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Managing Remote Teams 2.0: Ten Steps to Higher Productivity

Updated: May 27

Man sitting at the top of the business world as a remote manager
Managing Remote Teams

At this stage of post pandemic reintegration, we’re still “building the plane while flying it” in many respects. Nowhere does that show itself more readily than in the transition from fully remote leadership to hybrid work. Many organizations find themselves at the point where employees are being called back to the office two to three days per week. "Managing Remote Teams 2.0" is an opportunity for us to agree on what's working and fine tune our expectations moving forward.

Work-Life-Family Flexibility versus "Productivity Paranoia"

Whether we’ll ever return to a fully onsite workforce remains to be seen. The idea of work-life-family balance, control, and equilibrium preceded the COVID pandemic. Gen Y millennials and Gen Z Zoomers recognized that need for balance in their work lives well before the pandemic hit in 2020. In many ways, the pandemic brought us to a solution more quickly than would have otherwise been expected: just-in-time technology like Microsoft Teams and Zoom helped us realize that we could keep the lights on even if we weren’t able to report in person to the plant, office, or shop floor.

Yet it’s understandable that CEOs, business owners, and senior executives suffer from what’s been called “productivity paranoia”—the fear that out-of-sight workers might not be producing or otherwise engaged in their work to the same degree as when they’re onsite and in full view. Even more significantly, the C-suite worries about loss of collaboration, relationship, and culture. While remote digital technology has helped us keep the wheels turning on the bus, it doesn’t necessarily help the organization perform at its best. And don’t forget about the social concerns surrounding the Gen Z Zoomers: this 25-and-under crowd continues to test out as the most isolated, lonely, and depressed generational cohort on the planet. Surely, continual isolation via remote work will only exasperate the problem.

A gradual transition remains in place from remote to onsite, and a virtual structure will likely remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future. Younger generations of workers want to make sure they’re onsite and in person to build relationships and grow their careers. CEOs want to sleep better at night knowing that the majority of their employees is onsite on the same day of the week to maximize collaboration and a shared sense of community. But where does that leave the average frontline operational manager or senior executive looking to maximize the current hybrid relationship that remains in place now and likely will remain part of the business roadmap for the rest of their careers?

Setting Appropriate Expectations for Managing Remote Teams: A Sample Script with Key Talking Points

Successful remote working relationships all come down to how we express our expectations for the hybrid working state with our employees. “This will likely change over time, but setting clear expectations and holding people accountable to the standards you establish now is key to your success,” says Puneet Singh, Ph.D., a flight dynamics engineer in the startup, high-tech space who’s living this in real time every day. “Simply look at what’s working in your department or on your team, what’s not, and map out a new way forward, starting today.” Here’s what a sample script might sound like for reinventing the remote working relationship on your team:

“Everyone, I called this special meeting to discuss how the remote/hybrid working relationship is going for us currently and want to get your ideas and suggestions for how we could do things better. To begin, though, I want to share my own goals for making this work as effectively as possible because it’s important that we relook at this from time to time as our needs change.

1. “First, just as a reminder, when we’re on a Teams call, my expectation is that no one ‘goes dark.’ I want to be able to see your eyeballs at all times. Body language cues aren’t as effective over videoconferencing as they are in person, but it still helps to physically see one another. So, unless there’s an emergency on your end, your screen should be on at all times while we’re on a conference video call. Agreed? [Yes]

2. “Second, currently we all come to the office three days per week, and everyone has to be in on Wednesdays—our collective day for the entire organization to be onsite. When we meet on Wednesdays, there should be no use of videoconferencing unless you’re in a satellite office. In other words, participating in a meeting using Zoom—while you’re physically here in the office—makes no sense. The whole point of getting everyone together on Wednesdays is to work side by side in person. Therefore, no taking meetings from your office using videoconferencing tools when you’re onsite. Everybody okay with that? [Yes]

3. “Third, when we’re doing a fully remote meeting using videoconferencing technology, I expect us all to interact naturally by asking questions and making suggestions as they come up in real time. This isn’t about each of us ‘making a presentation’ or ‘giving a lecture’ and then taking questions and answers at the end. It should be as natural as possible, allowing us all to ask questions and make suggestions immediately on the spot. Otherwise, our interactions will feel artificial. If you’re the presenter, be sure and ask who has questions, what needs clarification, and who has additional suggestions when you’re sharing your update with the rest of us. Think ‘whiteboard’ and ‘brainstorming,’ in other words, and not ‘data dump.’

