A person walks on a bike path through the woods at dawn
May 5, 2020

5 ways to keep newly remote teams engaged and productive

By Matthew Broschinsky, Senior Transformation Advisor

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If you’re reading this from any place other than the office building you were sitting in several weeks ago, raise your hand. Like millions of others, you suddenly found yourself working and/or managing a team from a socially distant location (but always within reach of hand sanitizer). We are all adjusting to a new normal with no clear answer to how long it will last. Okay, you can put your hand down now.

Almost overnight, we transitioned to working from home—while trying to maintain the same levels of productivity. Companies without a response plan in place pre-pandemic are scrambling to figure it out as they go...from home. This might feel overwhelming, like trying to paint an airplane in flight. Yes, it will be difficult, but it’s not too late to make refinements that will enable and engage your newly remote teams to be productive on the right work—during this pandemic and beyond. 

Here are five work management guiding principles that can help ease the strain on you and your teams as you navigate this new world of work. 

 

1—Keep it simple. 

There’s an always-relevant concept that is magnified when leading a remote workforce: Process for the sake of process leads to excess.

When teams struggle to successfully manage their work, they cite a range of culprits, from large workloads to ineffective software tools. In reality, though, work challenges are typically due to processes that have become bloated and complex over time. What started as a simple process of idea>plan>develop>approve>deliver has become a Frankenstein’s monster of project charters, stage gates, sub-steps, go/no-go meetings, endless review cycles, and data collection. The workforce spends more time managing the work process than actually using their skills to deliver their best work.

Use this opportunity to review your processes and cut the excess. Introduce structured simplicity to your work. Start by scheduling two hours with your team to walk through and document (virtual whiteboard or digital Kanban board) one of your most frequently performed processes from intake through delivery and measurement. Openly and honestly discuss where the bottlenecks occur, where there are too many cooks in the kitchen (too many opinions), and where there are gaps. Have an impartial discussion that empowers the team to have an immediate, positive impact on the organization's work process. 

Determine what should change, assess how much change the team can handle, and then test it. Don't be afraid to fail. Although you’ll likely get a few things wrong, you’ll get a lot more right. Your workforce will find it refreshing to accomplish more high-value work when you release them from the yoke of unnecessary complexity and frivolous data entry.

 

2—Focus on high-impact activities. 

Ask, “What’s the most important work our team can do right now?” Confirm and understand leadership’s priorities and take inventory of your team’s work. What aligns with those priorities? What falls off the list? Focus on key activities that align to top priorities. Everything else goes to the backburner—for now. 

As bandwidth frees up, take thoughtful and deliberate steps to decide what additional work you take on, and communicate those decisions in every direction: to leadership and your team.

 

3—Be nimble. 

By focusing on high-impact deliveries and maintaining a simplified delivery process, your teams will be poised to easily pivot when needed. Market conditions will change, corporate priorities will shift. Just because a process works today, doesn’t mean it will work tomorrow. 

Always be ready to challenge how you accomplish things, get creative in new ways of delivering, empower your people to discover waste, and encourage innovative ways of delivering.

 

4—Strive for balanced visibility. 

Emphasis on balance. It's critical to understand what is going on in your organization and the progress of in-flight work. The need feels even more important now that your workforce is no longer just a few steps away from your desk. 

There is a cost of gathering data, so find a balance between effective management reporting and micromanagement. If we get too granular in the data we gather and the reporting we provide, teams will resist. If the data altitude is too high, you won’t have the details needed to make informed decisions quickly. 

 

5—Keep people engaged. 

A recent study, “How to Keep Employees Productive During the Coronavirus Outbreak,” identified remote workers’ biggest struggles. 22% said it’s difficult to unplug after work. The study doesn’t dive into the reasons workers struggle to unplug, but it could be a combination of meeting deadlines, shifting priorities, and miscommunication. 19% said loneliness and another 17% said collaboration/communication(s). Ease these struggles by keeping remote teams engaged—something that hinges on the success of each of these five principles.

How to boost engagement: the foundation of productivity.

Engagement is the cornerstone to keeping newly remote teams productive on the right work. Here’s how to boost it:

  • Invite people to be part of the solution. When you give team members a voice when change is needed, they are more invested in driving positive change and more willing to adapt. They will also be more forgiving if v1 isn’t perfect (or v2, or v7). Lean on their knowledge and experience to define the right path to effective remote work.

  • Highlight successes. Bring visibility to the work being delivered during these uncertain times. Build dashboards to celebrate accomplishments, a digital “wall of fame” to display assets created by your teams. Show people that their work matters. Bonus: it gives leaders peace of mind that production and quality are still high, even from  makeshift workspaces in kitchens, garages, and basements.

  • Keep work cycles short. Break your work into consumable chunks. This does not mean creating a checklist of 30 steps to complete a single task.  Identify the deliverables, identify the resources, identify the sequence, and then execute. Don’t waste time (theirs and yours) swirling on SOPs, what-if scenarios, and edge cases. Negotiate with stakeholders who tend to be bottlenecks in the process to find a compromise in review cycles or even scale back on the breadth and depth of approvals.

  • Cultivate trust and autonomy. Just as your leadership needs to trust you, you need to trust your people. Allow your professionals to be professionals. Highlight their accomplishments, shelter them from distractions, and empower them to make decisions that will let them be wildly successful in their work.

 

From principles to best next actions: what’s next.

These productivity principles easily translate into best next actions. Document the principles, define the actions, prioritize, and go! Hint: Put it into Workfront.

Join me in taking a deeper dive into these principles and how immediate action can help now and after quarantine in my upcoming webinar on 5/28: “5 Ways to Keep Newly Remote Teams Engaged and Productive.

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