CubedThinks: Aligning remote teams – how can we do it better?

CubedThinks: Aligning remote teams – how can we do it better?

Woman Working at Home on a Web Chat Meeting

I’ve often used the terms “remote working” and “virtual working” without giving them too much thought. Now they have taken on more meaning in our current situation, and I feel I want to stop using both of them. Remote feels isolating and lonely, and virtual can sound like I’m not really doing any work.

There are teams of course who have always had colleagues who work remotely at some point, and as a consultant, it’s my dominant working pattern, although it’s a whole new ball game sharing my remote space with the rest of the family.

The imposed working circumstances we are experiencing at the moment are no doubt throwing challenges our way. Having clarity on shared purpose and direction are always key to enabling a highly functioning team of people who can deliver on what you need to achieve, but currently we are working in a situation where that vision may have shifted and we aren’t 100% sure of our future direction, with policy decisions in higher education still being debated, and uncertainty over student recruitment.

While governments are making plans to help employees return to their offices, there are many organisations who are communicating that home working is still going to be the norm well into the Autumn. As a manager, how can you ensure you keep your remotely working team engaged, aligned and working as effectively as you can?


  • Part of the effort involves trust – trust that employees are fully contributing, given their home working context and obvious distractions. Even in a normal working environment, “presenteeism” has often been able to cover up bad management or performance. Hopefully more managers are now recognising that being physically present isn’t always necessary for effective working and that they will need to be more comfortable with measuring performance on output, than on how many zoom meetings colleagues are present for.


  • Neuroscience tells us that in times of change, our brain responds by going into survival mode, with self-protection being a priority. That isn’t always conducive to collaborative working so this is where communicating regularly and as transparently as possible with your team is important. We still need to feel part of a team while working remotely and understand how we all contribute. Brain scans of people in pain and scans of those who are socially isolated, reveal identical patterns, so engaging with your team as meaningfully as possible has huge benefits for performance and wellbeing.


  • Create a safe space to have difficult conversations about things which colleagues feel are not working right now, and possibly haven’t for a while. Teams are often misaligned because there are issues left hanging, or because of a misunderstanding which got them there in the first place. Working at a distance from each other can often exacerbate those problems. Research by Joseph Grenny revealed that:


“virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located. Worse, they report taking five to 10 times longer to address their concerns.”


  • Be crystal clear about expectations. Whether it be project focus, changed objectives or new deadlines, be clear about what you expect and how you’d like your team to input. Organisations can move backwards if they don’t set out their objectives clearly – whether remotely working or not, but I’d argue that expectations need to be even more clearly expressed and followed up in the current situation.


So, with remote working continuing to be the norm for much of the remainder of 2020, how prepared are we to adapt more permanently to a physically dispersed working environment? Are we able to accept that teams can still function even if they aren’t co-located for the majority of their working days and can we manage them effectively?

It’s a learning curve for many of us, but an important one if we are going to deal confidently with uncertainty in our working life. So why don’t we stop using the terms “remote” and “virtual”, both of which can make it sound like we are working below our full potential. Resist the urge to differentiate and concentrate instead on supporting our teams to deliver from wherever they are based.

Suzy Giles is Managing Director of Giles Global Communications, a consultancy working with clients in Education, NGOs and the Not-For-Profit sectors. Suzy is the current Chair of the CIPR Education and Skills Sector Group and is a trained Mirror Mirror practitioner, working with organisations on team alignment and effectiveness.