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Leading Remote Teams: Tips for Improving Effectiveness

By Mark Beese

At LMA Tech Midwest Week, leadership guru Mark Beese spoke on the factors to consider when leading remote teams. We asked him to share more of his advice here.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to many changes in how teams collaborate and work together. While we don’t yet know which changes will be lasting, I predict that remote teams are here to stay, at least in some form. In turn, leaders will need to learn how to effectively lead interdependent, yet physically dispersed teams.

Bruce Tuckman’s model of stages of group development (first proposed in 1965) states that teams go through four distinct phases of growth:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

According to the model, teams must go through a “storming” stage, characterized by conflict and power struggles, often over issues of roles and team direction. Sometimes leaders are surprised by this conflict and may be discouraged by the apparent setback. But once the team emerges from this phase, members can focus on how to align their efforts to meet their objective (developing norms) and executing their plan (performing).

Here’s the twist: Teams — even highly effective ones — often have to repeat all four stages once the team experiences a disruption — like the addition of new members or a global pandemic forcing people to work from their kitchen table.

What’s a Leader to Do When Remote Team Members Start Storming? 

First, don’t panic. You and the team can work through this. Hang in there.

Second, focus on role clarification, communicating expectations, and aligning efforts with a clear direction toward a shared mission. Spend more time coaching in one-on-one meetings and helping people resolve conflicts within the team.

Overrated Factors of Team Effectiveness

A few years ago, Google conducted research on team effectiveness. “Project Aristotle” found that some factors you might expect to predict team effectiveness were, in reality, not significantly connected with performance. These factors included:

  • Individual performance of team members.
  • Co-location of team members.
  • Consensus-driven decision-making.
  • Extroversion of team members.
  • Team size, tenure or workload size.

Actual Characteristics of High-Performing Teams

However, Google’s research found that high-performing teams did have five characteristics in common:

  • Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.
  • Dependability: Team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence.
  • Structure and clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.
  • Meaning: Work is personally important to team members.
  • Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates change.

Ways to Improve Remote Teams’ Effectiveness

Keeping those characteristics in mind, here are a few leadership tips on how to improve remote team effectiveness.

  1. Build trust by being vulnerable, understanding others’ situations and perspectives, and encouraging mutual respect among team members.
  2. Create an environment where people are comfortable being themselves. Use ice-breakers in web meetings or hold informal Zoom get-togethers to build relationships and rapport.
  3. In team meetings, encourage the entire team to be responsible for encouraging everyone to contribute to discussion and decision-making. As a leader, check in with people who are not participating and find ways to make it safe for them to contribute.
  4. Replace blame with curiosity. When something doesn’t go as expected, fight the urge to blame. Instead, ask: Why is this happening now? What can we do to fix this and prevent it from happening in the future? Be aware of how you treat people and their ideas.
  5. Keep the team informed on organizational and external changes that affect team members. Be transparent and real.
  6. Realize that not all meetings need to be the same. Design your meeting to its purpose. A project check-in meeting might only need to run 15 minutes. An all-hands meeting to communicate firmwide strategic decisions might be mostly one-way communication, compared with a team meeting to brainstorm ideas, which might require more time and different technology. Don’t hold meetings for things that can best be done by email or text.
  7. Use one-on-one meetings for well-being check-ins, feedback and coaching.
  8. Help people stay on task and be accountable by making sure they have the resources and support they need, as well as project management tools that let them view and track individual and group activities (e.g., BaseCamp, Asana, Microsoft Teams and Slack).
  9. Focus on providing clear expectations for each person on the team. Have a conversation with your team regarding protocols for online meetings, collaboration, reporting and other structures. Consider writing a “team charter” that everyone agrees to, and revisit those commitments periodically.
  10. Connect team activity to the strategic direction and beneficial outcome for the client. Illustrate how individual and team efforts contributed to a positive result. Incorporate the voice of the client, community, or firm leadership.
  11. Create a learning culture. Encourage risk-taking and experimentation, and promote a higher tolerance for noncritical mistakes.
  12. Delegate decision-making and project management more. Coach through the skill learning phase. Hold people accountable.
  13. Look for opportunities for innovation, leveraging technology, increased efficiency and improving client service. Make it a team project.
  14. Over-communicate. Be transparent and human.

Keep Inclusion Top of Mind

Not everyone is experiencing the crisis and remote working the same way. Some are torn between parenting and work duties. Some are going through personal hardships, but don’t want to talk about it. Some are experiencing bias . Be sensitive to factors that affect people’s ability to contribute to the team and work with them to find ways they can make significant contributions while recognizing their individual situation.

Illustration ©

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Mark Beese

Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers become stronger leaders. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation and business development. Mark also facilitates workshops on design thinking for legal. Mark is an adjunct faculty with the University of Denver Sturm School of Law and former adjunct with the Center for Creative Leadership.  He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement. Follow him @mbeese on Twitter.

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