The Perils and Opportunities of Remote Teamwork

by | Aug 29, 2020 | Managing Teams, Lindy Greer

Remote teamwork has become the new normal for organizations around the globe. And while remote teams pose challenges for employees to collaborate and perform, they also offer enormous opportunities. Below we reflect on one the key opportunity in this respect: the potential to learn lessons that can make teams better when they go back to face-to-face work.

The Challenges of Remote Teams

Remote teamwork is like a magnifying glass for underlying people issues in companies. This is because virtual collaboration is less forgiving of poor leadership and inadequate team structures and processes than face-to-face interactions. In both situations – remote and face-to-face – teams face similar challenges in coordination and conflict management. However, remote teams lack much of the social context – the presence of social cues, such as nonverbal nuances, movement, and so on – that can help provide information to align actions and work through workplace tensions. Asynchronous communication – emails and texts – makes it harder to clarify and resolve ambiguities and misunderstandings right away, instead of letting them linger. And even in video calls, the fluidity of normal, face-to-face interaction is lost: it is impossible to have quick parallel person-to-person check-ins that often accompany the main line of discussion in face-to-face team meetings. As such, remote teams tend to suffer from misalignments more quickly in task strategies and workplace conflicts that escalate and become personal. 

The Opportunities of Remote Teams

While remote teams do face numerous challenges, remote work also offers numerous opportunities. CEOs of startups that were built remote from scratch go so far as to say that remote work allows teams and organizations to achieve results not possible in person. Remote teams have access to talent around the globe, rather than being restricted to the talent pool in any one geographic location. Remote teams also offer flexible work policies, which can help improve employee effort and motivation. Finally, and most importantly, running remote organizations requires intentionality around the people side of work – a focus that has been shown to be a key determinant of organizational success.

The number one reason companies go under are people issues, which become amplified in remote work. The detrimental and dysfunctional team dynamics that would otherwise fly under the radar become more salient and noticeable. This could be a blessing in disguise: managers can address these dynamics early, before they balloon to uncontrollable issues that could bring their teams down. More importantly, having remote work can position managers to address and create solutions for effective collaboration to enable sustained success for their teams, well beyond the current digital hiatus.

Tips and Best Practices to Make the Best of Remote Teamwork

The most important thing you can do for your remote team (and which will also help your face-to-face teams!) is to formalize the ways in which the teammates work together. Formal structures can scaffold, or hold together, the team as it strives to perform in the face of uncertainty and change. In particular, your team’s culture, objectives, processes, and experimentation – C.O.P.E. for short – are the key areas of teamwork, where putting in structures and formalized ways of work can help unleash your team’s true potential.

• Culture. Formalizing culture may sound paradoxical, but research shows that intentionally curated strong cultures are critical to organizational success.[1] In formalizing your culture, it’s important to get clear on the 3 to 5 values that underpin your mission, and then for each of those values and your associated mission, think about 3-5 cultural practices you could formalize. For example, one 3-D printing company emphasized the cultural identity of being builders: they build their office furniture, build pancakes during interviews with new recruits, and have ‘builders’ meetings’ to share what other groups in the company are working on. What are your company’s cultural identities and associated practices and traditions? How can you formalize them and bring them into the online environment?

• Objectives. Formalizing long-term objectives and associated short-term key results is good for any team.[2] For remote teams, this is make-or-break for survival. Many methods exist for getting short- and long-term individual and team goals on paper. For your remote team, the bare minimum is to get the team’s objectives into a shared document that is visible to team members daily. Doing so will be critical for preserving the team’s alignment and directing the members’ energy in the same unified direction. What are your goals for your team during this team? What are the results each member of your team is hoping to achieve to support those team goals?

• Processes. Creating agreed-upon processes, or ways of working together, is beneficial for any team, but it is absolutely essential for remote teams. This is because it is more difficult for remote teammates to check in frequently with their teammates and managers to ensure consistent ways of doing things. Moreover, remote teams may struggle with the transition to a new way of accomplishing work and learning how to do familiar tasks in the virtual environment. It is thus essential to ensure consistent processes are formalized, visible, and clearly communicated. Formalizing team processes can take the form of onboarding manuals, meeting norms, and management playbooks.

In one Fortune 500 firm, the transition to digital work was coupled with a detailed layout of each professional’s week, with recommended amounts of time to engage with clients, peers, pre-scheduled stand-up meetings, and meetings with their manager. The key performance indicators were refined to capture the need for continuous internal collaboration and external contact with customers. At first, the team’s reaction was a mixture of surprise and even push back regarding the amount of structure imposed, but now employees find it to be helpful. As it turned out, people valued regular opportunities to connect with their peers and managers and appreciated the clear guidance on how to allocate their time. More important, such guidance provided options for concrete and measurable adjustment, depending on teammates’ feedback and performance.

Take for example your team’s Zoom meetings. What are your team’s preferences and best practices surrounding the number of people to have in a given meeting? How does that vary by meeting type: townhall versus decision-making? What is your policy around video on versus off, and how will you manage participation and facilitation?

• Experimentation. For a final paradox, consider – gasp! – structuring flexibility. As it turns out, doing so is critically important for remote teams and especially right now. Research on entrepreneurial success and flexibility shows that structure and professionalization is key for startup success.[3] For newly remote teams, be deliberate about enabling teams to adapt and experiment with different types of structures as they encounter new challenges and gain skills with remote work. What is one experiment you could run with your team this week? For example, could you try a process rule that decision-making meetings have no more than 5 people? What data could you collect to see if this process makes for more or less effective meetings? When and how will you decide to keep, amend, or scarp this process?

As you help your team’s transition to this new world of remote work, lean into the C.O.P.E-ing skills your team needs right now. And look for the silver lining – helping your team better COPE now will help your team not just thrive in the current environment but will also help your people do better once they are back face-to-face again!

[1] Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership, 4th ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Doerr, J. (2018). Measure what matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation rock the world with OKRs. Penguin.

[3] Knight, A. P., Greer, L. L., & De Jong, B. (2020). Start-Up Teams: A Multidimensional Conceptualization, Integrative Review of Past Research, and Future Research Agenda. Academy of Management Annals14(1), 231-266.


Lindy Greer headshot

Lindy Greer, Faculty Director & Associate Professor of Management and Organizations

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Maxim Sytch, Faculty Champion & Associate Professor of Management and Organizations