How to Run a Productive Remote Team: Pitfalls, Tips & More

What goes in a standard-issue work from home (WFH) productivity tips list?

“Dress up like it’s a normal workday,” “exercise regularly,” “have an organized workspace”—you probably have them memorized by now, or forwarded them to your team.

But if you’re an ordinary employee or manager who’s been tossed into this odd new arrangement, you need a bit more than a laundry list of tips.

Why? Because productive individuals alone don’t make for productive teams. The engine of a team is a complex of gears (individuals) oiled by things like communication, frictionless collaboration, good management, and interpersonal relationships.

The amount of time managers and employees spend on collaboration has increased by a whopping 50% just over the past two decades,1 with people spending an inordinate amount of time on email (six—yes, six—hours every day to be exact)2 and checking notifications.

What this means is that in order to truly improve productivity, it’s important to focus on how teams collaborate—not just how they perform as individuals.

So, here’s a different sort of list. These tips will help you save time, plug the leaks in your company’s efficiency and give you actionable strategies that your whole team (and not just individual members) can use to be its productive best.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. 5 common pitfalls of remote work productivity (and how to fix them)
  2. 5 tips for remote work productivity

Common pitfalls of remote work productivity

In the absence of close proximity to each other, it’s even harder to work together as a team, let alone be efficient. But before we can talk about tips to level up your productivity, we need to make sure your team is set up for remote work success. Here are some common pitfalls of remote work productivity and how to fix them:

1. Poor communication

If you want to know how strong a team is, look at how well they communicate, especially during times of crisis. Poor communication is a fast (and silent) killer of team culture.

When communicating with remote colleagues, the biggest challenge is the lack of face-to-face, non-verbal communication. It’s not that we need to relearn how to communicate, but we do need to get comfortable with a different style of communication: one that is more frequent.

It’s not just about things like regular check-ins and virtual meetings, but it is also about getting comfortable with asking uncomfortable questions.

The solution:

  • Train your managers to handle conflicts and have critical conversations with their reports.
  • Institute a communication protocol in your work-from-home (WFH) policy.
  • Discuss problems as soon as they arise.

Remote work playbook

2. Poor collaboration

Poor communication gives rise to poor collaboration, but collaboration can suffer just as much with weekly check-in calls and virtual coffees—just think about unnecessarily long-winded meetings or email chains denser than the Amazon rainforest. These habits might have started off as “good habits” to have as a team—but if they don’t evolve as your team grows and matures, they could also make collaboration hugely inefficient.

Not a good example of effective teamwork. Over time, poor teamwork and bad collaboration habits can make a project disintegrate faster than you can say “remote.”

The solution:

3. Lack of a good WFH policy

You wouldn’t launch a product without a manual, so why would you institute remote work without a work-from-home policy? A work-from home-policy lays out the rules and regulations of telecommuting between employees and the business, covering everything from sick leave protocol to how often to have meetings. It can protect your company legally and financially—all while curing the headache of “unspoken rules.”

The solution:

  • If you don’t have a WFH policy, create one right now! It doesn’t need to be too time-consuming. Find a downloadable template here.

4. Poor personality and skills fit

Just as there are introverts and extroverts, there are people who are cut out for remote work and those who aren’t. Those in the first category tend to be not only great independent workers, they’re also fantastic team players. Those who aren’t will quickly find themselves succumbing to the loneliness that comes with working from home, and the anxiety of communicating without non-verbal cues.

To be good at remote work, you need some intrinsic qualities (like the ability to handle loneliness and blurred work-life boundaries) as well as learned skills. If your staff aren’t cut out for remote work or at the very least experienced/trained in remote work, your productivity is bound to slip.

The solution:

  • Hire employees who have a higher chance of succeeding in a remote environment. Here’s a primer on what to look out for in potential remote employees’ skillsets.

5. Poor leadership

Remote work is a very new phenomenon. It’s uncharted territory, and it takes a great leader to steer a business through it. Put the transition into the hands of a poor communicator or a micromanager, and you’re setting yourself up for a sluggish team.

Poor leadership costs companies dearly in terms of employee engagement, and it’s also often a key reason employees look for alternative opportunities. Hiring inexperienced leaders hurts your company’s progress by repelling talent, diminishing employee engagement, and hurting team morale.

The solution:

  • Hire great leaders and give them the tools and training they need to manage their teams.

5 tips for a more productive team

So you’ve had a look at the stuff you’re doing wrong. You’ve got HR started on a WFH policy, looked into a new project management tool, and begun covering all your bases. Now, you’re ready for some actual tips that don’t involve exercise or expensive chairs.

Here are five that are guaranteed to save you hours of time.

1. Get your tech stack in order

Your tech stack, or the precise combination of software and hardware your team uses, is one of your most underrated productivity weapons. It’s what your employees will be spending most of their time on (apart from their chairs).

But here’s the thing: it’s not just about which remote working tools you use. It’s about streamlining your tech stack by choosing multifunctional and versatile apps. Not only does this reduce the learning curve for your team (and your monthly expenses), you’re also minimizing the need to switch back and forth between windows and tabs later on. App overload costs companies billions of dollars.

Workers today are using an average of four apps just for communication alone, with 20% of workers using six or more. This includes apps for phone calls, texts, web meetings, video conferencing, team messaging, and more.

