As humans we prefer to collect and work together in the same space. When we're in the same space we naturally have a collegial sense of "we're in this together, we're all working hard to achieve our goals," but if you look at the available statistics there's a lot of non-work happening in the workplace when we're all in the same office. It's easy to assume that when away from the office people will work less, but, again, if you look at the statistics they say that we actually work harder and longer when we work away from the office.
COVID has created unique circumstances where our house-mates are in the home with us and therefore distractions are more prevalent, but the business people I talk to everyday are working hard to find ways to reduce distractions and set expectations with their families so they can be focussed and productive (tips on how).
So then, when working with a distributed team, lack of visibility is largely a state of mind where you feel out of touch because you can't see people sitting at their desks. Here are some things you can do to adapt your mindset, be a good role model, and be aware of what your team is doing.
When you're in the office, how do you know what your colleagues are doing? I suspect it's unlikely that you look over their shoulders all day so there must be other avenues of communication that let you know what they're working on and what progress they're making. Take a few minutes to think about all the ways information flows to and through you and your team. Now, write those down - all of them.
Now I want you to think about what you're working on and I want you to write down how your team knows what you're doing and what progress you're making. Take special note of things that you're working on that you don't typically communicate to the team and why. Should you be communicating more? More consistently?
You are role modelling behaviour that you want others to practice (yes, you're role modelling virtually too - the virtual grapevine is vast and fast!). If you work in a silo and don't share your work or progress then that's telling others that they don't have to either. There are exceptions to this that relate to confidentiality, privacy, and corporate planning non-disclosure, of course, but as much as possible share what you are working on - even just knowing that you are working with others to plan for the future can be motivating to your colleagues.
WHERE TO LOOK/HOW TO SEE
Start by being clear on what you are trying to see. Whether you are in or out of the office the performance concepts that you should be focussed on for a successful team are: output/productivity, and the ability to work with others.
Feedback should be based on facts, not gut feeling. A few minutes ago you identified how you're currently capturing information. When, who, and how you communicate progress-related information is integral to success on a virtual team and it must be done with consistency. Create team norms around these communications (yours and theirs) so there are no ambiguities or assumptions required. And, make sure this information is available centrally.
The entire team needs access to progress-related information. If you've got a project tracking tool, great, but it doesn't have to be a fancy or expensive tool. A weekly or bi-weekly progress report created in a document, Dropbox Paper, or Trello can work just as well and are free and easily centralized.
Asking for too much visibility can actually impact people's ability to be productive. If team members feel like they have to respond to every email and every post immediately then they won't be able to focus on the work they're supposed to be getting done. Encourage people to respond to or acknowledge email within a certain timeframe, but the acknowledgement might be "Super busy! I will reply on Friday."
Be strategic about what information you ask your team to report. Too much information will detract from their productivity because it takes them so long to document it, too little and you won't have the information you need to make decisions, provide feedback, or feel confident that projects are on track.
If your team uses a persistent chat tool (Slack, MS Teams, Skype, WhatsApp), where the content never disappears and remains searchable, you have an invaluable resource for visibility and team support. Who shares regularly? Who helps others out? Who isn't participating? Are they working in a silo? Trying to work through a problem? Having issues outside of work that are impacting their focus? Don't make assumptions, but instead use what you see to help guide conversations with individuals.
One-on-one conversations are your opportunity to connect, clarify, and collaborate with your team members while you build strong relationships. These conversations are where you connect the dots from the items I mentioned previously to define the bigger picture of what is going on within your team.
Trust is an important part of being on a remote team. And, reliability is a key factor in demonstrating and feeling that trust. Set team members up for success by making sure they know what's expected of them and what they can expect from you.
Don't talk (or think) in terms of "I need to keep an eye on what you're doing", but rather "we all need to be informed about progress and risks so we're supporting each other and not duplicating work that's already being done by someone else."
When you look at the work being done by your team do you find yourself asking: "Why would they do it that way? That's not what I intended at all." In most cases this is not an issue with the doer, but with the person who gave the instructions. Share big picture goals, and a clear vision; Take the time to facilitate discussion that eliminates ambiguities, and removes the need for assumptions.
Detail oriented people will always write longer progress reports - these take longer to write and longer to read. Set clear expectations around content and volume. I like to keep it simple - 15five does a good job is you're looking for an example.
Make sure you are role modelling good and healthy work habits. If you work 24x7 you set a dangerous precedent that can demotivate people, create turnover, or lead to burn out (for you and the team!).
This was a challenging topic to take on in a single blog post, but I hope you've found some food for thought. Questions? Please let me know what they are or if you'd like me to expand on any point in a future post.
This is the third in a multi-post series on survival tactics for leading virtual teams. If you have a topic you'd like me to cover, please let me know. If you want to be alerted when the next one comes out, please subscribe to my website.
Virtual is different, it doesn't have to be difficult.
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