How to get your remote team out of a rut

A new problem managers have to deal with after the Covid-19 lockdown is how to motivate remote teams stuck in a rut. In the past, team members working in the same space could feed off the energy from each other which worked wonders for team productivity and motivation.  But this is increasingly becoming difficult when dealing with remote teams.

We experienced this issue recently with one of our software delivery teams working remotely.  We had made tremendous progress at the beginning of the project but as we got to the mid-point, it became increasingly difficult to squeeze out any tangible progress from the team. I knew motivation was running low, but it was not clear what steps we could take to get the team out of this rut. At some point, the situation deteriorated so badly that it took almost a week to open social media accounts for the product. One week!!!!!

As with an electric car, when a team’s battery starts to run low, inertia sets in

The best mental model for the team’ motivation is like that of an electric car battery. As with an electric car, when a team’s battery starts to run low, inertia sets in. The first signs of a low team battery are missed deadlines, longer lead times to resolve technical issues, missed meetings, project stagnation, blame-shifting, low velocity etc.  The manager of remote teams should never ignore these signs in the hope that team members would miraculously get their groove back.  A manager’s priority must always be how to make their team successful and if low motivation levels are the barrier to success, the manager needs to address that immediately.

Historically, short term tactics like planning a team bonding session may have been enough to recharge the team’s batteries but this is much more difficult to achieve with remote teams. Unlike with co-located teams, motivation levels in remote teams are also dependent on the motivation levels of the individuals. This is because remote team members work in silos and as such need a level of self-motivation to function effectively within their silos (there is no opportunity to feed off the energy of coworkers).    As such, interventions to get a remote team out of a rut need to be done both at the team level and also at the individual level.

Unlike with co-located teams, motivation levels in remote teams are also dependent on the motivation levels of the individuals

Team Level Interventions

 Shorten Milestones

There is nothing so demotivating for a team like being on a project that seems to have no end in sight. Unfortunately, the longer the project goes on, the less motivation the team has, which in turn further slows down progress and further extends the lifetime of the project. This is a vicious cycle that if not broken can eventually detail the project.

As humans, we need assurance from time to time that we are heading in the right direction. In the book Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, the authors (Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister) explain that frequent closures are important for team members to get into the habit of succeeding together. Nothing boosts team morale like a win.

As humans, we need assurance from time to time that we are heading in the right direction

As such, managers of remote teams that are stuck in a rut, must find ways to get the team to quickly succeed together. One of the best ways to do this is to redesign the project plan to have shorter milestones. The successful completion of these shorter milestones by the team helps them win together more often and in turn boosts morale.

Change Something

Remote work is certainly more monotonous than office work. Remote workers usually sleep, eat and work in the same environment and most of their workdays are usually predictable. Such monotony can drain motivation levels. As they say, variety is the spice of life and injecting something new to the work routine of remote workers can do wonders for team motivation.

In the spring of 1932, efficiency experts ran a series of tests at Hawthorne Western Electric company to determine various environmental parameters on productivity. When they made the lights in their office brighter, productive went up. Interestingly, when they dimmed the lights in the office, productivity went up still. What they found, was that the brightness of the light really was not as important as the act of introducing change. Essentially, humans seem to perform better when trying something new.

As they say, variety is the spice of life and injecting something new to the work routine of remote workers can do wonders for team motivation.

This means managers can look to changing any number of factors to help get their remote team out of a rut. Examples of changes that managers could consider are

·     Giving the team a budget to buy new work chairs for their home office

·     Deciding to meet as a team physically one day a week (if possible)

·     Give remote teams Friday afternoons off

·     Changing meeting times or frequency

·     Adopting a new productivity tool

There are so many creative ways managers can introduce some change to boost productivity, but there is a caveat – As with any system, there are limits to the amount of newness that can be introduced before the system pushes back.  As such, managers need to employ this tactic with caution.

Refocus Team’s Attention

Recently, one of the software engineers in our technology business confided in me that he became weak when he realised the magnitude of the work effort required to implement a module on a product.  This made me laugh but it did raise a good point around focus. Product Owners tend to want as many features as possible packed into their products however in reality, only 20% of those features will be really valuable to the end users.

When a remote team is stuck in a rut, it is useful to have a meeting with product owner/manager to reprioritise the work to be done. With a new set of priority tasks, the team’s energy can be focused on a smaller set of valuable activities and as such help the team hit milestones quicker.

Individual Level Interventions

 Ask the Individual

When it seems a team member may be struggling to stay motivated, it usually helps for the manager to have a conversation with the individual.  The manager should speak honestly and genuinely with the team member to find out if there are barriers or issues preventing the individual from delivering results. Such conversations go a long way in helping the manager devise specific interventions that can address any barriers or issues.

Every great sports coach knows their job is to remove any barriers to an athlete’s success and likewise, great managers must work to remove all barriers to success for team members.

Every great sports coach knows their job is to remove any barriers to an athlete’s success and likewise, great managers must work to remove all barriers to success for team members

Career Conversations

It may not be immediately obvious to managers, but remote workers also fret and worry about their futures and career goals. More than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic has got more people worried about the future of their organisations and careers.  By simply having a career conversation with team members, managers can help alleviate some of those fears and refocus the energies of team members.

These career conversations should focus solely on the growth and career aspirations of the individual.  Managers must genuinely use this conversation to advise on current and future opportunities that individuals could explore to realise their future ambitions. This conversation should never be used to discuss the state of the current project or pending deliverables.

Even though remote workers are out of sight, they still want to be recognised and respected. Having such career discussions is all about these things.

Even though remote workers are out of sight, they still want to be recognised and respected. Having such career discussions is all about these things.

To conclude, there are any number of activities and factors that continually drain from a remote team’s battery, but managers must continually look for ways to keep the batter charged.  Whenever the team’s battery runs low, the responsibility falls to the manager to find ways to recharge the team’s batteries. When dealing with remote workers, such interventions must be done both at the team level and also at the individual level.  But under no circumstances, should managers ever ignore the warning signs of waning motivation in a remote team.

I would like to hear from you. How do you keep up the motivation levels of your remote teams?

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