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7 tips for leading productive remote teams

This post by Christina Wood originally appeared in CIO on April 8, 2022.

Even as many organizations chart plans to return to the office, remote leadership isn’t going away any time soon. It’s never too late to build on what you’ve learned leading through the pandemic to ensure productivity continues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive diaspora from the office, at least for knowledge workers. According to a recent study, a quarter of all high-paying jobs will be remote in the next 12 months. This has the potential to create massive change not only to society, real estate markets, and urban centers but also to the way you manage a team.

Keeping a remote — or hybrid — IT team productive is very different from managing a team that shows up to the office every day. It requires an entirely different set of skills.

For many remote workers, productivity was one of the top five things that improved when work moved from the office to home, according a recent Steelcase study. The same study, though, found that productivity was among the top five challenges of working at home. Clearly there is no single experience here.

Staying productive in a remote or hybrid environment is complicated. It depends on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which is how thoroughly the team’s leader has embraced it and developed the skills necessary to make it work. According to the leaders I spoke to, keeping a remote team productive requires that the CIO — anyone who leads a remote team — create clarity around goals and objectives, develop their own emotional intelligence, become approachable and compassionate, and get surprisingly involved in the lives of team members.

Trust — but verify — your people

Everyone I spoke to agreed there is no punitive system that works. A system that relies on tracking hours, turning on Zoom while everyone works, or anything that looks like an old-school factory model will backfire.

“If people don’t want to be productive, they will find a way to not be productive,” says Seth Dobbs, CTO at Bounteous. “This is about working on motivation and trust.”

Trusting people to do the work — and verifying that they are — requires making sure your team understands its objectives, is motivated, enjoys safe psychological space to work in, is engaged with the company and team, and knows that leadership will protect their time and health.

“Remote work is shining a light on things that already weren’t working,” says Casey Carey, CMO of Kazoo. “It requires leaders to be more intentional and thoughtful about how we interact with our teams.”

This is an opportunity, say some, to become a more emotionally intelligent, compassionate leader — a person who people turn to and trust with the difficult, often personal issues that get in the way of productivity when working from home.

“This might be management 2.0,” says Max Makeev, chief development officer at Owl Labs. “Emotional EQ will be the prized attribute of future managers. Being able to manage feelings will be a big part of how you maintain a productive workforce.”

You can’t trust if you don’t verify

“Managing productivity is one of the most complex things any one person or organization can aspire to do,” says Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California—Berkeley. The first step, though, is to define what you mean by productive, she says. “You can’t improve or change something that is not measurable.” And you can’t trust your team if you can’t also verify that they are working productively.

If, in the past, you measured how hard people were working by noting who was at their desk or who spoke up in meetings, you’ll have to find a new way. Those things aren’t available anymore and they were never a good measure of productivity anyway.

“We measure baselines around productivity, not hours worked,” says Andi Mann, CTO at Qumu. Because tracking how many hours someone worked doesn’t tell you much about productivity, even when you could tell the difference between work and home.

“I spent nine hours at work,” says Mann. “Does that mean I accomplished something? Not necessarily. So that’s not the measure I’m looking for. My team are grownups — coders, engineers, smart people. I measure metrics that matter — outputs and accomplishments.”

Build clear objectives to identify outputs and accomplishments

The trick here, according to almost everyone I spoke to, is to set clear OKRs — objectives and key results. These should also be easy to measure.

“As an employee, I should know exactly what is expected of me,” explains Yousef. “Especially in the context of performance reviews, this can’t be something vague like, ‘Be a team player.’ I don’t know what that means.” Rather, she explains, define what you are looking for in a way that can be objectively measured. “For example, ‘team player’ might mean you attend weekly standups,” she says. Then instead of saying, “I don’t feel like you’re a team player,” a manager can point to something tangible such as, “You missed three meetings.”

Once you know what your OKRs are, you can break the work into small chunks that can be accomplished in a work session so that everyone knows what the long-term goals are and how they will move toward that goal right now.

