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A manager's guide to remote teamwork: Establish new ground rules

August 13, 2020

See the full Manager's Remote Working Handbook here

The way you behave as a team is governed by a set of unwritten rules and behaviours. Usually these aren’t conscious or decided upon, they develop and transform over time, for the good and bad. Writing them down gives you control over them, rather than the other way round.


Investing time on the foundations of good teamwork — like agreeing on some team behaviours — can accelerate how quickly trust is built, which is hard to do remotely.


If working as a remote or distributed team is something you’re trying for the first time, it’s going to require a different set of norms. Small tweaks to your and your team’s behaviour and interaction style will prevent a loss in clarity, productivity or morale. These tweaks are most effective if you decide on them deliberately as a collective rather than allow them to emerge organically. A bit of trial and error will be required but formally agreeing them is key.


Taking an hour to work together and define those behaviours consciously is one of the most valuable conversations you can have during these testing times.

Why create a set of behavioural norms?

Research shows that working as a team to formally define norms can have positive benefits for the team: 

  • Provides control and security within relationships, which some of your employees may appreciate at this time.
  • Improves trust, accountability and responsibility: Having a shared set of norms makes it safe for anyone in the team to flag behaviour that is outside of these norms and, more importantly, ask why it’s happening. 
  • If teams can establish a strong foundation of trust based on their norms, this is a fantastic basis for other positive outcomes like healthy conflict and increased psychological safety.

How to create ground rules as a team

Timeframe: 1 hour (you’ll spend much more than an hour in side conversations trying to keep the peace if you don’t sit down as a group right at the start)

Number of people: Ideally the whole team

Facilitator: Anyone in the team, usually the team lead

Materials: 

  • A video-call so you can all see and hear each other.
  • A digital whiteboard or card-sorting tool - Trello, Miro or CoachBot. 

(CoachBot is ideal since it has an interactive digital session designed to coach the team while having exactly this conversation. If you don’t have access to CoachBot, you can use Miro or Trello with this facilitation guide.)

The exercise asks team members to brainstorm answers to the question:
Within our team's new working environment, what are the worst ways we could behave?

It then provides a step-by-step framework to discuss answers, group them into themes and flip them into positive team commitments.

Access facilitation guide.


Output from a team behaviours session

THE SCIENCE OF COLLECTIVE RULE MAKING
Agreeing shared behavioural norms is one way to lay the foundation for psychological safety.
Social norms allow individuals to know what is, and is not, expected from them. This reduces social anxiety around an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.
Google’s Project Aristotle found Psychological Safety to be the single biggest factor in distinguishing high performance in more than 180 teams.

Next: Reflect with regular retrospectives

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