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Dealing with Remote Team Challenges

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Key Takeaways

  • Trust, psychological safety, and communication are critical success factors for remote teams to overcome in order to optimise productivity and team well being.
  • Practice leadership and management that focus on team health, agreed outcomes and shared meeting expectations.
  • As teams evolve and change more quickly, there are more frequent team "storming" cycles.
  • Strategies around team agreements, retrospectives, measuring team health data, and engagement strategies for distributed and localised teams can help shorten the cycle and build engagement.
  • Team and meeting rituals help define the culture and soul of the team. There is a need for a clear purpose, defined processes in a virtual space and supporting people through informed feedback.

Remote working provides challenges such as providing equitable access, ensuring adequate resources and tooling, addressing social isolation and issues of trust. Remote-first and truly asynchronous teams tend to consistently perform better. In the future, organisations will continue to have remote on their agenda as they come to grips with dealing with new workforce expectations and dealing with the uncertainty that challenges the way people work and lead. However, to fully realise the benefits of remote teams and agility, this requires trust building, intent and effort.

Jeremy Lu, CEO of Groupmap Technology, shared stories about how remote teams work and the benefits that remote working can bring at Remote Forever Summit.

According to Lu, to support remote working we should focus on leadership outcomes:

Trust is the new currency between teams and leaders, and the more this can be supplied in abundance the greater this economy. Leaders who can build psychological safety show support through adequacy and choice of resources, remove impediments and obstacles, and empower teams while providing a strong vision and direction, will serve the teams well. If anything, this could be seen as situational leadership.

At the same time, teams need to understand that their leadership teams are also going through a period of change and adjustment, Lu said. Patience up the line is just as important. Leadership teams who are open with their approach, demonstrate that they are putting their teams and customers first, and have empathy are more likely to marshall the support and confidence of their teams.

Lu advised to allow space for teams to come together often enough to make it the "norm" but not so often that it becomes intrusive to your team’s productivity or "flow". That balance will be different for each team based on personality, working styles, nature of the work and complexity of the problem, he said. But figuring this out together to understand how often you meet, the duration and the scope of the meeting can help improve communication.

InfoQ interviewed Jeremy Lu about the challenges of working together in remote teams, leading and building them, and how technology can empower and engage remote teams.

InfoQ: How do people work together in teams in remote or distributed organisations, and what are the challenges that such teams face?

Jeremy Lu: Most of us are social creatures who enjoy the company of others. The concept of coming together to solve a common goal isn’t necessarily displaced by the concept of remote or distributed, but it can be trickier. There are opportunities for asynchronous communication, increased productivity through "flow" or uninterrupted time, and reduced travel and asset management costs. On the other hand, there are the challenges of equitable access, ensuring adequate resources and tooling as well as the need to address social isolation and the issue of trust. What seems to be happening more and more though is the shift away from a hierarchical structure to a more neural one with teams becoming smaller, more agile and cross-functional, as suggested by the May 2020 McKinsey Report.

Mullenweg’s five stages of remote working suggest that those teams that have moved beyond trying to replicate the office model to be remote-first and truly asynchronous are edging closer to Nirvana, a state where distributed teams would consistently perform better than any in-person team. At this point, the creativity, energy, health and productivity of the team are at their peak with individuals performing at their highest level. Following Dan Pink’s thinking, this is where Mastery, Purpose and Autonomy as motivators are being lived and experienced by the team.

While this is the goal and teams continually strive towards this stage, a Harvard Business Review of over 11,000 remote workers showed that there are challenges if the culture and environment are not ideal.

Of the group surveyed, 8 in 10 people said that they would have better relationships with more frequent team communication. The same proportion also experienced longer delays with workplace challenges or concerns. Four out of 10 felt that they would be able to develop better relationships with team members through more face time.

Another challenge is the dichotomy of burnout versus perceived productivity. The adage that because they are remote or not visible, a person may not be working. Behind the digital curtain, teams worry about not being trusted and take on the additional burden of demonstrating output. Meanwhile, management who were accustomed to constant visibility and monitoring are now hamstrung and start to implement supervisory and oversight practices that add to additional workload. This dynamic can lead to a negative spiral effect.

