A common issue when managing a remote team is answering a seemingly simple question - "what is my team working on?"
When you were in the office, you could rely on a lot of passive data points, observation, meetings, and random water-cooler conversations to figure out what people were doing. This continuous data gathering exercise (passive or active) gave you a sense of team performance, which made your job easier.
Now that you are remote, you have fewer data points and observational cues on hand, which means it's easy to feel disconnected and out of touch with your team.
So what do you do?
As a team leader, you are responsible for the output of your team, so it's your job to know what's going on. But how do you answer this question in a way that's respectful of your team's time and without coming across as a micro-manager?
That's the fun part and the purpose of this post 🤣
I've been working remotely for about seven years so I've experienced some things as a team leader and individual contributor 😂.
Additionally, 80% of Friday users say it helps them stay accountable, so we've learned a lot here as we build product to help solve these problems with our customers.
Have you tried Friday yet? Spend more time on work that makes an impact. Start for free.
Now, let's get more tactical and investigate why it can be difficult to create accountability when leading a remote team. At a high-level, accountability is tough in the office, but it can be exacerbated when working remotely. Why?
I would argue that there are three major reasons:
When you are in the office you can rely on observation more heavily to do your job as a leader. People refer to this as a "butts in seat" style of management.
Leaders use techniques like management by walking around to understand what people are working on. Nowadays, it's more like management by chatting around for individual accountability.
According to recent Microsoft research, with everyone working remotely, people are spending 10% more time in meetings and team leaders are using workplace chat tools twice as much.
To recap, team leaders are having trouble gathering information about what's going on, resorting to meetings/chat to help bridge the gap between the office and remote. They are on the hunt for additional data points to do their job!
According to Andy Grove, the author of High Output Management, one of the major activities a leader performs is "nudging".
These are quick actions that course-correct behavior. Grove defines nudges as, "doing things at the office designed to influence events slightly."
The problem is that when working remotely, it's easy to miscommunicate (especially as a leader). When you are in-person, there's an opportunity to establish common ground and clear up misconceptions in real-time for better team cohesion.
Another problem I see is that these commitments aren't documented in a transparent way. For example, most non-technical teams I've worked with are not great at documenting these commitments.
Project management tools are frequently stale and out of date. In the real world, they don't serve as a source of truth for these commitments. Some people have effective PM tools, some don't.
What happens when these commitments aren't documented?
The only exception I see to this rule is that engineering teams tend to do a pretty solid job, especially if they follow some type of agile process that enforces these aspects of a commitment (think sprint planning or retrospectives) for clear goals.
Now, let's talk about accountability at a high-level to start to build a conceptual model for how we can address the problems that we face when remote.
Accountability is defined as a willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions. In other words, if you say you will do something, will you do it? How much can I trust that you will do what you say? That's individual accountability.
In the average workday, we make commitments (oftentimes implied commitments) to our colleagues on a regular basis. This happens in meetings, workplace chat, and elsewhere. Individual accountability leads to mutual accountability. I think accountability consists of a few basic components, which I will mentioned below:
This isn't rocket science. The first component is to share what you aim to accomplish in a given time period. It's a forward-looking statement about a future outcome. With this expectation, your project team has commitments and can base their work on what you accomplish.
I will do [activity] by [due date]
This next component isn't required, but is helpful to establish trust. If you commit to perform a specific activity by a specific date, you can ease a lot of stakeholder concern by sharing how you are trending as you make progress.
By actively sharing progress along the way, it's pretty easy to course-correct or resolve any areas with ambiguity. It also helps stakeholders establish empathy if the project is a little late.
The goal here is to create transparency around the inputs as you work towards clear goals.
The third and most important component to accountability is delivering on what you said you would do. Are you late on the commitment you made? If you are late, are you honest about why you were late? Do you accept responsibility? How will you course-correct in the future?
Once again, this is not rocket science. This is phase of reflection, introspection, and potentially changing future behavior.
A little bit of peer pressure is a wonderful thing when you are trying to stay accountable. It's why having a personal trainer works if you're trying to get in shape. The same is true in a work environment for your team's accountability.
According to research, you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down and share it with others. This is another key component of staying accountable.
In this final section, I'll outline how you can dramatically increase accountability and your company's accountability culture when remote. It revolves around tapping into the building blocks of accountability listed above:
I recommend three specific playbooks to help. While you don't need to do all these things, I've certainly found all three to be helpful.
Every Monday, we run a workflow in Friday that asks the following questions:
This helps the entire team set a high-level goal for the week and self opt-in to what their output should be.
It also helps me as a leader start to build a conceptual model for what our output should look like by the end of the week. Even better, this is documented, so I can reference it over time and the potential to be misunderstood is much lower vs. if they told me this in a meeting.
Responses are also shared with the rest of the team, which creates a bit of peer pressure and shared accountability to do what you say 😉
Next, we run a daily standup that asks the following questions:
Quite frankly, this cadence isn't critical as some days people don't have many new things to share...but it's a great way to intentionally share a bit about your day.
That's why we ask: "Anything else you'd like to share?" This question helps people share if they are going to step out or will be unavailable. We also learn a little bit more about each other as people (see example below):
This transparency helps set accurate expectations. For example, if I know a coworker will be out in the afternoon, I'll try not to ping them!
The final playbook I recommend running is a Friday check-in. Internally, we ask the following questions:
Unlike the other playbooks, this is only visible by me (the team leader). This serves as a 1-1 meeting complement as it allows me to get honest feedback on what's really going on at work.
We also share at a high-level how we are progressing towards our key goals for the month.
As you can see, these routines help create a sense of accountability without requiring constant status update meetings or constant management by chatting around.
The information is pushed to me in the most minimal way possible. This helps build a more flexible workplace and taps into what makes remote work so awesome...flexibility!
There is an awareness gap that you need to cross when working remotely. You can collect this information as a leader in an ad-hoc way, or you can create systems so it flows your way on a regular basis.
If you want a more predictable remote work experience as a leader, I recommend giving Friday a try.
80% of our users say it helps create accountability, so if this is an area of struggle, I'm pretty sure we can help you out.