GETBUSY GUIDES

How to keep your remote, distracted team productive

The world has changed forever

We are living in a period of unparalleled social change.

COVID has changed the way businesses operate forever and pushed many towards a remote work future that may become the new normal for years to come.

As a result, many businesses are repositioning and realigning to survive. To ‘pivot’ – a term that has long been associated with entrepreneurial innovation – has crossed into wider use. To pivot is becoming the new universal, especially during the current pandemic when staying resilient and relevant as a company is under increased threat.

In business terms, to pivot is to recognise the need to make an immediate change in direction, and to act on it. For business leaders, that means asking not only what we want to do, but also how we do it.

It means moving fast, but it also follows a four-stage process:

  1. Reflection and re-evaluation.
  2. Understanding your stakeholders.
  3. Building strategic alliances.
  4. Innovating and evolving.

Within your organisation, this raises a number of immediate questions:

  • What needs to change, and why?
  • What – and who – will the changes impact?
  • What is the strategy for communicating change?
  • How do we provide the necessary tools and support?
  • How will we measure the process?

During any pivot, repositioning or realignment, the teams of which you are a part must also adapt to stay effective and productive. With more people than ever currently working from home, colleagues furloughed, and individual roles and responsibilities being altered and expanded, pivoting to new ways of working is a priority.

We now operate in a world of decentralised and inter-departmental teams, and are connected across a multitude of platforms – email, voice and SMS, instant messaging, group chat, video conferencing apps, cloud-based workspaces and collaboration hubs.

This hyper-connected workplace creates challenges. Communication channels compete for colleagues’ time and attention, and while collaboration can achieve alignment, it also disrupts the uninterrupted, focused work of individuals.

In times of accelerated change, managers need to ensure that decentralised teams use appropriate communication and collaboration tools to stay empowered and productive. This requires clear direction in aligning teams to focus on specific goals.

Engaging your team

Achieving quick and decisive transformation in the workplace requires clear communication and accountability, and throughout any process of change you need buy-in from all relevant stakeholders.

However, getting people on board isn’t always easy, especially if your team members are disengaged from the company vision and business goals.

A 2018 Gallup survey in the US underlined how low levels of employee engagement might disempower team productivity. The poll discovered:

  • 13% of respondents reported that they are ‘actively disengaged ’from their work
  • 53% are generally satisfied, but not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work
  • Only 34% of employees are truly ‘engaged’ in their work

It is too early to know if the huge recent increase in numbers of people working from home will see engagement levels rise or fall. It may be prudent to remember, however, that until recently colleagues employed on an ‘out-of-office’ arrangement were often described as working ‘remotely’. A fully engaged and productive team is unlikely to feel this sense of ‘distance’ or ‘remoteness’.

The connection between engagement and productivity is well known. Of course, many factors influence employee engagement and some – salary and benefits, for example – may be out of a team manager’s jurisdiction. However, Gallup research suggests that improving engagement levels is often about concrete behaviours, rather than abstract or holistic ideas around corporate culture.

Clarifying expectations, setting achievable objectives, providing the right tools and support, and promoting positive and productive co-worker relationships, should be a priority for any team manager at a time of major change in the workplace.

Whatever you are trying to achieve, throughout all communications, consider the following:

  • What needs to be communicated to take the next step forward?
  • Who needs to receive that communication?
  • When do they need to see or hear it?
  • What actions need to result from that communication?
  • What channels, or platforms, are best for making this happen?
  • How will this engage your team?
  • How does it contribute to effective team-working?

Practical steps towards productivity

On a day-to-day level, there are practical steps that can be taken to keep your team engaged and increase its effectiveness.

Overcoming immediate challenges by breaking them down into achievable tasks can help you maintain momentum.

Whether working from home, or in the office, reducing the number of small distractions that upset our working patterns can make a big difference. Distractions tend to fall into two categories:

  • Self-imposed
  • Environmentally imposed

Self-imposed distractions are of our own making and within our control. For example, we might receive social-media notifications from our devices, which we can turn off. Environmentally imposed distractions are more difficult to control. For example, while working at home, your children need attention, or a package is delivered and needs signing for. Alternatively, if in the office, a colleague comes over to your desk and starts a conversation.

