Shared goals can spur remote work

Last Updated : 15 November 2021, 13:03 IST

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Even as schools open their gates to children after one-and-a-half years, companies are not necessarily following suit.

Many corporates are letting staff work remotely, at least a few days a week, as many workers prefer to work from home (WFH). The pandemic has impacted corporate life for the long term, so much so that WFH is here to stay even as the threat of COVID-19 gradually recedes.

But for remote work to benefit both employers and employees, it is crucial to get the dynamics right. In her book Remote Work Revolution, Harvard Business School professor, Tsedal Neeley, who has studied remote work for over two decades, outlines the importance of shared goals, both when a team is launched and thereafter.

Working remotely often entails coordinating with team members who may be dispersed in various geographic regions and time zones. Such distributed teams require more planning for them to function seamlessly.

Neeley cites the research of organisational psychologist, Richard Hackman, who held that successful teams embody the ‘60-30-10’ rule, wherein 60% of a team’s effectiveness is determined by prework, 30% on the ‘initial launch’ and 10% on the daily work as the team works together.

Prework is what happens even before a team comes together and includes decisions such as its ‘function, composition, design etc.’ The first-ever meeting of the team entails its launch. This is the time when members understand the goals of their team.

Further relaunches are required periodically, possibly every six to eight weeks, as work demands are always in flux and teams may need to re-strategise or recalibrate their goals.

Debate and dissent

During the initial meeting, it is important to ensure that the team is aligned. Neeley points out that being in alignment should not be conflated with a lack of disagreement. In fact, healthy teams encourage debate and dissent as it helps hone ideas and pinpoint errors.

While the team may ‘disagree on the how,’ they need to be in concordance on the ‘what’ or the overarching goals. So, the launch meeting should be used to communicate clearly defined goals that everybody accepts and understands.

The next step involves each member spelling out their individual responsibilities and goals so that everyone can see how they fit into the larger goals of the group. This is also an opportunity for each person to describe their workload as people are often part of multiple teams simultaneously.

Knowing that someone is working on three projects in parallel creates a different set of expectations from someone who is dedicated to a single team. When people work remotely, they don’t have visual cues of how other people chalk out their time, so it is prudent to clarify these details during the launch and subsequent meetings.

Teams also need to discuss how they will share resources, be it information, skills, budget or technology. Ensuring that everyone has the same updated versions of software prevents avoidable glitches later on. The group also needs to spell out communication norms for remote work to be successful.

Neeley suggests that every member is given a chance to speak during meetings as it is very easy to become invisible with WFH. Members may also be encouraged to address one another instead of directing all their comments to the group leader.

As WFH merges personal and professional boundaries, providing explicit guidelines on when to connect with colleagues and expect responses can be immensely useful.

Another important ingredient of constructive teams is psychological safety, a concept pioneered by Professor Amy Edmondson, wherein team members are comfortable expressing their opinions and exposing their vulnerabilities without feeling they are jeopardising their careers. Leaders may foster psychological safety online by acknowledging their own errors or shortcomings while encouraging colleagues to provide their views on various facets of their work.

Prevent isolation

A major drawback of WFH is that people can feel isolated. To counter this trend, leaders can insist on some in-person contact so that the people feel connected to their team and company. Leaders may also reach out to people individually over the phone or video to learn more about their aspirations, affinities and areas of potential growth.

Finally, teams may need relaunches, especially during times of overwork, crises or transitions, as the original goals may need to be redefined and reframed given the changed circumstances.

People may complain about wasting precious time attending a meeting during stressful periods. But Neeley avers that a meeting can be especially fruitful when the pressure ratchets up because team members may need to factor in new variables that can significantly impact the outcome of their joint efforts.

(The writer is an author and blogger)

Published 15 November 2021, 12:31 IST

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