Is your distributed team working to their full potential?

Successfully leading a remote team is a big challenge even for the most experienced managers. Getting it right requires time, practice, patience, feedback and fine tuning along the way.

By implementing the right processes and systems, it is possible to have a fully engaged and well-functioning virtual team. So how exactly do you establish and maintain momentum in a virtual environment outside of Zoom calls?

Managing distributed teams

I listen to a great podcast called Making Sense by Sam Harris who recently interviewed Matt Mullenweg, (you can listen to the podcast here), an American entrepreneur and web developer living in Houston. He is known for developing the free and open-source web software WordPress, now managed by The WordPress Foundation.

Mullenweg has been successfully running his global business remotely for many years so has some seasoned insights and has developed a helpful framework for managers and businesses to make sense of this journey towards a fully distributed team, by categorizing distributed teams into one of five levels of autonomy, based on how far along they are on the path to a “fully realised distributed experience”. He prefers the term ‘distributed’ to ‘remote’ as it does not imply there is a central hub that people are working remotely from. 

The five levels of autonomy: 

The five levels are inspired by the levels of autonomy of self-driving cars and are, (based on my interpretation); 

  1. The first level of autonomy is where most businesses were prior to the pandemic. In this instance, the business has not implemented processes and procedures for employees to work remotely. It assumes that if push comes to shove, staff can function but not thrive, remotely if needed; they have access to their phones and laptops and can dial into meetings or emails when needed to keep things moving along until they are back in the office.

    Companies operating at this level of autonomy had to make very big adjustments when the pandemic hit as they were largely unprepared to move so swiftly to a remote, online workspace.
  2. The second Level of autonomy is where most companies are now operating from since the pandemic. At level 2, businesses are doing what they have to do (working remotely) but they have, simply put, recreated what they were doing in the centralised office into a “remote” setting.

    They have embraced tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but real-time meetings have simply moved to the online platform, there are still a magnitude of interruptions to one’s day and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity as the adjustments take place. The normal working hours are still enforced and it is expected staff should be arriving at their desks at 8.30am and signing off around 5.30 and replicating sitting at their home offices, just as they would in the office. 
  3. The third level of autonomy is where a company and its employees begin to enjoy the benefits of being “remote-first”, or distributed.

    At this level, employees have settled into the remote working mindset and are better physically supported, having invested in technology and furnishings that fully support a long-term commitment to a distributed workplace. At this level, the company implements robust processes that start to replace meetings.

    For example, when on a Zoom call, you also have a real time documentation happening, like Google Docs all participants can take real-time notes together. At this level, the company has embraced remote working and may organise actual face-to-face collaborations with all members of the team one or two times a year before heading back to their remote working stations. Rather than using meetings as a go-to communication medium, companies operating at this level use articulate and timely written communication a lot more. At this level, meetings are only held if absolutely necessary with a preference for quick ad-hoc conversations, phone calls, email, text or instant messaging systems.  

    Meetings are more succinct, with a preference for 15 minutes time slots, must be accompanied by specific agendas and desired outcomes, include only necessary participants, have definitive and assigned next steps and importantly, can be replaced with written communications wherever possible, particularly if it’s about the sharing of information. 
  4. The fourth level of autonomy is remote working heaven. Employees are well and truly supported with an enviable ‘work from home’ set up and are given a lot more trust to manage their own time. Management is much less focused on keeping their team glued to their desk and engaged in meetings for the entire 9-5 working day. Instead, employees are evaluated on what they produce, not how or when they produce it.

    Written communication is embraced and employees are given time and space around their communications rather than being expected to produce immediate responses. This way of working is more beneficial for creative employees to fall into their flow and produce work at their own pace, in their own time, and around their own personal lives. Operating at this level of autonomy is arguably more favourable to companies and employees alike, who are more productive and generally happier, with rich and fulfilled lives, making for higher levels of productivity and lower levels of staff turnover.

    At this level, a company may tap into a global talent pool and not be dependent on only employing people who live within a 20km radius of their central or ‘legacy’ office. Many IT teams operate at this level. 
  5. The fifth level of autonomy is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organisation ever could. In an ideal world, you reach this level of autonomy when everyone within the organisation has reached their fullest potential, is operating and their most creative, most productive and is the most fulfilled they can ever expect to be in their careers.
    Mullenweg refers to this level as “an ideal that’s not wholly attainable”. But it’s good to have something to aim for, right? 

How distributed will your team be in the future? 

How is your distributed team travelling? With our new focus on vaccination rates and “learning to live with Covid” is there a plan to dismantle the remote work environment and move everyone back to a central office? Will this be instant, or staged? Alternatively, have you seen the benefits of remote working and plan to make it permanent? Will your business evolve your remote working platform even more and strive to operate as a fully-realised distributed team? What level of autonomy will work best for your business? I’d love to know. 

Could you and your leadership team do with one of my tailored workshops? I’ll share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. Don’t hesitate to get in touch today.

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