For a remote team, here’s what a typical tech stack needs:

  1. A versatile communication app where you can centralize all your communications from video conferencing to text messages. Since remote work is run entirely on communication, it makes sense to prioritize this. For example, here’s how an all-in-one communication app like RingCentral works:
  2. Workflow management tools that aid in the rational organization of labor so that complex projects and routine business processes are streamlined and automated as far as possible. This drastically reduces the margin of error and skyrockets efficiency. Furthermore, everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and when. The best part? You’ll send fewer email updates.Tools like Jira and GitHub are made with very specific users in mind (i.e., software developers), while others like Built.io Flow allow you to build your own. Choosing the right workflow management tool can take a bit of time, but the rewards are big.
  3. Task automation tools to take time consuming, repetitive, low-stakes tasks out of your employees’ schedules so that they spend less time on busywork and focus more on tasks that need their specialized skills, creativity, and attention. Tasks occupying 45% of your employees’ time are entirely automatable.3 Just introducing something as simple as Zapier into your employees’ tech stack can save you lost productivity, and them, precious time.
  4. Airtight security tools. As your team will be running entirely on the internet, you leave sensitive information exposed. Nothing kills productivity like a data leak. Get every member of your team equipped with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and a solid antivirus. Most importantly, have a strategy in place to handle IT issues, by providing the infrastructure and access required to resolve technical trouble on the spot.

2. Cut meetings by half

What do bad meetings have in common? They’re often rambling, purposeless, exclusionary, and most of all—too long. Bad meetings cost companies in the United States $30 billion.4 If you want to improve team productivity, you have to improve team collaboration. If you want to improve team collaboration, you have to establish a culture of better and shorter virtual meetings. 

Every team is different. Some teams prefer short and sweet meetings in short and sweet intervals, while others find it more appropriate to have longer meetings at longer intervals. Aim to cut your meeting duration and frequency by half, and this will force you to improve the quality of the time you spend with your colleagues.

Learn how to have better, more productive meetings in this guide.

3. Measure

What gets measured, gets managed.

Think about the metrics and outcomes you want to improve: want your sales team’s cold call volume to increase by 30%? Monitor your team’s phone calls. Want to measure the amount of focused, deep work your employees are engaging in? Install time tracking software. Want to speed up the time it takes to resolve customer complaints? Measure the lag between the incoming complaint and the resolution. Measure meeting durations. Measure anything and everything.

The act of measuring alone draws attention and energy towards the outcomes you wish to improve and helps you make statistically sound choices while coming up with solutions.

4. Build a culture of accountability

This one isn’t a quick fix, and perhaps takes the longest to establish. In good teams, leaders hold team members accountable. In the best teams, though, everyone holds each other accountable.5 But why should you pay attention to it now?

Firstly, underperforming employees take up 17% of a leader’s time.6 In teams with a strong culture of accountability, leaders can focus on more pressing issues. Secondly, building a culture of accountability self-reinforces employee engagement and motivation, and it benefits all aspects of remote work life, not just productivity.

How do you go about this? For starters:

  1. Define all employees’ key resource areas clearly, and stipulate the outcomes expected of them for that month, quarter, or project.
  2. Have managers conduct regular check-ins with all team members to ensure that projects are progressing on track. A study at Stanford Health Care showed that team leaders who check in once a week see engagement levels 21 points higher than those who check in only once a month. And engaged employees are productive employees.7

5. Try asynchronous (async) communication

All the tips on this list are geared towards helping your employees maximize their “deep work,” the term coined by Cal Newport to describe focus without distraction—and minimize “shallow work.”

One of the most widely regarded ways to improve collaboration and expand focus is asynchronous communication.

💡 Asynchronous (or “async”) communication: Borrowing a term from telecommunications, this refers to communication that doesn’t have to happen in real time. The benefit of this is it removes the expectation of instant responses. This means, if your team practices asynchronous communication, that means you probably don’t have many group meetings in real time and you instead rely on other “non-live” forms of communication like emails and messaging.

Asynchronous communication has worked wonders for companies like Doist, Gitlab, Zapier, Automattic, and Buffer, with Doist reporting that async communication has not just improved productivity, but has also reduced stress and made meetings a lot more effective overall.8

Not to mention, it’s perfectly suited to teams distributed across time zones.

Focusing on productivity in remote teams

It’s already indisputably established that individuals are more productive when working from home.9 But where remote work often chokes up is when it comes to teams, because our knowledge of how teams work in offices doesn’t really apply so neatly when everyone is miles away from each other.

With 83% of individuals doing most of their work in teams,10 we can’t afford to ignore team productivity.

Focusing on individual efficiency and effectiveness alone is like missing the forest for the trees. There’s no use in having 100 highly effective individuals in a business if they don’t get along with each other.

 

 


1 hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload

2 theblog.adobe.com/email

3 mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages

4 hbr.org/2019/01/why-your-meetings-stink-and-what-to-do-about-it

5 hbrascend.org/topics/the-best-teams-hold-themselves-accountable/

6 execed.economist.com/blog/career-hacks/dont-let-low-performers-destroy-your-company

7 hbr.org/cover-story/2019/05/the-power-of-hidden-teams

8 doist.com/blog/asynchronous-communication

9 hbr.org/2019/08/is-it-time-to-let-employees-work-from-anywhere

10 adp.com/resources/articles-and-insights/articles/g/global-study-of-engagement-technical-report.aspx

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