What we’re learning about leading successful remote teams

We’ve been supporting the development of geographically spread teams for years; global project teams, functional teams spread throughout a region, and teams located in one office whilst the manager is in a different city.  And now we have the enforced remote working team; the team that signed up for jobs in an office, with plenty of human interaction and opportunities for spontaneous connections, and who now find themselves working remotely.  And not through choice.

Between our experiences pre-Covid 19 and what we’ve been through in these past 6 months, we are seeing that there are teams who are really struggling with the shift to remote working, some who are hit and miss, and around a third who are really getting it right and thriving.  Below are the five things the thriving remote teams have in common, and do really well that we can all be learning from.

1. Get aligned on your new operating principles 
The successful remote teams we’ve worked with understand that how your team will be working together remotely is going to be different to face to face. So how we collaborate, communicate and resolve conflict will all need to be done differently.  The risk is that we each have our own ways of perceiving how those elements should happen, so the role of the charter is to do the one single thing that can set your team up for success the most.  Make sure the team is aligned in a very clear and explicit way on how they think they should be working together in this ‘new normal’.   All teams should go through this process – from the C-suite down.  And the good news is that we have continued to work with teams and functions across many industries who understand this, and have been proactive with resetting the ways of working.  The ones who are thriving have completed this step, and are doing a combination of the following steps.

2. Optimise how you work between teams
Work still needs to get done between teams – and for companies who have struggled, this is one of the forgotten aspects of converting a face to face business to a virtual business as the focus has tended to be more on how ‘a’ team works.  So there is a piece of work that successful virtual teams have been doing that simply mirrors the principles of the first point, and provides a means for the leaders of teams to connect, share and be clear on expectations regarding priorities, eg; what business objectives are more important or how shared resources should be deployed.  It also allows the team leaders to create some rules of engagement for how collaboration, communication and conflict resolution happens between teams.  This is underpinned by the team charter, and the common feedback we get is that it allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!

3. Train and be coached for working in a virtual team
One team we have worked with in particular identified early on that working and leading in a virtual team would require a different set of skills and mindset.  Their ability to understand and work with uncertainty and ambiguity, manage stakeholders remotely, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in face to face structures.  There’s no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike!  And this applies to everyone.  Good remote working training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level.  But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a remote team; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid vs flexible).  Our rate of coaching has remained steady as there are leaders who have self-identified (or the company has identified for them!) that working  and/or leading remotely doesn’t fit who they are (yet!).  But teams who have leveraged the capability development provided by their organisations, or those who have taken it upon themselves to get development for their teams, are doing well.  And it is usually combined with the next point.

4. Things Change – so talk, review and make change if needed
This point comes into its own in these times of rapid change.  The really good virtual teams look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by using this as an opportunity to come together and to work on the team, and continually update their preferred ways of working.  And when things are changing so quickly, you can’t afford not to be reviewing the way you work together.  We are working with a handful of leadership teams, who are using this step as a an opportunity to pull out of the day to day management stuff, to take a helicopter view of their teams and functions and to make smarter and more strategic decisions.  If you don’t have an Agile mindset in you company, this is a nice step to implement that will help you move in that direction.  The best thing about this step?  It enables proactive conversations, that enable a more controlled response to change in a highly volatile and uncertain business environment.  We are working with one leadership team who is working in an extremely volatile environment – on top of Covid-19 factors – and it is the ritual of regular team catch ups, in person, that is allowing them to extract themselves on a fortnightly basis to focus on themselves, the business and their people, in a more objective manner.

5. Culture Matters. 
Successful remote teams are recalibrating their team culture to reflect the remote working environment. The really effective remote teams that I’ve seen acknowledge that the culture that got them here, may not get them there.  A simple example of this is the shared thinking around how open and approachable we should be.  In a face to face environment it may be ok that a new team member needs to work a little harder show how they fit in and being slightly more closed between teams may be acceptable.  But in a remote setting that unspoken way of thinking won’t fly.  One function we have worked with recently has decided to make their culture more explicit, and part of that was through the creation of a new team charter. But this function, also understood that culture is needed to drive the execution of strategy which is a critical point when we consider that plenty of strategies and plans have been revised and in some cases completely re-written.  So, it makes sense that even at the level of the virtual team, a conversation be had around how the culture may need to be shifted to help them execute a little differently on their team objectives. 

Ponte Valle Insight: What we’re learning about leading successful remote teams

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