How to Create an Effective Team During a Pandemic

Crisis or not, prepare for remote teams…

Right now, people are scrambling to put together remote worker strategies. Here is some guidance on how you may evaluate the usefulness of any tool, or process for remote teams. It is based on years of experience with hundreds of teams.

This virus is going to be an issue for a long time and people who have never worked remotely are learning how to function this way. Because of Covid-19, there are all of a sudden an explosion of articles on how to run remote meetings and teams, especially Scrum teams. It begs two questions:

“Why aren’t all of our organizations already prepared for remote work?”

“What do people need to know about building an effective remote team?”

Why we need a remote team plan

A virus is only one of a multitude of reasons why people may not be able to work from a single location. Natural disasters, technology fails, man-made calamities… It seems critical to any modern business to consider how they will utilize remote workers at some point. Being prepared for the eventual emergency seems reason enough to have a remote worker strategy. Considering how you may be effective working remotely is just good business.

Let’s consider the nature of teams and why planning for remote work for many companies is still such a difficult topic. Even co-located teams can be ineffective, so naturally remote teams are just that much more difficult. Still, remote teams are a worthwhile investment in any business’s sustainability.

Remote teams may not be optimal for team cohesion but they may be necessary.

Work with what you have

Having people work remotely is not an optimal situation for team cohesion and communication. People do better with in-person, face-to-face, communication. Still, in-person is not that great sometimes. The advantages of working physically close together can mask bad communication practices. Anyone ever in a meeting they felt was a waste of time or felt disengaged knows what I’m talking about. Anyone interrupted at their desk ten times a day gets it too. So optimizing teams is more complicated than just getting them in the same room.

Additionally, organizational structures often work against the goals of teams and communication, regardless of co-located or remote. Departments often work like silos with their own agendas and result in subcultures that make aligning purposes difficult. Teams lack alignment horizontally with their peers or vertically with their management often are less effective too. There are many other impediments to organizations’ support of team such as performance management systems that reward individuals and promote independence instead of collaboration.

The point is most of us don’t work in an optimal environment for collaboration and that’s OK. What is important is we recognize the limitations of our environment. We need to maximize what we can, but recognize and address what we lack in our environment to have an optimally effective team of collaboratives. In other words, do our best with what we have but don’t stop trying to improve.

The software team that writes no code and solves the problem is likely the most effective.

Creating an effective team

In order to have an effective team dynamic, have the following criteria. It is based on years of working with hundreds of teams and seeing what works. These aspects of a team are universal, regardless of the type of team or organization.

Trust

Without trust, there isn’t much hope of accomplishing a great deal, and being remote certainly magnifies this.

Strong communication

Whether we are together or remote, the heart of a team is its ability to effectively communicate. You can often tell how effective a team is in a matter of minutes by observing how the team members communicate. When teams are remote they often default to the easiest tools to use but that isn’t always the best communication. When choosing tools, consider how you can most effectively keep people communicating status, needs, concerns with minimal disruption and maximum fidelity.

Focus

A team that has a shared purpose, priorities, and agenda is more effective. Ask a team member ‘How they operate (the processes that the team follows)’ and get a fairly consistent answer. Ask a team member ‘What the team is working on’ and hopefully get a fairly consistent answer but not as much as you might think. However, when asked ‘Why the team is doing what they are doing’ you will get all kinds of answers. Understanding purpose is often lacking and being remote makes this more common.

Transparency

The team must share openly among themselves and their stakeholders what they are doing. Without this, maintaining a shared understanding becomes challenging or impossible. Think about the tools you need to provide transparency.

Execution

This speaks to competency. An effective team must have a goal and deliver. If the team can’t deliver then they can hardly be called effective. However, don’t confuse a team’s ability to deliver output with their ability to deliver outcomes. Working hard has nothing, in particular, to do with being an effective team. Let’s repeat, the software team that writes no code and solves the problem is likely the most effective.

Continuous improvement

An effective team is a learning team. A team that is understanding where it is and where it wants to be and is able to organize around solving for their weakness is a team that will be effective if they aren’t already.

Helpful

An effective team is often made up of T-shaped people. These people can pitch in and help others when needed so that there is no delay in critical work. What’s more, the team has sufficient trust and communication to enable these helpers to know when to pitch in and know their help is welcomed because everyone has a shared purpose.

“We see in order to move; we move in order to see.” — William Gibson

If you accept these criteria for an effective team formula it doesn’t matter if you are building a remote team or a co-located team and for the most part, it doesn’t matter what limitations your organization may have. Keep in mind we almost never achieve the optimal effective team conditions. Therefore, all we can do is keep learning and improving.

So what is needed for a successful remote team? You will find it is similar to a co-located team except possibly the emphasis is a little more on clarity to compensate for the less-optimal communication.

In the next article in this series, we will touch on the eight dimensions of clarity. 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, drop us a line.

This post was originally published on Medium.