How to create accountability with your remote team

by
Remote Team Accountability

A common issue when managing a remote team is answering a seemingly simple question - "what is my team working on?"

When you were in the office, you could rely on a lot of passive data points, observation, meetings, and random water-cooler conversations to figure out what people were doing. This continuous data gathering exercise (passive or active) gave you a sense of how everything was going, which made your job easier.

Now that you are remote, you have fewer data points and observational cues on hand, which means it's easy to feel disconnected and out of touch with your team.

So what do you do?

As a leader, you are responsible for the output of your team, so it's your job to know what's going on. But how do you answer this question in a way that's respectful of your team's time and without coming across as a micro-manager?

That's the fun part and the purpose of this post 🤣

What you can expect to learn below

  1. You will learn how leaders are trying to keep their remote teams accountable right now and how it's not working
  2. We will create a conceptual model that helps you put together the necessary components for staying accountable when running a remote team
  3. We'll discuss specific tactics for understanding what your team is working on - without coming across as an annoying micro-manager.

Why should you trust what I have to say?

I've been working remotely for about seven years so I've experienced some things as a team leader and individual contributor 😂. Additionally, 80% of Friday users say it helps them stay accountable, so we've learned a lot here as we build product to help solve these problems with our customers.

Why is it tougher to keep a team accountable when remote?

Now, let's get more tactical and investigate why it can be difficult to create accountability when leading a remote team. At a high-level accountability is tough in the office, but it can be exacerbated when working remotely. Why?

I would argue that there are three major reasons:

1.) Fewer observational cues and data points (information gathering)

When you are in the office you can rely on observation more heavily to do your job as a leader. People refer to this as a "butts in seat" style of management.

Leaders use techniques like management by walking around to understand what people are working on. Nowadays, it's more like management by chatting around.

According to recent Microsoft research, with everyone working remotely, people are spending 10% more time in meetings and team leaders are using workplace chat tools twice as much.

To recap, team leaders are having trouble gathering information about what's going on, resorting to meetings/chat to help bridge the gap between the office and remote. They are on the hunt for additional data points to do their job!

2.) Nudging can be more difficult and can be easily misinterpreted

According to Andy Grove, the author of High Output Management, one of the major activities a leader performs is "nudging". These are quick actions that course-correct behavior. Grove defines nudges as, "doing things at the office designed to influence events slightly."

The problem is that when working remotely, it's easy to miscommunicate (especially as a leader). When you are in-person, there's an opportunity to establish common ground and clear up misconceptions in real-time.

3.) Commitments aren't documented and are implied + vague

Another problem I see is that these commitments aren't documented in a transparent way. For example, most non-technical teams I've worked with are not great at documenting these commitments.

Project management tools are frequently stale and out of date. In the real world, they don't serve as a source of truth for these commitments. Some people have effective PM tools, some don't.

What happens when these commitments aren't documented? 

  • It can be easy to be misunderstood, as two people have different memories of what the other said.
  • When things are written down, it's much easier to talk about something tangible that can be referenced.

The only exception I see to this rule is that engineering teams tend to do a pretty solid job, especially if they follow some type of agile process that enforces these aspects of a commitment (think sprint planning or retrospectives).

The building blocks of accountability

Now, let's talk about accountability at a high-level to start to build a conceptual model for how we can address the problems that we face when remote.

Accountability is defined as a willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions. In other words, if you say you will do something, will you do it? How much can I trust that you will do what you say?

two people shaking hands

In the average workday, we make commitments (oftentimes implied commitments) to our colleagues on a regular basis. This happens in meetings, workplace chat, and elsewhere. I think accountability consists of a few basic components, which I will mentioned below:

1.) A commitment to perform an activity at a specific time in the future

This isn't rocket science. The first component is to share what you aim to accomplish in a given time period. It's a forward-looking statement about a future outcome.

Examples:

  • "I'll get this code deployed by the end of today"
  • "I will have that report sent your way before that important meeting on Tuesday"

I will do [activity] by [due date]

2.) Sharing progress along the way

This next component isn't required, but is helpful to establish trust. If you commit to perform a specific activity by a specific date, you can ease a lot of stakeholder concern by sharing how you are trending as you make progress.

By actively sharing progress along the way, it's pretty easy to course-correct or resolve any areas with ambiguity. It also helps stakeholders establish empathy if the project is a little late.

The goal here is to create transparency around the inputs as you work towards the outcome.

3.) Delivery, Reflection, and Introspection

The third and most important component to accountability is delivering on what you said you would do. Are you late on the commitment you made? If you are late, are you honest about why you were late? Do you accept responsibility? How will you course-correct in the future?

Once again, this is not rocket science. This is phase of reflection, introspection, and potentially changing future behavior.

4.) A little bit of implied peer pressure along the way

A little bit of peer pressure is a wonderful thing when you are trying to stay accountable. It's why having a personal trainer works if you're trying to get in shape. The same is true in a work environment.

According to research, you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down and share it with others. This is another key component of staying accountable.

The remote team accountability playbook

In this final section, I'll outline how you can dramatically increase accountability when remote. It revolves around tapping into the building blocks of accountability listed above:

  1. Clear commitments
  2. Sharing progress
  3. Reflection, introspection, and course correcting
  4. A little peer pressure

I recommend three specific playbooks to help. While you don't need to do all these things, I've certainly found all three to be helpful.

1.) Establish priorities at the beginning of the week (Monday)

Every Monday, we run a workflow in Friday that asks the following questions:

  • How was your weekend?
  • What do you aim to accomplish this week? <- important

This helps each person set a high-level goal for the week and self opt-in to what their output should be.

It also helps me as a leader start to build a conceptual model for what our output should look like by the end of the week. Even better, this is documented, so I can reference it over time and the potential to be misunderstood is much lower vs. if they told me this in a meeting.

Responses are also shared with the rest of the team, which creates a bit of peer pressure to do what you say 😉

2.) Share what you are working on daily (Tuesday-Friday)

Next, we run a daily standup that asks the following questions:

  • What did you accomplish yesterday?
  • What are you working on today?
  • Anything else you'd like to share?

Quite frankly, this cadence isn't critical as some days people don't have many new things to share...but it's a great way to intentionally share a bit about your day.

That's why we ask - "anything else you'd like to share?" This question helps people share if they are going to step out or will be unavailable. We also learn a little bit more about each other as people (see example below):

This transparency helps set accurate expectations. For example, if I know a coworker will be out in the afternoon, I'll try not to ping them!

3.) Reflect at the end of the week (Friday)

The final playbook I recommend running is a Friday check-in. Internally, we ask the following questions:

  • How did you feel about the week?
  • How productive were you this week?
  • What went well this week?
  • What was the worst part of your week? Anything I can do to help?

Unlike the other playbooks, this is only visible by me (the team leader). This serves as a 1-1 meeting complement as it allows me to get honest feedback on what's really going on at work.

Friday check-in

We also share at a high-level how we are progressing towards our key goals for the month.

Goals

As you can see, these routines help create a sense of accountability without requiring constant status update meetings or constant management by chatting around.

The information is pushed to me in the most minimal way possible. This helps build a more flexible workplace and taps into what makes remote work so awesome...flexibility!

Wrapping up

There is an awareness gap that you need to cross when working remotely. You can collect this information as a leader in an ad-hoc way, or you can create systems so it flows your way on a regular basis.

If you want a more predictable remote work experience as a leader, I recommend giving Friday a try. 80% of our users say it helps create accountability, so if this is an area of struggle, I'm pretty sure we can help you out.