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How to Build a Culture of Accountability on Your Remote Team

by: John Coburn
How to Build a Culture of Accountability on Your Remote Team

Accountability in a remote environment starts and ends with leadership. As NYT best-selling author Courtney Lynch says in her book Spark, “Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.” 

That mindset is what breeds a culture of accountability. Sure, there are some bad apples in every bunch, and therein, more direct conflict can be unavoidable. But the majority of employees want to do a good job. They want to support their colleagues, feel productive, and do work that furthers the mission of the company.

That said, people get lost along the way. Perhaps clear expectations weren’t set, or people lost track of how their work mattered in the grander scheme of things. No matter the reason, it’s up to leadership to take accountability and extreme ownership over the team’s success — to lead by example, and to attempt to inspire each team member to perform at a higher level. 

Such cultures of accountability aren’t built overnight, nor are they destroyed by one person or one moment. They’re built or destroyed over time, and they can ultimately slip and fade if they aren’t reinforced continuously. Ongoing substandard performance and unchecked mistakes become the new standard with time. The same goes for regular feedback and performance coaching. The habits you allow or foster will end up shaping your culture.

Navy Seal and best-selling author on leadership, Jocko Willink, says, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” Focus on what you can control and let these ideas guide you in leading your team toward a culture of accountability:

Hire Accountable People

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Building a culture of accountability starts by hiring accountable employees. This may seem like a cop-out answer, but it can’t be stressed enough. It’s not enough to hire people for their technical skills and experience. You have to hire for cultural fit as well. If you’re hiring for a remote team or have to suddenly adapt to remote work, then you need to have the right people in place from the start.

Begin by looking for people with a track record of overcoming obstacles, owning their mistakes, and who rarely need to be told what to do. It’s wishful thinking that you’ll have an elite team composed of all-stars who you don’t have to manage or hold accountable, but you can start threading in the right people and challenging your team to not only pull their weight, but to go above and beyond as often as possible.

It starts by hiring slower. Even when you’re in a bind and everyone’s working overtime, you’ve got to slow down the hiring process and make sure the people you hire aren’t just bodies that fill seats, but actual contributors — people who will make the team and the company better. Invest time into learning how to ask the right interview questions and make time for candidates to meet with other members of your staff in order to catch possible red flags.

Make It Easy to Do the Right Thing

If your key performance indicators (KPIs) are easily falsified or fudged, then it’s worth revisiting more concrete metrics. Sure, you can create activity reports that show how many calls or emails people make in a day, but those can always be fabricated. Instead, focus on metrics that are tied to customer success, such as getting referrals, hitting project deadlines, or creating deliverables.

If you’re hiring accountable people, communicating clearly, and checking in regularly on meaningful KPIs, then it shouldn’t matter what hours they’re working or how many breaks they take. What matters is that the team feels supported by their coworkers, that you can rely on them, and that the customer is satisfied with the end product.

While you’re at it, start scheduling meetings at convenient times. Your 8:00 AM “stand-ups” and 4:30 PM “check-ins” aren’t fooling anyone — they know it’s less about project updates and more about making sure everyone is online and doing the right thing. 

Instead of micromanaging or holding pointless meetings, try giving team members a little slack. Let them know you trust their judgment and expect they’ll get their work done on time. Chances are they’ll respect you more for trusting them and want to work hard to hold themselves and each other accountable as a result.

Set Crystal Clear Expectations

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Expectations should be clear and visible so they are easy to find and refer to at any time.

We want to believe people will rise to the occasion, and often, they will. But more often than not, people fall to the level of their training. That’s why it’s in your best interest to train them on how to be good remote employees. Piggybacking on the idea of “making it easy to do the right thing,” tell team members ahead of time what you expect of them in terms of remote work practices. There’s nothing worse than leaving the important stuff up for interpretation. 

Make it clear that you don’t expect them to feel chained to their computers, but that they should respond to email and chat messages with a specific timeframe. Again, it’s about monitoring work output, not activity. Focusing on the former will foster results. Focusing on activity will lead to your staff feeling smothered, micromanaged, and even distrusted.

Use one-on-one meetings to set expectations, provide feedback, and help them bust any roadblocks hindering their progress. Find ways to reinforce positive results and behaviors, whether that be shouting out individual success to the team or offering rewards like extra PTO, free lunch, or gift cards. 

Remind People of the Bigger Picture

All employees should have a “line of sight” to the organization’s desired outcomes and results.

Having a vision for your company’s success is pivotal to keeping everyone on the same page. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touched on vision in a recent interview with Inc, where he explained, “I would always encourage people to hold, powerfully, [to] a vision and be so stubborn of it. Don’t let anybody move you off of your vision.”

Later in the interview, he clarified further, stating:

“Vision is absolutely important, but it doesn’t deserve your day-to-day attention. You need a vision, then, that’s a touchstone: It’s something you can always come back to if you ever get confused. But mostly, your time should be spent on things that are happening today, this year, maybe in the next 2 or 3 years.”

Pay particular attention to that last sentence about spending time on today and on the near future. There’s a time and place to think big and make grand plans, but nobody knows what’s in store in the near future. 

Tik Tok exploded onto the scene in 2016, now has over 800 million users, and is rapidly stealing market share from all of the top social media platforms. COVID-19 rocked all of our 2020 plans, leaving everyone scrambling to adapt. Time and time again, we make grand plans or think we know what the future will hold, only to be shaken by industry or societal disruption.

A better alternative is focusing on an overarching vision. Create company values you can start your remote meetings with, keep them as a desktop wallpaper, and revisit when faced with making difficult decisions. Remind yourself and your staff of them often, but as Bezos says, stay focused on the day-to-day.

Utilize the Right Project Management Tools

Having a strong project management system in place can make all the difference when it comes to holding your remote team accountable. Taskworld, for example, provides everyone a central hub where you can track the progress of each project. 

project-management-tools-for-remote-accountability
Taskworld can even make it easy to hire the perfect accountable people for your team!

Projects are broken down into individual tasks that can be assigned to specific team members. Through assigning tasks and providing deadlines, you gain a clear picture of how work is progressing. Within each project’s workspace, you can monitor progress in real-time via posted messages and file attachments.

The right project management tool promotes transparency and keeps everyone on the same page, which naturally promotes accountability and productivity. It’s a scoreboard of sorts, and when project performance data is made public in this way, nobody wants to feel like they aren’t pulling their weight.

What You Can Do Now

  • Rethink your hiring strategy to something slower and more methodical. Give your team opportunities to cross-examine interviewees to ensure they’re a good culture fit.
  • Articulate your company’s vision in a new and exciting fashion. Create a presentation around it and give people a reminder like a high-quality wallpaper or a gift with your company values on it.
  • Deploy a project management system like Taskworld to keep everyone on the same page and give you an inside look at your team’s day-to-day activities.

Finally, remember to take a deep breath. Remote work may be new to you or your team, but that doesn’t mean it’s risky or unproven. Let go of trying to control the situation, and shift your focus to finding new opportunities. Remote work is different; there’s no doubt about that. But if you slow down, proactively look for positive outcomes, and put your trust in your team, you may find the experience more enjoyable than you expect.

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