How to Build a Thriving, Resilient Remote Team: 5 Essentials
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
How is your team doing lately?
Do you feel like you’re sprinting in a race you never signed up for? You’re surviving, but have hardly taken a breath. Similarly, your team is doing their best, but is exhausted and drained, both physically and mentally.
It’s no question that 2020 has irrevocably changed the way we work. With the pandemic as a forcing function, companies became remote work environments practically overnight. To keep things running, leaders and teams suddenly had to come up with new ways to work, communicate, and socialize, all through the video squares on our screens.
And while we all look forward to more in-person experiences, where we can once again meet in the same room and feel the smiles and energy, we also know that the remote and hybrid work models are here to stay.
Remote and hybrid work increases productivity (from several studies in 2021); and
People love the flexibility (52% of employees want a more flexible work environment post pandemic, McKinsey & Company, 2021)
So, how do you keep your team thriving in the long run instead of simply surviving for the short term?
#1 Establish Trust
What comes to mind when you think about “trust”? What does “trust” mean to you, as a leader in the workplace?
Oxford Languages defines Trust as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”
Simply said, trust can be defined as, “I can count on you.”
At work, there could be many perspectives:
Do I trust my company and the leadership?
Do I trust my teams and peers?
Do I trust myself as a leader?
Do others trust me?
For a remote workplace, a common question you may be embarrassed or afraid to ask yourself is: do I trust my team to do their work at home (while I’m not looking)?
What are your answers to the above questions?
If you have a mixture of Yes’s and No’s, you’re not alone.
In the 2021 Edelman “Trust Barometer”, a survey of over 33,000 people in 28 countries, one in three respondents say that they don’t trust their employer. And in a recent Harvard Business Review study on remote managers, almost one-third (29%) reported not trusting the competence of their own employees.
So what does that mean? How does trust (or lack thereof) affect your work? Your team’s work?
HBR’s research on the Neuroscience of Trust found that employees in high-trust organizations have increased performance, energy, loyalty, engagement, and enjoyment at work. You may also have your own stories on how trust in one situation has compelled you to put in more effort, or how a lack of trust in another situation might have made you pull back from engaging fully.
It’s not a secret that trust is important in any work environment, whether you are in the same physical space or not. But in an increasingly hybrid and remote environment, where most leaders no longer have the false-security of “seeing is believing”, lack of trust can easily create cracks that can destabilize the foundation of your team quickly.
Without an underlying trusted environment, one missed call, one careless word, one misunderstanding, could quickly escalate into blaming, defensive, and gossiping situations that are difficult to contain.
So how do you cultivate trust at work, so that you can continue to strengthen the foundation of your remote team?
Be Genuine. Be true in your intentions, be transparent and honest, and show genuine care for others.
Build Credibility. Say what you are going to do, and do what you said. This doesn’t mean you can’t change the plans. If things change, be transparent about what happened, and again, say what you’ll do, and do what you say.
Build Positive Moments. Especially in a remote world, be intentional about creating a space where you and your team can celebrate successes, share concerns, and create productive dialogue. This could be a few minutes at the beginning of meetings, or scheduled team check-ins.
#2 Practice Empathy
What are your team’s greatest struggles right now? How is their home life and health concerns impacting their focus at work? Do they feel supported by you and by other team members?
In a time where crisis and uncertainty disrupted almost all aspects of our lives, empathy has emerged as the most important quality in a leader.
According to software company Businessolver’s 2020 State of the Workplace Empathy report, 83% of American workers would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic company, and 74% would work longer hours for a compassionate employer.
Empathetic leaders build stronger relationships with their team members because they are more aware of the ups and downs of the team. Empathy allows people to share more wholly, creating more natural and authentic relationships, leading to greater trust, better communications, and increased performance. Practicing empathy as a team also drives business innovation, as it allows people to see and understand different perspectives and challenges, which is essential to be competitive in the marketplace.
Especially in the current ever-changing, high-stress, highly-uncertain environment, people around you - your team members, your peers, and even your leadership - actually need you to be able to feel and understand what they are dealing with. Being able to do so would open up ways for you to support and engage, and help move things forward.
The good news is: you don’t have to be born with it. Some may find that empathy comes more naturally than others, but just like any leadership skill, it can be learnt. Start with genuine care, and remember that it is an intentional practice that will become more natural in time.
Pay attention. Be intentional about observing others, and noticing when things seem different. Did they seem dis-engaged during a meeting? Did they sound frustrated when responding to an email? Did a reliable team member miss a meeting?
Invite, not Intrude. Don’t assume to know what is going on. Offer your presence and support, invite dialogue, and seek to understand instead.
Explore Different Perspectives. Establish a norm and the dialogue to encourage exploring and appreciating different perspectives. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and invite others to do the same. This not only creates an environment where different ways of thinking are recognized and appreciated, but could also spur creativity and innovation.
#3 Focus on Why
Do you know your company’s Why? Your team’s Why? Or even your own Why?
Many of us are familiar with these big Why’s. We’ve seen the company’s mission and vision. We’ve developed the team’s purpose. We’ve pondered our own personal raison d’être, or reason for being. These big Why’s are critical in establishing the unifying, aligned purpose for you, your team, and your organization.
