sent to the Manager in advance of the weekly ‘one to one’ meeting. This will usually cover four topics; (i) achievements during the past week, (ii) any issues that have arisen, (iii) focus for the coming week, and (iv) any other comments or points of interest.
Use Temperature Checks
A ‘Temperature Check’ is a quick phone call (3-5 minutes), usually once a week, just to ask people how they are and how things are going generally.
e.g. “I am just making a quick call to see how things are going”.
There is no agenda, or set format, the aim is to replicate (albeit imperfectly) the informal chats you have with people when you bump into them in the corridor or café.
For new starters, or when people are under pressure, Temperature Checks can be done more frequently e.g. every day for a week.
Skip Level Meetings
If you are a manager of managers, then running remote Skip Level Meetings can be an indispensable tool for monitoring morale and developing team spirit. It simply involves meeting with a group of staff at the level below your direct reports (but all at the same grade) without management present and asking; what’s going well, what isn’t, what ideas do they have, what can we improve on and what are they curious about? This is a surprisingly effective method for taking the pulse of the organisation and developing team spirit.
Adapting to Time Zone challenges
It is important to reflect on the locations of the team members and any ‘inconvenience’ involved in attending sessions; share around that inconvenience by varying the meeting times.
For example, consider a team with members in the USA, Denmark and Singapore.
In this case if a meeting is held when it is 2pm on the west coast of the USA, it will be 11pm in Northern Europe and 5am in Singapore.
In this scenario then, maybe every other meeting should be scheduled so (say) the US based people attend at 11pm (it being 8am in Denmark and 2pm in Singapore).
When people haven’t met face to face (as is often the case with remote teams) it can be hard to create the openness and willingness to share knowledge, ideas, suggestions, worries and concerns that is an aspect of the best teams. Even when people have met one another, the sense of isolation that remote working can create may erode trust over time. This means that special attention needs to be paid to creating informal ‘social networks’, both between individual team members, and the team as a whole ‘community.’ As a result, effective Remote Managers run regular team building activities. There are a myriad of ideas for this on the internet, so there is no excuse for not taking a few minutes each month for a team building activity e.g. you can find a list of ideas here.
However, popular Remote Team building options include:
- Taking it in turns to talk about hobbies/pastimes.
- Taking turns to describe a typical day.
- Team members take turns to run short (typically 15-minute-long) training sessions. This can be on their specialist area, their territory/market segment, or some new developments in the field.
If an employee is going to work from home for the first time then it is best practice to give them some guidance on the do’s and don’ts of making it a positive experience. Naturally, any suggestions need to be tailored to the needs of the specific employee and take account of the corporate culture/procedures, but points worth covering include…
Make the most of it. Working from home means improvising (depending on what’s going on at home) and juggling work hours accordingly; which can be tricky. However, it also allows people to flex what they are doing to take the maximum advantage of being in the home environment, in order to do more of the things they enjoy; including spending more time with family and friends. So, there is no reason that the home worker can’t take a few minutes and put some laundry in the washing machine, or mow the lawn in their lunch hour, or have a coffee with their mum, or schedule home deliveries for during the day etc. Also, there is no commuting time, so prompt the new home worker to think about how to make the most of that e.g. an early morning yoga session, maybe a run at the end of the day?
Get the ‘set up’ right. It is easier to work from home if the physical space is conducive to concentration and focus. The ideal thing (obviously) is to have a dedicated ‘office’ but people can work on the kitchen table if they have to. If the Home Worker doesn’t have a dedicated work space encourage them to clear everything away at the end of each working day e.g. have a work cupboard, or a chest/crate that they can put their laptop and papers in. This helps to create a clear separation between ‘home’ time and ‘work’ time. Be sure to encourage them to follow the appropriate Health and Safety protocols e.g. ask them to make sure they have good lighting and a work position that won’t result in RSI or strained neck etc. Have them get an excellent broadband connection, a good quality headset and microphone, an ergonomic chair and (maybe) a separate monitor, plus a table at the right height (and don’t work on the sofa or in bed!)
Time Blocking. Having a structured schedule when home working becomes a key success factor; because people don’t have colleagues or commuting etc. to give shape to the day. Time Blocking simply involves someone listing the tasks they need to do and then allocating a specific time to do them. Using this system, every minute of the working day is assigned a task e.g.
09.00am – 10.00am – Task X
10.00am – 10.30am – Task Y
10.30am – 10.45am – Coffee Break
10.45am – 11.15am – Deal with unexpected tasks that have come in during the day
11.15am – 12.00 am – Team Meeting (Zoom conference)
Of course, the schedule can be modified in the face of ‘events’ and some of the estimates of how long it takes to do a task will be wrong, but this format provides a ‘shape’ to the day that will maximise productivity.
Agree ‘House Rules’. If the new Home Worker lives with house mates or a partner and/or have children it may be worth them sitting down and just agreeing some ‘rules’ for how they will share the space together. The idea is to avoid the irritation that comes from things like people playing loud music, or busting into the room when you are in the middle of a call with the CEO, or arguments about who is supposed to be looking after the kids. E.g. someone might agree with their teenage children that they won’t yell when they want something, but will quietly come and check if you’re on a call before making a request!
As an aside, Jon Gottman (a leading researcher into marriage and relationships) notes that couples are always making ‘bids’ for each other’s attention, affection or support. These bids can be minor (asking you to buy some milk) or major (help with an elderly relative). On getting a bid the other person can ‘turn towards’ the person i.e. responds positively or ‘turn away’.
Gottman did a 6-year follow-up study of newlyweds. For those who were still married, the partners responded positively to each other’s bids 86% of the time. Those who got divorced only responded positively 33% of the time.
In the context of home working an inability to ‘switch off from work’ – or even social media – by constantly checking emails, or scanning twitter etc. leads to a persistent ’turning away’ and a resultant damage to the relationship. The lesson is (obviously) to give your partner/family your undivided attention when you’re not working and to be ‘present’ during your ‘home time’.
Remote Working shouldn’t be seen as a necessary evil in response to the current pandemic; it can be a perfectly valid method of normal working with many advantages. The essential elements of making a success of this way of working are to: give people a clear Strap Line to work to, set Clear Goals, have a formal Communications Strategy, actively build Team Spirit and help people new to home working to get their setup right.
Reflect on how you are performing as a Remote Manager. Are you doing enough team building activities? Are you providing people with enough feedback on their performance? What changes might you make?
Read this article on how one company (Buffer) makes use of a range of Remote Working Tools.
Watch… this four-minute long video by Kellogg School of Management on 4 rules for running a virtual team.
Consider signing teams up to our Managing Remote Teams workshop, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.
Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.
And finally, a quote by Henry Ford about the development of a great team…