Why Remote Teams Fail (And How to Keep Your External Workers Happy)
Take a look at the articles being shared on top business and management blogs, and you’d assume the future of work is fully remote. That’s understandable, given that 99% of respondents to Buffer’s 2019 State of Work survey said that, “they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.” Further data from Upwork suggests that 73% of all teams will actually enjoy this benefit by 2028.
But despite the growing number of workers and teams who are going remote, evidence suggests that the picture may not be as rosy as pundits want people to believe.
One study by OnPoint Consulting of nearly 50 remote teams across different industries found that 27% of them were “not fully performing.” The same article by OnPoint cites further research from the MIT Sloan Management Review, which found that 82% of global business remote teams did not achieve their stated goals.
Whether you’ve been a part of a remote team that failed or simply want to improve the performance of your existing program, read on for the reasons remote teams fail – as well as what you can do to keep the external members of your team happy.
The Wrong People are On the Bus
Traditional employees become remote workers in any number of different ways. Some deliberately seek out roles involving a remote component. Others become remote – whether full-time, part-time, or anywhere in between – when they join companies with active distributed teams. Still, others are thrust into remote work when their traditional teams decide to experiment with the practice (or eliminate their physical offices altogether).
But although team members enter remote work arrangements through a number of different means, the reality is that not all people are suited to work in these environments.
In an article on the Aha blog, company co-founder and CEO Brian de Haaff suggests that the best barometer for gauging a team member’s likelihood of succeeding in a remote work arrangement is whether or not they are a “super-responsive, super-clear communicator.” According to de Haaff, “Remote teams thrive off of constant communication,” which he further breaks down into four key characteristics:
- Being present
- Being quick
- Being direct
- Being spirited
These four attributes benefit companies seeking to improve the performance of their remote teams. First, they can be used to develop a set of defined team standards and to gauge fit for existing employees. If you have team members who fall short of these expectations, you have the opportunity to offer them feedback or additional training to get them up-to-speed. If they still fail, you’ve identified poor-fit employees who may not be suited to remote work.
However, you can also use them when recruiting future team members to establish culture fit before extending an offer of employment. Examine an applicant’s communication style or share your standards in the interview process. If it doesn’t appear they’ll be able to meet expectations, you can choose to move forward with other candidates who are more likely to succeed on remote teams.
Collaboration Suffers Without Face-to-Face Engagement
If you’ve ever worked in a physical office, you know that project work doesn’t only occur in formal meetings. Progress is just as likely to be made while standing around the water cooler or in informal conversations that are initiated when one employee leans over another’s desk to chat.
Obviously, this leaves remote team members at a disadvantage. But it isn’t enough to simply capture the information that was discussed or the decisions that were made and relay them to remote workers. When remote workers aren’t included in all instances of collaboration, their input can’t be taken into consideration, and the perceived value of their contributions decreases.
This challenge tends to be more pronounced for companies that transition into offering remote work from more traditional arrangements, as Ben Cheng, co-founder of Skygear.io, discovered. As Cheng notes in an article on Medium describing the failure of the first iteration of his company’s remote work program, “Ideas happen in person – over lunch or when someone is walking by a colleague’s desk and looks over their shoulder.”
Further, he explains, Skygear found that the efficiency of their collaboration suffered from going remote. “Trying to chase down files or coordinate working schedules for handing off is always a challenge,” he writes. “In addition, remote work doesn’t allow for quick adaptation or response to ad hoc issues. We trust our team members who sometimes work from home, but there can be lags in responses that wouldn’t happen in the office.”
Cheng suggests that solutions exist to address these issues, and that the success of remote teams at other companies is evidence that they can be solved. That said, it’s clear from the experience of Cheng and others that remote collaboration isn’t always given the attention it deserves.
Fortunately, there are several steps teams can take in advance to limit the potential for failure due to poor collaboration:
Establish a Team Charter
As hinted at above, having a defined set of standards can improve collaboration by establishing shared expectations. According to Beat Buhlmann, General Manager at Evernote EMEA, in a guest article for HRZone, “To be successful you need to agree as a team how you want to work together and set clear expectations that can be used to build trust.”
In Buhlmann’s case, setting these expectations involved writing a team charter for Evernote that included policies such as “No checking emails after 8 pm” and “No blind CCs (bcc’s) in email conversation.”
For best results, develop a set of standards that incorporate de Haaff’s four principles of effective communication as defined earlier, but that also take your team’s unique needs into account. Allow every team member to have input into the final charter, and agree to treat it as a living document that evolves as your remote program matures.
Develop Collaboration and Communications Hierarchies
One element to build into your team charter is a communications hierarchy that defines your preferred methods of collaborating and communicating.
For example, if a remote team member wants to engage in an informal brainstorming session, how should they reach out to others who should be included? On which tool should the session be conducted? Where should its findings be recorded? Consider these and other relevant questions as you set your own standards for collaboration and communication.
We’ve probably hammered home the importance of creating a set of team standards enough by this point, but these aren’t the only expectations you should document.
When working on remote teams, documenting everything is a must. Document standard processes for reference by new and existing team members. Document conversations that are held so that others can catch up quickly. Document project progress in a centralized system like Taskworld so that team members around the world can find important information quickly.
Getting in the habit of documenting everything requires a commitment from all team members, but it also requires that leaders hold workers accountable to the process. Regularly spot-checking documentation to ensure it’s being updated is a necessary part of managing a remote team.
Remote Work vs Remote Management
The idea of regular spot-checking underscores a final, critical requirement for avoiding failure on remote teams: that companies must invest as much into improving remote management practices as they do into enabling remote work.
Many of the suggestions shared so far in this article revolve around setting expectations for remote team members. But just as remote work differs from work conducted in traditional office settings, remote management diverges from on-site leadership in several key ways.
Remote managers must be able to motivate workers they may never meet face-to-face. They must be able to discern the different communication styles used by their team members in order to determine, for example, whether terse language is a worker’s usual M.O. or the sign of a problem. They’re likely to have to carry out discipline remotely when projects go awry.
One of the best ways managers can improve their remote leadership skills is simply to spend more time working remotely themselves. Evelin Andrespok, a People Ops Team Lead at Toggl, learned this lesson first-hand, writing on her blog:
“It was eye-opening to see how isolated I felt working in a time zone different from most of my team. Sometimes decisions were made while I was asleep. Other times I missed fun chit-chat talks and felt awkward picking up on jokes from hours ago. I realized how such a limited connection with their team can make someone feel left out or lonely.”
If going remote isn’t possible, empathy becomes necessary. Put yourself in the shoes of your team’s remote workers, whether or not you serve in a management role. Opportunities to keep your company’s external workers happy will quickly become apparent.