The Alchemy of Team Productivity – Managing for performance with dispersed teams

team productivity

Organisations mature and young have been pleasantly surprised at the agility with which their employees have pivoted to remote and dispersed working models through the Covid crisis. Many report a jump in individual productivity in the work from home model. A public-sector bank found its employees moving easily to google meetings. Another education NGO with its field force flung far and wide was able to pivot to online working in less than 24 hours!

But team productivity seems to have taken a hit. Primarily because all interactions are now deliberate and planned, communication between team members has become a huge effort. Opportunities to observe learn and keep abreast of happenings informally are just not available and it is no longer possible to just lean over and ask a colleague for a clarification. Everything, therefore, takes longer and managers are torn between the need to trust their teams and doubt about whether everyone is really giving their best.

On the upside, a lot of the same factors that contributed to team performance in the old model of working still enable teams to pull together while working virtually. During conversations with clients, we found in fact that the organizations that had invested in creating strong team cultures and empowering team members transitioned to the new normal without missing a beat.

So here is a quick recap of things to do that may boost team productivity – whether you follow a remote working model or a more traditional one.

Facilitating alignment through task structure

Designing the task environment is about enabling team members to depend on each other to do quality work on time. This takes a lot of pressure off by reducing the need for follow-ups, enables quick turn-around and consultative working.

  • Basic housekeeping– ensure your team members working remotely have all the set up they need to work smoothly. Some things are easier to solve for – procuring devices or getting proper WiFi set up – but other things may be harder like dedicated space in the house to work. Support your team to negotiate both on the work front and home front to find appropriate solutions
  • Set working rhythms: Asynchronous working often leads to information bottlenecks, miscommunication between team members about availability, turn-around times, etc. Zapier uses Slack and everyone must be live on it when ‘at office and not in meetings’. Setting rhythms manages expectations of access.
  • Regularly reset the compass: All teams work smoothly when there are clear goals and deadlines. This is more so for dispersed teams where people can get distracted easily. A daily live check-in to start the day and an end of day email update on activity helps. Monday mornings with each team member articulating their top priorities for the week (I want to close on this client) helps others know where they might need urgent support and be more responsive when asked for help/ inputs.
  • Set clear performance benchmarks: Feedback should be sought and given generously so everyone can be aligned on what is to be done and how. Set time aside weekly for this and come up with a common model for feedback that is constructive so everyone also speaks the same language.

Facilitating involvement through the social fabric

Designing the social environment is about ensuring psychological safety, creating a sense of belonging, and building team members’ competencies to self-manage, listen deeply and work collaboratively. We find that leaders with exceptional teams spend a much larger proportion of their time managing these factors relative to task-related matters.

  • Communication becomes king: Leaders must amplify focus on internal communication. Equip your team to be better communicators both in writing as well as over calls and meetings. Coach them to ask and receive the help they need, communicate in detail around handovers, and be able to talk to each other productively even without the leader’s presence
  • Actively instill a common work ethic and culture: Even in co-located teams, culture is difficult to convert into action. The problem is exacerbated in dispersed teams. But take effort to signal it in practices that leaders do. For e.g. with ‘being a trusted client advisor’, articulate what that means in terms of internal communication. To be customer centric, have support teams manage response times closely.
  • Creating team connection: The mechanisms of coffee breaks and lunchtime catch-ups are not natural in dispersed teams. So work them into interactions. Start every meeting with a 5 mins open-ended catch-up before getting down to agenda. Some teams that we know had some off-duty sessions online – talent shows, birthday parties and so on. You could even institute an in-person day now and then where possible. Important to remember is that trust gets built not because of doing something informal or un-related to work, but because a shared history gets created together.
  • Celebrate efforts and achievements together: Celebrate successes even small wins, recognize contribution and take steps to make everyone feel they are part of the same journey. Also acknowledge where efforts were significant, even when results are not met. You want a team that remains motivated and engaged and working hard through the slumps. So celebrate if someone used their time to grow (learn a new skill, for example) as well as targets met.

By employing a combination of these measures, leaders can support their teams to improve decision making efficiency, reduce mistakes and rework, improve turn-around times and overall perform with agility. Given this may well become the new normal; it is certainly something to think about!

Do check out our study on teams in the performing arts for more ideas on managing team performance