When you talk to managers who have remote teams or who are thinking about moving to a more virtual team set-up, you hear the same concerns come up over and over again about team productivity – worries about how to ensure that communication and collaboration don’t suffer, how to track remote team productivity when the work isn’t happening right there on site, and how to keep people from falling out of the loop.
Luckily, remote work has been common enough for long enough now that we’ve started to be able to see that all of these are surmountable. Here’s how to approach these big worries about remote team productivity.
1. Communication. Frankly, even managers of on-site teams often could do a better job with communication. But it’s especially crucial to have the right communications systems in place when your team is remote; when people aren’t right down the hall, you really can’t leave your systems informal and ad hoc. The key here is to establish clear communications and stick to them – whether it’s a combination of weekly one-on-one’s by phone and having everyone on Slack in the meantime, or any other system that works well for your team – and then be vigilant about sticking to it. And you need your team members to be vigilant as well, which means setting clear expectations about how you need people to operate in this regard and paying attention to whether or not it’s really happening.
Also, you should make a point of being alert to signs that a remote employee is disconnected or disengaged. If you realize you’re not hearing from someone much and you aren’t quite sure where they stand on key milestones in their work, don’t sit back and wait to see how it plays out. Relatively quickly, name what you’re seeing (“I’m hearing from you less than I used to, and I feel out of the loop on projects A and B”), ask what’s going on, and talk through how you’d like things to work instead.
2. Tracking productivity. Managers sometimes feel uneasy about managing remote teams since they’re less likely to be able to physically see work being accomplished. That uneasiness can especially come to the fore with bigger, long-term projects, where the ability to see outcomes might be months away. The key here is to create clear goals with clear, measurable milestones along the way so that you and your staff member can both see whether the work is on track or not and course-correct if you need to.
Of course, once you lay out these milestones, you need to check in on them regularly or they’ll do you no good. Rather than making that one more thing that you need to remember to do, put your team members in charge of scheduling those check-ins and ensuring that they actually happen.
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3. Keeping everyone connected. When you talk to managers who have resisted letting people work remotely, collaboration is always at the top of the list of things they say they’re worried they’d need to sacrifice. If you’re a heavily collaborative team, the thinking goes, won’t you lose that if people aren’t sharing the same space? It’s a concern with far less teeth in recent years, as technological solutions have popped up to make collaborating from a distance much, much easier. (QuickBase is one that is simple and customizable to your exact process and needs!) But low-tech solutions have a role too, like making a point to check in with people personally (what’s going on with them outside of work, how was that family trip to the Maldives, how’s their softball league going, etc.), keeping an eye out for opportunities to make connections between people’s work (like suggesting that Jane and Leo connect about similar challenges they’re each facing with clients or that Leo talk to Karen about what she learned on a related project last year), and simply getting your whole team together on regular calls so that people have the chance to talk as a group.