4. “Fourth, I want you all to understand that you can be called on at any time during a videoconferencing call. I’ll be the one to do that and keep you on your toes! Don’t be surprised if I call you out personally and ask what you think about someone else’s idea or suggestion. I want us all actively listening and involved at all times. Videoconferences are not opportunities for you to go dark and do your own work while others are talking. Likewise, they’re not about only speaking during your designated time slot when it’s your turn to give an update. They’re interactive sessions for us all to engage in healthy questions and suggestions in real time, looking at one another face to face. Does that sound like a reasonable approach on my part? [Yes]

5. “Fifth, I expect us all to participate on every call. There’s no grandstanding—no one gets to ‘hog the floor’ or otherwise do all the talking. There should be a healthy balance of conversation between and among team members where everyone talks and listens and contributes in equal measure. Also, your contributions should be short and sweet. We want our meetings to get tighter, produce more creative and innovative results, and create a healthy level of engagement and energy for everyone. Fair? [Yes]

6. “Sixth, I want you all to use smaller, shorter virtual breakouts going forward. This doesn’t have to include me. But as you partner with others on the team, use the tools you have to talk through your work as you’re creating it. For example, call a meeting with no more than four of your peers and talk through where things stand on a project you’re working on. Schedule something like that for 30 minutes to make sure you’re all working in real time with one another and can ask questions and make suggestions on the spot.

7. “Seventh, in addition, you might want to pick a longer period of time—say two to three hours—to work independently but keep your video cameras on. No one has to talk. But you’re there for one another when questions come up and can ask questions and make suggestions freely. It’s like a study group at the library preparing for an exam where you’re all working independently but can rely on one another for help should you hit a roadblock.

8. “Eighth, I want to formally schedule weekly one-on-one meetings with each of my direct reports going forward. I haven’t been doing that consistently, and things change too quickly to miss those one-on-one opportunities to check in, level set, and keep each other abreast of any challenges that may be coming our way where we have to pivot, assign additional resources, hire a temp, push back a deadline, or something similar. It will also give us a chance to catch up about any of your particular needs and areas where I can help or where I should be aware of any challenges you’re facing. For those of you who are my direct reports, I’ll ask you to do the same with your team members (i.e., my extended reports). This way, we’re all spending weekly one-on-one time with one another to a healthy degree. These meetings can be more like weekly huddles to check in on one another and can last anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes. They also make for great coaching opportunities for professional development and upskilling.

9. “Ninth, I want to invite members of other teams to spend some time with us maybe once or twice per month. I’ll encourage you all to spend time with them as well in their meetings. Healthy teams open themselves up to new ideas and perspectives, and I want us to do that as well. Cross-pollination across the organization helps us gain a clearer understanding of the challenges others face and gives us a chance to build stronger networking connections across the enterprise, so you can expect to see that twice per month, and I encourage you to do the same if you’re asked to join anyone else’s meetings as a guest.

10. “Tenth, I want to create a biweekly window of time for us to come together for social reasons. I think dedicated social time is critical to team performance and a sense of belonging. I’ve read that a predictor of team productivity stems from a team’s energy and engagement outside of formal meetings. So, I’d like your ideas on what day of the week and what time will work best for all of us, but it will be strictly social—no work discussions whatsoever.

“Overall, I want us to be a high energy, high engagement team. I want our team to become known for our exceptional productivity, our role-model leadership, and our paying things forward to help one another by always having each other’s back and bringing out the best in everyone. Remote work is likely going to remain the law of the land for our foreseeable future, and I want to make sure we all know how to thrive in it and in turn teach others how to maximize it. I want to make sure we ace this, as it will help us meet all our other deliverables and deadlines.

“With all that being said, what are your initial thoughts about this go-forward plan? What stands out most in terms of something that will benefit us, where do you have hesitations or reservations, and what would you add or subtract to this list to make us even stronger at remote leadership, communication, and teambuilding?”

A New Way Forward

Advises Singh, “Post-COVID reintegration is a work in progress. It’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come, where we are now, and where we’re going. Starting with the changing needs surrounding remote and hybrid work is likely the most logical place to start for most organizations, especially since long-distance work and cross-cultural teams are critical to remaining innovative and agile in the new economy.”

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