As a member of a consulting firm that specializes in helping teams perform better, I get asked a lot these days how teams can improve their collaboration with everyone out of the office and many of them not coming back. Ferrazzi Greenlight has invested millions in research on what makes great teams click, especially in virtual environments. Here are some of the core things we’ve learned:
Leadership. Communicating and collaborating effectively in remote teams has a lot has to do with setting the right tone at the top. It's smart to put a "communication contract" in place so that everyone knows, for instance, that emails are expected to be returned within a day and text messages are reserved for urgent communications. Explicitly stating the group’s social norms in this way is a good idea for all collaboration, but it’s especially important with remote teams.
Leaders themselves should err on the side of over-communicating with a remote team, not in terms of frequency but in terms of clarity, quality, and depth. There are fewer opportunities to check in and course-correct, so be explicit and give people tangible action items when you can. For the same reason, videoconferences are better than conference calls -- although there are good ways and bad ways to do videoconferences. Keep them as small as possible, and spend at least 50 percent of the time in each videoconference devoted to collaborative problem-solving. If your meetings feel like a parade of updates and report-outs, then you need to reconsider how you are using your time together as a team.
Define roles clearly. One reason some remote teams fail, while others succeed is, how well their roles are defined. Most people assume that if a group is given defined goals with member roles left vague, it encourages collaboration to get to the goal. Research has shown the opposite is true. It’s actually better to have people with defined roles, assigned to solve a problem with no clear solution. When people are secure in their roles, they can balance independence with interdependence. They can work independently towards the group’s mission, and then they can create value from their interdependencies by collaborating with their teammates toward the solution.
Collaborative teams keep getting larger and more complex, so it’s important to manage the size of sub-groups and coordinate between them efficiently and effectively. There should be a core group responsible for strategy and important decisions, a middle operational group, and an outer group of largely part-time specialists brought in at particular stages.
Humans are innately collaborative but we lack the systems and processes that we need to channel that innate drive towards more productive ends in a business setting, so the more deliberately you structure the norms of communication, the better.
Peer-to-peer accountability is best. I have a simple answer for leaders who ask how they can make sure their people are productive: You can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day to check on them. Instead, team leaders need to encourage a mutual sense of responsibility and peer-to-peer accountability, You make the entire team responsible for everyone achieving the team’s mission and “crossing the finish line together.” If one team member is slacking off or overwhelmed with a problem, it’s everyone’s responsibility to bring that team member back into the fold. Again, this needs to be explicitly re-contracted, because otherwise, team members will fall back into the traditional, counterproductive idea that a colleague’s performance is only the concern of their supervisor.
A good model is the agile methodology employed by software developers. By working toward clear intermediate goals during “sprints” between meetings, teams develop a framework of peer-to-peer accountability. There’s also a small-group breakout process we call “bulletproofing.” This process accentuates candor and accountability in groups of three (the ideal size for enhanced expressions of candor) which then report back to the larger group.
Don’t stop building personal relationships. Leaders can set the tone for personal connections within a new project by giving everyone a virtual tour of their office during the video kick-off video meeting. We also recommend that every meeting begins with what we call a personal-professional check-in. Everyone takes a turn telling what’s the one big thing on their mind personally and professionally. It's a good way to develop a team spirit of empathy and vulnerability, and you also give team members an appropriate venue to let everyone know when they are having serious issues and could use some help.
The recent transition to remote work will have a lasting impact on the way we work. With everyone’s webcams on, the new virtual working environment we now operate in is drawing teams far closer together than a boardroom ever could. We get to see inside each other’s homes, and we’re able to bring more of our authentic selves to the job.
We should use this opportunity for a re-set and create new, more productive social norms at work. Now is the moment for leaders to host a virtual meeting with their locked-down teams and ask them: what recent behaviors and practices do we want to retain and what do we not want to go back to? Before it's too late, I'd like to see us make the most of this crisis and use it for the purpose of creating a brighter post-lockdown future.
Cody Thompson is a consultant at Ferrazzi Greenlight