Seamless communication that transcends time differences? Channels for interacting effectively for both work and social purposes? A virtual culture that motivates and promotes positivity!? Enough structure to keep things organized, but not so much that it gets in the way!?
Sound too good to be true? Many business leaders are finding it difficult to achieve this kind of vision for their remote teams, but the vision isn't out of reach. Creativity and innovation are essential for business success, as well as employees' engagement and personal fulfillment. Collaboration, in turn, is essential for creativity. Individuals certainly can be creative on their own, but some of the best innovations emerge from collaboration.
A key objective, then, for leaders of remote teams, is to enable strong collaboration across both time and space. Achieving this objective requires a combination of technology, process, and culture. In this article I'll focus on culture, which can be the trickiest of the elements.
Put people first
Workers are rethinking their relationship to work, and if your company doesn't meet their priorities and expectations, your competitor may. According to a study by Qatalog and GitLab, most knowledge workers expect flexibility to be a feature of the workplace moving forward. Further, 66% of respondents said they would consider leaving an employer that didn't offer flexible hours.
That's a compelling reason to create a people-first culture, but there are additional upsides. Acknowledging employees’ professional and personal goals will promote engagement and loyalty, and engagement fosters strong performance. If your company develops a reputation for its people-first culture, it will help you attract top talent. It may even impress your customers and external partners. All of this assumes, of course, that your team delivers results.
Focus on results
Work/life balance has lost relevance in the remote world. People are now focused on work/life integration. Remote leaders need to change their mindset accordingly. The new reality is that, when working from home, employees may be balancing other responsibilities, including doing laundry, taking care of children or elderly family members, and running errands.
However, if employees perform to expectations, how they manage their time should be up to them. Remote team leaders often fear losing control over performance. When you focus on results, however, you pay attention to output rather than input. To do so, start by establishing measurable goals in partnership with the employee. Communicate expectations clearly, monitor progress, and hold people accountable. Perhaps most importantly, recognize and reward success regularly.
Be deliberate about innovation
At the same time, creativity requires a different mindset than performing goal-oriented tasks. When you schedule a brainstorming session, it's important that you are intentionally clear about the meeting's purpose. Team members may be coming from several videoconference meetings in which their role was to listen to the presenters. Let people know in advance that you expect them to come with ideas and to engage actively in the conversation.
I've used a fun activity to help my team practice being innovative. I call it tsunami planning, and I propose a hypothetical major change in our company, market, clients, or competitors. For example, "How should we respond if we lost our two largest clients?" It can be a positive change, too: "What should we do if our revenues suddenly doubled?" Let team members know that they have carte blanche to propose any idea, regardless of cost. I believe the fact that the scenarios are hypothetical helps people feel freer to share ideas.
Some companies have a side project policy that encourages employees to spend a certain amount of paid time (usually 20%) on personal ideas that could benefit the company. Google is credited with popularizing this concept, and products like Gmail and AdSense originated in side projects. Companies like 3M and Intuit have similar programs.
My final piece of advice is about positivity. In my experience, positive talk promotes positive action – and vice versa. This was the finding of a study conducted by European and US researchers.. It's similar to the thinking behind appreciative inquiry. In short, appreciative inquiry encourages teams to approach issues and change with a positive and open mind rather than framing them as problems. It also encourages teams to build on strengths and successes instead of focusing too much on weaknesses.
I identify positivity as one of the Seven Pillars of Culture Success in my book, The Power of Company Culture. It is even more important in remote work because people are isolated from the team and subject to many other influences. The reality is that problem-solving is a daily part of working. However, you can encourage your team to focus on what is working and build from there.
Like so many things about our COVID-impacted lives, working remotely is very different than working on-site. Managing a remote team requires a deliberate approach and new ways of thinking. A good way to start is by putting people first, focusing on results, promoting positivity, and empowering team members through autonomy, mastery, and purpose.