InfoQ: What practices or examples can you share with regards to remote working teams?

Lu: Take for example Herman Miller, a well-known company for high-quality innovative products, a Global US company with a Tech Centre in India and regional offices in EU, Asia and South America. Over the last 12 months they transitioned into a new remote state; they started to work with Guilds, Teams, Service Managers and Coaches.

Beyond just the notion of building physical products, they were also going through an Agile transformation, dealing with going remote and increasing velocity with distributed teams.

Tim Stayman is a work team leader for six Java developers who all work on Agile Product Teams. He is the Scrum Master for two product teams and also one of the four coaches who work throughout the organisation. One of the practices he saw was the disparate and irregular running of retrospectives, yet there was a need for continuous improvement. Teams were using various free, unsecure tools and not tracking or integrating actions. Working with the different teams, they established criteria for choosing tools, sought recommendation and trials and established regular cadence and rituals as part of their remote team. Using the right tools helped them save time, build engagement and track action items for followup and accountability. For some of their team retrospectives, they would run "futurespective" exercises that focused on Future Considerations, Lessons Learned, Accomplishments to date and potential problem areas. With regular cadence and integrating retrospectives more easily, they implemented over 100 improvements over a 12 month period, had higher engagement and a 10% increase in velocity.

Other companies like Eurowings, Typewise, Trainline UK amongst others place a strong focus on team health. The focus here is on the team and how they can be supported, rather than governing the daily activities of the team. Health dimensions are tailored to the team and then tracked across time with regular cadence and compared against other teams.

The dimensions themselves range from the Atlassian health check, Spotify Squad Check or Google Great team models, through to customised dimensions that are specific to the team. For example, some that stand out include:

  • I feel engaged and excited to do the work I do
  • I feel comfortable speaking out
  • My work is adding value to the project
  • I am learning and growing

They would then track their team health across time and across teams to work out where they could best support their teams and even use this to feed into their retrospectives, one-on-ones and level up meetings. These are great signals both up and down the line to help build trust and safety beyond the day-to-day mechanics of operations.

Images courtesy of EuroWings, TypeWise (TeamRetro Health Checks)

InfoQ: What can be done to shorten the team storming cycle?

Lu: Firstly, understand that it will exist. Healthy debate is always better than unspoken tensions.

In one unnamed example, there were rising tensions between the design and development team around a new website roll out due to compatibility issues. The product owner had relied heavily on the expertise and knowledge of a lead to manage the transition from design to build. However, due to knowledge gaps and mis-alignment between Figma and WordPress themes, there was a three-week delivery delay.

As a leader, it became very apparent that when this was questioned, people started to quickly finger point, divert attention or distant themselves. While some of it was legitimate, much of it seemed to stem from fear; that one could lose face, or respect. Conversations focused on rationale for decision making rather than focusing on corrective actions. The team was beginning to spin. The approach was then to call out the behaviour and focus on next steps. Through dialogue and collaborative brainstorming, the root cause was stated, identified and managed as a lesson learned and though some re-work was required, it allowed the team to move beyond a stalemate.

If your team is in the middle of a storming cycle, then some practical ways to help overcome this might be to:

  • Refer back to your original team agreement and ground rules - if you have one. If not, now might be an opportunity to create one.
  • Have people reference the issue, not the person, in their language and communication.
  • Provide a formal process that helps to overcome bias and ego, e.g. anonymous ideation, independent voting, facilitated discussions and check for buy-in on action items.
  • Run a retrospective as needed; you don’t have to wait until the end of a sprint cycle.
  • Focus on a futurespective that helps them envision the state that they want to be in and then work towards that outcome.
  • Change the environment of the meeting, even if it is virtual.
  • Run an Elephant in the room retrospective that helps to surface the issue so that the team can resolve things as needed.

Preventative measures such as team contracts, ground rules, and vigilant observation and sensing by the leader can help reduce the impact of the "storm" or at least allow you to see it coming. Having the right processes, practices and facilitation techniques can help teams "weather the storm" quickly, and the right culture will help teams understand that storms are a normal and useful part of the process to allow things to recalibrate and grow.

