Remote teams: How to build a culture of accountability

As remote work becomes the new normal, some leaders are struggling to manage their teams. It boils down to trust and accountability: Consider this advice on communication, tools, and success metrics
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At the start of this year, few IT managers were prepared for all of their organization's employees to go fully remote. Yet here we are: Thanks to COVID-19, remote work is our new reality.

To build trust with remote teams, you must first establish a framework of accountability.

While working remotely has been gaining acceptance even prior to the pandemic, not everyone is on board. Many managers still approach remote work with skepticism, asking questions like “How can I trust that my employees are being productive?”

It boils down to trust and holding people accountable. Trust needs to be earned over time. To build trust, you must first establish a framework of accountability.

Let’s look at some ways to do that.

1. Set clear expectations from day one

To implement a successful remote work strategy, it should be ingrained in your business culture. Using a patchwork plan or making it up as you go will end in failure. Developing a comprehensive plan starts with your hiring process: Target self-disciplined candidates with strong communications, time management, and collaboration skills.

[ Want open source online meeting tools? Read also 7 open source alternatives to Skype. ]

Establish clear expectations for remote teams. Require online attendance and participation in any relevant meetings. Agree on a schedule so that if you call a team member at 2 pm, say, to discuss an issue, they will be available or will get back to you promptly. Working from home comes with flexibility baked in, but you don’t want anyone to be missing in action when they’re needed.

Ensure that every team member has a contingency plan in the event of technical difficulties like a spotty Internet connection or a laptop on the fritz. Problems will inevitably occur, so make sure everyone understands how to respond.

The key is transparency: Be abundantly clear about your expectations and any potential consequences, while also acknowledging that our current circumstances are far from normal. Show empathy and flexibility, as your team members may be struggling with unprecedented challenges. During these trying times, giving a little can go a long way.

Show empathy and flexibility, as your team members may be struggling with unprecedented challenges.

2. Establish strong communications

Miscommunication can quickly derail an otherwise successful work relationship. Without the nuances that come with face-to-face communication, intentions can be misread, and priorities misaligned. The more time passes without further communication, the worse these problems get: No one wants to waste valuable time by pursuing the wrong goal for days. If a team member is stuck or needs support, they should feel empowered to reach out to you and the team for help.

Video conferencing is essential to enable face-to-face communication in remote work environments. This will help you and your team members pick up on the nonverbal cues that enhance every conversation – for example, that critical questioning look that says, “I thought he was clear on our approach, but her face tells me otherwise.”

Check in with your team every day for status updates and to discuss any concerns or issues. Frequent check-ins allow you to address any problems early and ensure that your team is on the right track.

A standard chat platform will help keep your team connected, and it’s perfect for when you need to offer a quick thought that doesn’t necessarily require a phone call or an email. Remember that remote work can be lonely – one study showed that 62 percent of workers found it “socially isolating.” Conversing over chat can simulate office interactions and help employees feel more connected with the team.

A chat platform is perfect for when you need to offer a quick thought that doesn’t necessarily require a phone call or an email.

3. Implement the right tools

Whether your team members are in the office or at home, everyone has tasks to do. Project management software (like ServiceNow and Jira) can help structure these tasks. You can set the expected time to completion, outline any blockers, log progress, and even enable the entire team to easily see what others are working on.

Some of these programs enable you to see how time is spent at the individual, team, and departmental levels. This can help you spot trends and insights to ensure that your team is being as productive as possible.

4. To measure success, consider output

When assessing the success of remote work, let productivity be your guide:

  • Is your team meeting deadlines?
  • Are team members producing at a high level?
  • Do team members support and rely on each other?

When remote work is implemented effectively, teams are just as efficient and productive as they are in the office. Many leaders even report a boost in productivity thanks to fewer office distractions and elimination of commute time.

Employees who work remotely should be self-motivated and able to manage their time effectively, which comes more easily for some people than others. If some team members need extra support, share resources on discipline and efficiency to help them develop these skills.

Managing a remote team can be challenging, but it also offers a host of benefits to employees and to your organization at large: According to Owl Labs, remote workers report higher job satisfaction, citing better work-life balance (91 percent), increased productivity (79 percent), and less stress (78 percent).

And leaders are taking notice: A recent study by Gartner found that many CFOs are looking to shift a significant number of their employees to working remotely, even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

If your workplace culture embraces remote work and implements a structure of accountability, your team will thrive, both at home and in the office.

[ Want to build your leadership EQ? See 10 emotional intelligence must-reads for leaders. ]

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.