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Remote teams fall apart. This is the framework Nile uses to keep them together.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a memo to the Nile team titled “Business as Unusual”. In it I spoke about the two things that will get us through this; our mindset, and our toolset.

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That memo has grown into something much, much bigger. It’s something which we are sharing with our clients, and it has formed the foundation of our service response to the crisis.

In the spirit of community mindedness, I want to share some of the key messages from that client deck here for everyone to read. I know many people will find it useful.

This first part is about the mindset that keeps distributed teams together.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way.

Over the last few weeks, I think we’ve all learnt a couple of things:

Switching to ‘remote by default’ is hard.

Many of our clients and friends are switching to full-remote working for the first time. Some are finding it challenging to keep teams engaged, aligned and delivering the outcomes they need.

It’s worth remembering that this isn’t normal ‘working from home’. As my colleague Jonty noted: you’re not really asking your team to ‘work from home’. Your team are legally required to stay at home with their families, and you’re asking them to try and work at the same time. There’s a difference. Expectations must flex appropriately.

Second, tech isn’t going to solve these problems on its own

The remote collaboration market is going through a boom right now. Each tool positions itself as the perfect solution to remote working challenges.

But make no mistake: adopting slick video conferencing tools and pushing Tandem, Slack, MS Teams etc. might be necessary for effective collaboration, but it’s never going to be sufficient.

Great distributed teams find ways to recreate the rituals and systems that co-located teams take for granted. In these extraordinary times, this is more important than ever.

Successful distributed teams have two things figured out:

  1. Their mindset: how they mentally approach remote working.
  2. Their toolset: the technology and products they use to support their approach.

Over the years of managing remote teams on various different projects, we’ve created a semi-formalised mindset and toolset for remote working teams. It’s to be used as a foundation for the team; a base set of simple ideas and approaches we’ve found universally applicable across all teams we’ve worked with.

‘Deliberately Human’ — Nile’s distributed working mindset:

Our ‘Deliberately Human’ approach to remote teams is a robust set of rituals and practices designed to foster human connection at a distance. It’s underpinned by a positive interpretation of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Nile’s positive interpretation of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team
What effective teams do: Nile’s positive interpretation of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Remote or not, what makes an effective team?

There are five levels at which all teams need to perform to function effectively.

The ‘five dysfunctions of a team’ is shown here as a hierarchy wherein each level is enabled by the underlying layers. For example, mutual commitments to one another (3) can’t remain strong if the team fundamentally don’t trust one another (5).

In our experience — much like Lencioni’s — we’ve seen teams succeed when they:

  1. Focus on the right outcomes. Tracking. progress against strategic priorities, changing and shaping work to deliver outcomes, not outputs. Because they…
  2. Hold themselves and others accountable. The whole team understands that they are joint stewards of the outcomes, and work together accordingly. That’s because they…
  3. Make and deliver on commitments to one another. Pursuing clarity, buy-in and alignment as regular objectives with one another and the wider stakeholder team. Whilst they….
  4. Surface, manage and resolve conflict effectively. Issues are confronted. quickly, as a team, developing practical solutions and getting buy-in, with minimal politics. All because they…
  5. Trust one another. And THAT’S because they cultivate a safe environment to speak up and show vulnerability, while helping each other and leveraging each others’ strengths.

It’s not surprising that each of these traits are more challenging to develop in distributed teams, who typically miss out on the benefit of close contact, casual conversation and richer feedback.

Time and time again we have observed situations where distributed client teams suffer from disconnection and fail as a result. Seemingly innocuous habits build into a spiral of behaviours that punch larger and larger holes in the fabric of the team. Eventually, there’s nothing left.

Laura and Calum Macleod pick up the pieces from a failed construction attempt. Photo: Jonty Fairless from the 2019 Nile team trip.

The typical decline we’ve observed in teams moving to remote working typically follows the hierarchy quite neatly:

  1. People focus on their task list, not the reason they have a task list. Team members struggle to see the big picture, and so focus only on their siloed tasks, rather than the outcomes those tasks were originally designed to deliver.
  2. Team members skirt challenging situations, absolving themselves of responsibility. As the situation gets. harder, remote working makes it easier to hide from challenging situations, or believe that an issue is someone else’s problem – ‘that as it doesn’t fall in my direct silo of tasks, it’s someone else’s problem’.
  3. Promises are broken so often that promises are never made. Promises are easier to keep – and hold others to – when you’re sitting face to face with someone. With sporadic contact, teams often let deadlines slide by, let each other down, and then don’t talk about it. This undermines the whole network of commitments that hold a team together.
  4. Grudges build. Conflict resolution is hard in person. It’s nearly impossible in an inexperienced remote team. As promises are broken, conflict remains unresolved. The more conflict that goes unresolved, the more intimidating it is to broach the subject. It’s a downward spiral.
  5. The team falls apart. At the end of this spiral, some distributed teams end up being a group of people working loosely on the same thing, but with no evidence that they ought to trust one another.

The main takeaway from Lencioni’s model is that effective teams are built on trust. It is trust and the reasons for trust that are undermined by mindless remote working. But trust is the foundation on which human connections are built, and from which outcomes are delivered.

Fixing a broken team is hard. So make sure to get it right from the beginning.

Trust is crucial, and trust is harder in distributed teams. Take deliberate steps, early, to ease a team into a new way of working.

Sometimes these steps may feel over-the-top. That’s normal; what was casual and effortless in person becomes challenging and awkward when remote.

We always try to go further with our remote teams.

We’ve built our ‘deliberately human’ package of behaviours and rituals to build and safeguard trust in distributed teams. Some of the way these manifest include:

  • Dedicating time at the start of projects for teams to get to know each other as people, not just colleagues
  • We build for asynchronous participation in key activities, allowing for valuable contributions while working flexibly
  • We schedule serendipity – designing-in time for ad hoc debriefs throughout the project and after key milestones – as you would naturally do in a co-located team
  • We protect hangout time, building rituals and structures to increase team contact and conversation
  • We construct versatile digital workspaces, using a suite of tech tools to create collective online “mind palaces” as a team.
  • We keep an eye out for the unspoken communication quirks of digital remote working – like being OK with pregnant pauses due to unmuting, or going further to create space for input from quieter team members

These principles didn’t materialise out of nowhere, they came from trial and error and the deliberate analysis of what we took for granted far too often in person. By putting in the effort to strengthen our team bonds remotely, we’ll come out of this stronger, more resilient and with a greater appreciation for the subtleties of human connections within our teams.

Now, what’s on the cards for Netflix Party tonight?

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Neil Coleman

Neil Collman

Practice Director

I’m a design leader, speaker and strategist who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design. Have a question about something I’ve written? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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