But bringing Why to life extends beyond the organizational aspirations and posters on office walls. Day-to-day business decisions and individual behaviors are exactly how you can see the Why’s come to life.
In particular in hybrid or remote workplaces, where the changes and decision-making processes may not be visible to many, it is critical to get clear on the Why, and be relentless in communicating it to everyone in the organization.
“We are prioritizing this new feature over this other request.” Why?
“We are going to implement a flexible, hybrid workplace.” Why?
“We are pivoting our product focus from consumer to commercial.” Why?
How do these daily Why’s connect back to the big Why’s? How do they connect to your values? How do they connect back to what is important for you? For your team?
If your organization’s mission is the rallying call for you and your team, these day-to-day Why’s are the cheers in the crowds that amplify your purpose, and keeps everyone grounded on the reason for each and every action.
And, when the Why is shared effectively across teams, it establishes a common understanding and vision behind actions and behaviors. Rallying around both big and small Why’s keep you and your team focused on the vision, and resilient through challenges.
Consider a decision or a change you made recently. Was the purpose clear for everyone involved? How does it ladder up to the team’s Why? How does it connect up to the organization’s Why?
Clarify the Why. If it’s not clear, no one would be able to move towards it. If the Why is not clear to you, as a leader, think how confusing it would be for others. Take the time and effort to make sure the purpose of the organization, the team, and even yourself, is clear, so that you can communicate effectively across the organization.
Connect the Why’s. Don’t assume others know why certain decisions are made, or how their work connects to the big Why. Be intentional about sharing how things ladder up to the overall purpose. And if you don’t know, you may need to explore the Why yourself. It may mean the decision or the work is not aligned with the Why and needs to be re-evaluated.
Rally around the Why. If you don’t believe it, no one else will. Start with yourself: once you’re clear on the Why, make sure you are fully behind it. Express it in your work, in your decisions, and in your actions, and engage your team towards it.
#4 Be Clear on the Plan
Here is where the rubber meets the road. How do you turn the inspiring Why’s into reality? Without clarity on how to move forward, even the most trusted, inspired, and empathetic teams would struggle to take the first step in the right (and same) direction.
In a remote / hybrid environment, you don’t have the luxury or convenience of drop-in alignment or spontaneous check-ins. Clarity in plan must be intentionally developed and communicated, so that everyone involved is on the same page.
This doesn’t mean that a plan cannot change. In fact, changes in plan are to be expected, and this establishes a framework where changes can be effectively evaluated, adjusted, and re-communicated.
What: Goals and Metrics. Be clear on what you are trying to achieve. Goals and metrics should be clearly set, monitored, and shown, so that the team can see how their work is impacting the results. In a remote environment, it is important for this to be on a platform that can be accessible to all involved, promoting transparency and accountability.
How: Strategies, Tactics, Tools. Depending on your team or company, the How may be developed by one or more teams and leaders. Regardless of what the approach is, the How should align towards the Why, and should be clear and transparent to all teams involved.
Who: People and Responsibilities. Having the right people doing the right roles makes all the difference between a successful or a struggling organization. For each new work, ensure people know who is involved, why they’re involved (what value they bring), and what role they play.
#5 Communicate to Engage
Much has been written about the importance of communication. In fact, good communication is one of the most important leadership traits, and can impact a team’s performance and an organization’s bottom line.
When I talk about communication, many may think about talking, presenting, and 1-to-many broadcasting. And yes, sharing ideas and information clearly and effectively is immensely important. But what I would like to focus here are aspects of communication that emphasizes 2-way engagement. In particular, for the remote workplace, safe and intentional 2-way communication is critical to ensuring that you are building a culture where your team members are being heard.
Be Proactive. Don’t simply say “My door is always open” and wait for people to courageously step into your (virtual) office to share their feedback. Yes, by all means, keep that door open. But take one step further, and actively solicit feedback proactively. This may be in the form of 1:1, or informal time at the beginning of meetings, or periodic pulse surveys.
Ask powerful questions, then pause and just LISTEN. Be genuinely interested. Ask powerful (and empowering) questions. Don’t think about how you would respond. Instead, take a breath, and truly listen to learn.
“What does success look like for us? For you?”
“What are your concerns? What are the team’s concerns?”
“What are your ideas to get us from here to there?”
Genuinely process feedback. A part of 2-way communication is not only listening, but also having a transparent way to process relevant feedback, and acting accordingly. Ensure the process is transparent for the team, and that any resulting actions or impacts are communicated back to the team. This creates a trusted relationship where the team knows that they can come to you even on difficult or challenging issues.
Building a resilient remote team that can thrive through changing times is no easy feat. It requires the same foundational leadership essentials as building any work team, whether it be in-person, hybrid, or other new and flexible models of working.
It requires inspiration, intention, and perseverance.
Leaders and teams should be proud to take on this challenge, with the knowledge that there are many around the globe who are embarking on this same journey, building remarkable teams during extraordinary times to create exceptional impacts in the world.
Thank you for your efforts.
“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” ~Thomas Edison