Example of team contract - This is our own team contract we use at TeamRetro.

InfoQ: How can technology empower and engage remote teams?

Lu: Most people will already be able to answer this in their own heads already. Imagine a Covid world without the technology afforded to us now. Imagine no tools, no telephones, no conferencing tools, no MMO’s (Massive multiplayer online games).

For us, our key focus around allowing organisations to be more agile with online retrospectives through to running worldwide conferences is absolutely what drives us.

ISACA for example is a global organisation for IT audit, security, governance, risk and privacy professionals with over 220 chapters worldwide run entirely by volunteers. Due to COVID-19, their face-to-face event was cancelled but there was still a need to bring everyone together to address and give input into new initiatives to help address the need for Cyber Management. They ran their inaugural worldwide Global Leadership Summit virtually and sought to continue to humanize their virtual experience, while changing the format to allow a much higher level of localised interaction which rolled up into an overall organisational view. In their case they did the following:

  • Created a TV- style event using formal video production.
  • Created timezone events with regional facilitators to lead their chapter planning sessions.
  • Selecting regional facilitators as people who understood their own community better and had insight into the local environment and appreciation of the cyber security landscape for various initiatives.
  • Using a SOAR Analysis (Strengths, Opportunities, Analysis, Results) exercise to capture ideas from everyone using GroupMap as their online brainstorming tool.
  • Prioritising initiatives using the How Now Wow Matrix to determine priorities.

Having 475 inputs virtually was far more informative and detailed for the Board of Directors who developed detailed action plans for the nine key initiatives. Compared to a face-to-face conference where individual sticky notes, butchers papers and notes required significant rewrites and collation, having a real time solution meant that everyone could remain present in the current energy of the room and indicate their support and feedback, thereby shortening the decision cycle.

Technology has the ability to bring remote teams and voices to the table. In this example from architectural group Little Consulting who have five distributed offices, they shared that they used Slack and MS teams for asynchronous communication and GroupMap for a dedicated series of online brainstorming sessions for creative brainstorming and idea prioritization.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to remote agile teams that want to increase their effectiveness?

Lu: Have a clear reason for each meeting, eg., if you are having a retrospective, what is the main theme? Is it just the last two weeks in terms of time, or are there specific areas such as velocity, team communication or delivered customer value that you want the team to focus on for the meeting? Having a bit of structure to capture the ideas can help make it easier for people to understand what the process is for sharing. The structure itself could be formal, such as a planned agenda, or something more fluid like Open Space Technology or Lean Coffee. Either way, a good process will lend itself to more effective discussions with the team.

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate, give thanks and lend a shoulder as needed. Treat colleagues as humans and don’t forget to look after yourselves and each other. Over time, your team may have some sort of ritual, whether it’s asking people about what movie they last watched or adding a song to the group’s work from home playlist. Some Scrum masters like to kick off or end the meeting with giving shoutouts to other team members. Others will make it very clear about how to reach out to them or others if needing help so that it’s clear what to do if you are stuck.  

InfoQ: What do you expect the future will bring us when it comes to remote team working?

Lu: I suspect that as COVID-19 vaccines roll out, there will be high pressure and a rush to return to normal work practices. At the same time, the growing community of remote workers, indicators of improved productivity and access to talent, as well as the need for organisations to have contingency plans will mean that organisations will continue to have remote on their agenda.

The McKinsey & Company May 2020 report resonates a lot with me as to how teams look more like neural networks that spawn and die as needed and that the synapse between teams are worth taking care of.

In this regard, reporting and oversight is going to become more important than command and control. Trust will become the new currency and every transaction or output can add or subtract from this. Tools, budget and systems are going to be fundamental, but human interaction and continuous improvement and learning will help strengthen team clusters and drive productivity and overall team happiness.

About the Interviewee

Jeremy Lu is a recent speaker at the Remote Forever Summit, IAF facilitator and co-founder of GroupMap and TeamRetro. He sits on the NFP board of Business Foundations and is a former lecturer at Curtin University and School Business Manager (School of Science) where he also ran an Incubator Program for Startups. He is an avid fan of good coffee, chocolate and volleyball.

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