“I might be a brand-new employee, but when I sit down to work, I should know what my ‘most important tasks’ (MITs) for the day are,” says Yousef. “I should also be able to see how my MIT is nested into the team’s OKRs and broader targets. That way I can see how my work on a daily basis contributes to the company’s mission; I can see measurable daily progress towards the big goals.”

Work can become a relentless hamster wheel that loses people’s interest and guts their motivation if they don’t know why they are doing it and don’t experience a sense of progress toward a goal.

“There is a name for this,” says Yousef. “It is called the ‘progress principle.’ And, according to the author of the study that defined the progress principle, “the number one driver of inner work life is progress.”

Discover what is meaningful to your people

Deeply embedded in the progress principle, and human motivation, is meaning. Motivating people so they work without prompting and stay focused is about giving their work meaning. This comes down to defining the goals in ways that resonate for the people doing the work.

Your goal, for example, might be to grow the business by 45% by the end of the year. But that won’t motivate people. “The goal has to be aspirational,” says Yousef.  “It has to be something that gets people excited and juiced every single day.”

And knowing what is aspirational to your team requires that you know the people on your team. What motivates a coder might not motivate someone working on hardware design or the help desk.

“I know what brings meaning to me,” says Dobbs. “I also know that isn’t necessarily what brings meaning to other technical people. So, I try to understand where people’s passion is and to use that to keep them motivated and excited, even when the work is hard.”

Even when you have everything right about your OKRs, MITs, and have found the thing that excites people — no small task — you will need to become something between coach and productivity therapist to see obstacles your team can’t, compassionately facilitate a productive mindset, see when people are struggling, and coach people toward accomplishing what you need them to do.

You are the productivity coach

“We trust our people to be productive,” explains Makeev. “These intangibles are important for keeping people in a world where it’s so easy to quit a job and work somewhere else without leaving the house.”

For many leaders, this is a big shift in mindset. If you, like many leaders, think of one-on-one meetings as something that happens at an annual review and speaking to a team member three levels down who might be calling in from an unfinished basement wearing a T-shirt outside your role, this might be uncomfortable.

“You need to up-level yourself as an executive,” says Makeev. “Be approachable, human, and understanding. I think that requires change from within, at least for a lot of traditional executives with a facade they are trying to maintain. That approach won’t work long term. Employees have so many options now. They can easily find work that fits their values.”

One way to start down this path is to create a system for celebrating accomplishments — even those that are a mere step on the way to the larger goals.

Stop and celebrate

“It’s really important that we take a moment to pause and recognize the good work of the team,” says Paige Costello, product lead at Asana. “When people see the impact of their work, they experience pride and feel like their effort was meaningful. That gives them more energy to keep moving forward.”

How you celebrate is up to you, your team, and your culture. Many experts told me this is a great place to experiment with ideas for connecting with your team — virtual parties, gifts, celebrations — that not only motivate but also build engagement and culture.

“In sailing, people celebrate with beer,” says Makeev. “When things are completed, regardless of how well you did, there needs to be a ritual.”

Respect time but check in often

Once you have done all this work to define goals, motivate people, and become the sort of leader people can talk to, move obstacles out of everyone’s way. Overcoming endless interruptions and obstacles to work is frustrating.

“One thing a lot of people did when they went remote was to have a stand up every day,” says Mann. “But knowledge workers who are doing heads-down concentration work have to get to ‘flow’ and according to the research I’ve read, if you interrupt someone in flow, it can take 45 minutes for them to get back in. You have to be careful with your people’s time and protect it from other people as well.”

Many people I spoke to have, this far into remote work, instigated days or hours when meetings are discouraged to create permission for people who need this uninterrupted time.

But that doesn’t mean you should leave people alone. In the old way of work, one-on-one conversation might have been a low priority. In a hybrid world, they have become essential.

“You have to check in regularly, learn about your people, ask them how they’re feeling — not just what work have they done — and communicate on a personal basis,” says Mann. “That’s a change for a lot of leaders. As a leader, I want to be respectful of my team’s privacy. But by the same token, I want to make sure that their home life is okay. Because that’s also their work life now.”

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