Leaders have rarely had to navigate such a complex set of circumstances and uncertainty as they have in the last few years. With the onset of a global pandemic and the sudden catapult into a fully distributed environment, the way we work and relate to our teammates has transformed. Leaders must be adept at keeping their teams coherent and engaged, even when working remotely.

To find out more about the best practices for remote working teams, iTechArt’s CTO of Digital Solutions, Glyn Roberts, spoke to Org Designer Mackenzie Fogelson about her approach to creating high-performing teams.

Mackenzie coaches executives, teams and organisations to create lasting behavioural, system and cultural change that helps them become more adaptive, resilient and human. Mackenzie is an accomplished writer, speaker and former entrepreneur and a certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator who has studied under Brené Brown.

Glyn: What is a high-performing team?

Mackenzie: High-performing teams have courage and know how to work with uncertainty. They are open about how they’re feeling and the issues that arise from working together. If difficult feelings or behaviours show up they know how to address and work through them.

In many remote teams, uncertainty is inevitable, and uncertainty builds fears, tensions and feelings for all team members. To work at their best, teams need to make the space to process these emotions as they come up. If that doesn’t happen then they get buried and they end up slowing the team down and being harmful to the individual team members. But it takes courage to address problems and tensions. It takes courage to be accountable for our own mistakes and to admit when we’re wrong and ask for help.

The challenge for team leaders is to find a way to lead through fears and challenges and to model courage without using blame or shame. If blame and shame start to creep in then work starts to feel hard and problems start to arise.

Glyn: How do we go about building teams who can trust each other?

Mackenzie: When difficult behaviours show up, we need to bring the team together straight away and look directly at what is happening. Ask the question ‘what is not working for us?’ More often than not, the problem is arising from someone’s fears or personal concerns about their productivity. If those feelings and fears are addressed early enough then they can be dealt with before they escalate.

It’s messy and hard, but often the best way to build trust is to move through something hard together as a team. It’s a good way to show that it’s normal to have conflict and struggles and that naming those things and addressing them quickly is important. The ideal team is not one that never has any conflict. If your team is struggling, embrace that and bring them together to work through the problem. It can be a really good way for team leaders to model how to have hard conversations.

Glyn: If you’re a team leader and you see signs of stress and fatigue in your team, what do you do?

Mackenzie: Don’t ignore it.

Sometimes when we feel we have a lot to do, there’s a temptation to keep on pushing and pushing, but that will just drive our teams into the ground. Firstly, openly acknowledge what is going on for your team and then create space to talk about it.

After that, look at the processes you are working with and try to experiment with ways to make things easier for your team members. For example, remember that a lot of things can be done asynchronously so people can work at times that suit them. Remind your team that they’re in control of their calendars.

Next, look at how you communicate and the communication channels your team uses. That can be anything from Teams or Slack to software like Trello or other work management tools. Make sure the team is really clear about where they communicate with each other and when. Ideally, look to reduce email because it’s hard to do a lot of fast-moving, high performing things on email.

Make space in your calendar to hold retrospectives with your team. They can be once a week or once a month – whatever works for your team. Use the retrospectives to ask the hard questions like:

  • What could we be doing better?
  • What is stopping us from being our best?

After that, encourage your team to try small experiments with system or platform changes to see if they can find better ways of working.

Remote teams

Glyn: Can you give us an example of a team you have worked with who have overcome challenges?

Mackenzie: I recently worked with a remote team whose purpose is to handle high-stress, high-stakes turnaround work for one of the largest clients in their company. When I first met them they told me they didn’t really need help. They really liked each other, they got along really well, they have a lot of fun and everything was working well.

For me, that’s a warning sign.

A few weeks later they made quite a large mistake that was jeopardising the account. Fairly quickly the cracks started to show and the team fell into fighting and disagreements. People were talking about each other behind each other’s backs, which led to finger pointing and blame. Luckily, this team were brave enough to risk being vulnerable, which is the first step into the process of helping a team become high performing, so I was able to try a few techniques to get them back on track.

Firstly, we got the whole team into a virtual room where we held something called a ‘real talk’ session. We used Zoom and Trello to facilitate the session and we set some ground rules to make sure we could have a very safe and honest space to talk about what was really going on. We used a Trello board where I posted four questions (the first three questions are suggested by Jerry Colonna as Magic Questions):

  • What am I not saying that needs to be said?
  • What am I saying that’s not being heard?
  • What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
  • What do I need that I am not getting?

The team had more than 30 cards to place under that first question. Immediately that was a sign there was mistrust in the team. Once we got all of that onto the Trello board we started to make our way through a lot of the conversations. That first session was about 2 hours long. By the end the team had decided they were willing to try to move forward with different patterns.

They were able to name and own some experiments they were willing to try. It was important that they were not being leader led or being told what to do by a manager. It was the team working together to look at how they could make things better.

Glyn: What can managers do to help their teams become more high performing?

Mackenzie: Take a look at the two components of high performing teams and companies. I call them ‘Ways of Being’ and ‘Ways of Doing’.

When I worked with the team I mentioned before, we addressed the Ways of Being by looking at the kinds of tools you need as a human being to navigate uncertain and complex environments. Essentially, looking at how the team was showing up at work. It was important that the team had the tools they needed to show up in a positive way. Some of the tools we worked with were ensuring each team member knew their personal values and also how to get back to centre when things begin to feel really hard. We also looked at knowing how to leverage vulnerability rather than shutting down with armour and stopping communication, which had been a habit this team were prone to in the past. We worked on how to have courage to talk to people directly and to be honest when it’s needed.

To look at the Ways of Doing, we reviewed all of the systems and processes they were using. We made space within those operating rhythms to process any fears, frustrations and tensions that were arising. A common habit for a lot of teams is to notice that things are feeling chaotic and uncertain, and then to want to bring that into control. But we looked at better ways of working that might include creating a space in which it feels ok to try new things and in which the whole team focuses on experimenting and planning into the uncertainty.

As a result of these reviews, we made some clear changes to the ways that the team interacted with each other. We decided to start every meeting that we had with a quick traffic light check-in, where each participant stated whether they were coming to the meeting green and ready to go, yellow and a little distracted, or red, meaning that other things were going on and you really weren’t prepared to be in the meeting at all. Practices like that helped everyone to show up in a more human way. This is especially important for remote teams.

Whether you are co-located or remote working, if you want your team to be high performing, you have to pay attention to whether your team has the tools and systems they need to be able to feel more human with each other and to be able to communicate well when things start to feel difficult.

It’s important to remember, this is always a work in progress. It’s a practice. Your team will never be perfect or done with this work.