by Steve Trautman

Secrets of leading productive remote teams

Opinion
Apr 21, 20204 mins
IT LeadershipProject Management

High-functioning remote teams don't just happen. You need a plan to ramp up your team's virtual productivity.

Leading remote teams  >  A businessman virtually works with a distributed network of teams.
Credit: ipopba / Getty Images

As organizations around the world are adjusting to working from home, leaders want to know how they can look after their teams.  Ultimately the goal is to get to full productivity as soon as possible but that isn’t likely to happen without a plan.  My team has been operating 100% virtually for 15+ years.  I’ll share some of our learnings below, but before I do that I want to ask you to look at your own organization and ask this question about your leadership team: Who is your work-from-home expert?  Who is the leader with the highest functioning team in this new environment? 

I ask this question at the outset because anything I share with you from my experience will have to be modified for your culture, size, available technology, security requirements, etc.  Why not start by looking for your expertise internally?  You can find this leader by looking for the markers of a highly functioning team such as clear roles, deliverables, metrics, outputs and their capacity to both get their own jobs done and be in a position to help others.  They are probably talking on a regular basis via web meetings (because there is no “water cooler” to stand around) and they are probably sharing best practices and helping each other troubleshoot the new challenges coming up every day.  They also likely have an idea of who could cover if one or more of them gets sick and can’t work for a period of time.

Once you identify that person, you can ask him or her to deconstruct what they are actually doing to maintain a high-functioning virtual team.  Then you can ask them to transfer their knowledge on the topic to the leaders who need help.  As is true with a lot of experts, your work-from-home guru probably does the job fairly instinctively and may need some prompts to deconstruct their magic. 

I interviewed our work-from-home expert Teresa Canady to see what she does to keep her virtual team humming.  Below is the list of “tasks and skills” that came from that conversation. 

  • Set up, test and troubleshoot a remote workstation, including a backup device
  • Expect the unexpected power outage and have backup connectivity
  • Define and communicate immediate workload for and to the whole team
  • Clarify roles relative to immediate workload using RASCI (a role definition model)
  • Prepare for and lead a brief daily “stand-up” call during crunch times to check in, troubleshoot, and share best practices
  • Attend weekly project status calls (for front line workers)
  • Consider time zones, communication preferences, and learning styles when assigning work and responding to team members’ needs
  • Schedule and hold brief but regular 1:1 virtual meetings with direct reports and other key partners
  • Ask for and respond to weekly 200-word status reports
  • Give feedback on work via email
  • Give feedback on work via call or video
  • Prepare for and hold regular continuing education meetings for the team to communicate new standards
  • Celebrate wins as a virtual team
  • Reset and reinforce the team culture virtually

Notice that each phrase starts with an action verb so that you could tell other leaders to “go and do” each bullet.  And, each task could be explained in one sitting. If you already have written standards for any of these bullets you could attach a link behind each one.  If not, you can assist knowledge transfer by having your “expert” say what he or she is doing to make each bullet effective.  They can write a short (500 word) document for each one by simply answering these questions:

  • What are the steps in this task?
  • What are the mistakes others should avoid in doing the task?
  • What are the best practices?
  • How do I know it is working?

This content can be posted for all leaders in your organization to follow. It can also be shared with everyone at the front line as well so that they can help their leaders improve the functioning of their team as a whole.   

As you improve your agility and productivity in the work-from-home environment, you can edit the list of tasks and you can improve the answers to the questions for each task, continuously elevating your teamwork and your morale along the way.  I can tell you from deep personal experience that you can run a highly successful and incredibly productive operation from anywhere in the world if you create systems to support it.