Building an Effective Remote Team: Culture Matters

In the previous article, “Building an effective remote team: The eight dimensions of clarity,” I discussed the importance of clarity for remote teams. One type of clarity that is critical is team culture. The stronger the culture of the team, the more likely good behaviors for remote workers will continue and thrive.

“If we are to preserve culture, we must continue to create it.” — Johan Huizinga

Working at home requires immense discipline and focus. It’s lonely at times, it’s hard to feel connected or even know how to prioritize time. A team culture that accounts for the stresses of remote work can help.

Important aspects of remote team culture

To promote a strong team culture, there are several aspects you can consider but in our experience, working with hundreds of companies and teams, there are a few in particular that directly address the deficits of working remotely.

#1. Autonomy

This is especially important for remote teams. Find ways to enable the team to make its own decisions. If they have a clear purpose then a team should be able to figure out how to solve a problem. Without a certain amount of autonomy, individuals will revert to an “order taker” mentality and the leader will be needed to micromanage them. This is not optimal in any team and especially not a remote one where independent work and thought must be supported. Think of giving them opportunities in autonomy everywhere. For example, as a manager or scrum master or product owner, when having a meeting, don’t tell the team whose turn it is to talk, let them figure out how they want to determine who is next. This may seem inefficient at first but eventually, they will work it out and get the message that on this team, their input matters even on the small things. The power of autonomy to impact ownership and morale and ultimately impact productivity should not be underestimated.

#2. Individual check-ins

One-on-one conversations are important for promoting strong cohesion and trust, especially with remote workers. Encourage the team to regularly have check-ins with one another, preferably in person or on video. For development teams, you can use peer code reviews or peer programming as an opportunity for individuals to engage but try to encourage everyone to have a reason to get at least a few minutes regularly with each other, one on one or in small groups.

#3. Retrospectives

If you don’t promote a culture of learning then the team will likely not improve quickly or at all. Retrospectives are a way to regularly assess what matters and make improvements in processes, tools, or any other aspect of the work. A retrospective is not an opportunity to complain. We want to ensure we keep doing what works as much as fix what is not working. It is about creating accountability and taking action. A strong retrospective process can do wonders for morale and it will promote experimentation and a culture of innovation. When done right, it enhances trust among team members and a sense of ownership. This is critical for people working independently. Think about it, if I know that my team regularly gives me space to talk about what I see and feel needs improving and then they help me make it a reality, that’s empowering and if acted on consistently, it’s immensely motivating. Another side effect for remote teams is it’s another “excuse” to collaborate. The more reasons we have to work together, the better. We want to work our collaboration muscle often.

#4. Promote swarming

Swarming is a behavior highly effective teams tend to display. In remote teams, it provides a level of cohesiveness and is a check on alignment. In other words, when we are aligned we swarm more readily so it’s something to watch. Effective teams know what their priorities are and what they are focused on. When something falls behind or is stuck they instinctively swarm the problem and attack it from all sides and remove the obstacle. This behavior is awe-inspiring to watch and is exciting to be part of. We don’t want that much excitement every day but knowing we have that muscle when we need it is a confidence builder. Knowing your brothers and sisters will support you frees you to try hard, fall hard and ask for help to get back up.

#5. Investment

A strong remote team has investments made in their ability to succeed. This may include tools for communication or project management, training, trips to meet with the team. It’s about a group of people getting work done and recognizing it is harder, lonelier, more difficult sometimes to feel productive. The effective culture recognizes this and invests in whatever it takes to overcome these deficits. They don’t splurge on gimmicks but they do identify what is holding them back and invest in experimentation to alleviate and improve their concerns.

#6. Timeboxing

Efficient and continuous-learning teams are aware of time. For remote teams, this is especially important because time discipline when remote and unobserved is more difficult and must be practiced. The best teams have meetings that are well-run and begin and end on schedule. They don’t just chat and burn through the meeting time. They know bonding is important but they are about getting things done and that means timeboxes. Start and end on time and if you don’t accomplish all of your agenda then retrospectives are a useful place to talk about how to improve. It’s not just meetings though, effective teams members are aware of their work habits. They schedule a time to get work done, to take breaks, to stretch, to eat. When you are working remotely a schedule is a type of discipline needed for your morale and sense of responsibility to the team. This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid but each person needs to be aware of how they are spending the currency of time. There are many effective techniques and tools you could use to help with time management. A popular technique is called Pomodoro and there are many apps you can use with it.

#7. Outcomes

A strong team culture prioritizes outcomes over output. There is a tendency when working remotely to want to justify your time by rattling off the five tasks you accomplished today. However, tasks do not equate to business value and it’s a slippery slope that obfuscates what matters. Strong teams don’t frequently discuss their task completion, those can get checked off in a project management tool for full transparency. Instead, they discuss their purpose, their large goals and how they feel they are doing. If you have ten tasks and finished nine. Does that mean you are 90% done? No way to know. It could be that the last task is 90% of the effort. It could be that you will discover more tasks. All that matters is whether the goal or outcome is reached. In Scrum, the sprint goal is a good measure of outcomes. Generally, the higher-level outcomes that any team in business should focus on include profitability, market share and customer satisfaction goals. What other ways does your team measure outcomes?

 

When a team focuses on the language of “outcome,” instead of the language of “output,” they tend to be more focused and effective.

 

Here’s a simple test. Ask your teammate how their day is going. When they answer (typically with “fine”, but it doesn’t matter), ask them “How do you know?” I’ve asked this of over a hundred people and not one was able to give me a real answer. Most of them will say “well, I got a task done, ” or “I’m almost done with my task.” but my response is, “why does that matter?” Often they don’t know how to explain it. It’s just assigned work, that is all they know. This is not motivating, not focusing and not helpful. They often don’t even know if the task is valuable at all. Maybe they could be doing more valuable work? When a team focuses on the language of “outcome,” instead of the language of “output,” they tend to be more focused and effective.

#8. Mission

Like outcomes, a mission-focused team is more effective. Most studies on the topic of high performing teams will tell you that a team with a shared purpose (why we do what we do) are more productive. For remote workers, keeping alignment on purpose is critical to the trust necessary. A mission isn’t “make more money for the company” or “get a raise if you do well.” A mission is something inspiring, bigger than themselves, “put a rocket on the moon,” “help millions of people with our solution,” etc. It’s hard enough to get out of bed and go to work for just paycheck. It’s much harder to get out of bed and not just watch tv when home all day. You need purpose, you need a mission.

Putting this to practice

Talk about the many aspects of your team culture. The culture is there whether you talk about it or not. So it’s worth discussing because if you don’t, you can’t effectively improve it. Worse, if you don’t acknowledge what you like about your culture you can’t effectively protect it either.

As you look at the many posts on how to run remote teams that are popping up these days, thanks to a natural disaster we are all living through, reflect on these aspects of effective remote teams and ask yourself, “How can this tool or process support a culture for an effective remote team?”

We’d love to hear what ideas you come up with for building an effective remote workforce and remember, you don’t have to have a remote workforce to plan for one. In times of crisis, we need to act but we don’t need to react if we are prepared.

Stay safe, and stay healthy.

If you would like to discuss your remote team challenges or how NeuEon can help with your strategic or organizational planning, please let us know.

This blog was previously published on Medium.