Distractions in the workplace – wherever that is – are no small problem, and one of the largest is email.

According to Adobe’s 2019 annual Email Usage Study, we claim to spend an average of 209 minutes checking work email and 143 minutes checking personal email every working day. That amounts to around five hours and 52 minutes. Just 46% of respondents to the survey said they were able to clear their inbox. Is this really a productive way to work?

Research cited in Forbes adds some qualitative insight here. Of an average of 200 emails the average office worker spends reading and responding to each day, approximately 144 (72%) aren’t relevant to their job; many are unwanted CCs and BCCs.

Add to this messages received from apps such as Slack, Microsoft’s Modern Workplace or WhatsApp groups, and your team’s precious working hours are at risk of being wasted. Far from freeing us to work productively, these digital tools might be holding us back. Indeed, in 2019, RescueTime reported that 40% of our day at work is spent multitasking with communication tools.

Neither are we immune to the temptations of non-work related distractions. RescueTime also noted that 21% of our working hours are spent looking at entertainment, news and social media updates on our devices.

How can we take practical steps towards minimising distraction and increasing team productivity? The answer is surprisingly simple, as most effective answers are. Start thinking about the following:

  1. Make sure each team communication is necessary and has a specific, actionable purpose.
  2. Limit the amount of CCs and BCCs you add to an email.
  3. Stop email and messaging threads becoming unmanageable by terminating them, then refocusing with a new topic.
  4. Set specific times for team catch-ups. Stick to them, so they don’t spill across the day.

These four simple behaviours have the potential to completely transform your day to day productivity.

Task based team management

Our working practices have been dramatically – and perhaps irrevocably – altered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The shifts we were already seeing towards decentralised, hyper-connected team-working have been accelerated.

Every one of us has been impacted by the changes, but in different ways and to different extents. Some team members may have discovered a new enthusiasm or sense of purpose in these altered circumstances. They will be enjoying working from home with family around them and connecting virtually with colleagues. Others will quickly tire of video-conferencing, miss the ‘old normal’ of in-person, face-to-face communication, and lose motivation.

While everyone’s experience of the workplace is different – and, of course, it always was to some degree – then managing your team is about acknowledging individuality as well as finding common ground.

Teams unite around a shared purpose, so focusing the working day on achievable tasks is a good way to keep individuals engaged and projects on track.

Each day, think about how you can do the following:

  • Provide clarity of purpose for your team through centralised, task-focused communications.
  • Prioritise tasks to limit information overload and cognitive fatigue.
  • Provide your team with the right tools for the job.
  • Protect your team members’ prime time.
  • Allow individual team members uninterrupted time to work to their true potential.

It is also good practice to create protocols for each project:

  • Create a separate messaging channel for each project and limit discussions within that channel to those related to the project’s tasks.
  • Establish naming conventions for project-related messages so that they are easy to find.
  • Create to-do lists rather than having emails lingering in your inbox.
  • Convert messaging into an action item.
  • Delete or archive finished to-do lists and message threads.
  • Integrate your team’s to-do list, document sharing, calendar, and other apps with your team chat channel to make it easier for team members to transfer and share information.

Innovate and evolve

Businesses of all shapes and sizes are having to pivot.

For some, it involves a wholesale overhaul of their business proposition or, at the very least, a repositioning of the services they offer. For all, the priority is to react, rebound and adapt quickly to changed circumstances to retain customers and maintain their reputation. 

What is certain is that this is not the end of the story of how the COVID-19 global crisis changed the way we work – it’s only the beginning.

The question for you and your team, therefore, isn’t just about how you can best achieve your goals today, under conditions that might still seem novel. It’s also about how you can learn from today so that you can stay relevant and resilient, productive and effective, in a world that won’t ever quite return to the way it was. What do your new best-practice guidelines for team working look like?

  • How should team members discuss and collaborate on projects?
  • How much time should be spent responding to message requests?
  • In what situations should a message be labeled urgent?
  • How do you resolve breakdowns in communication?
  • How should meetings or conference calls be scheduled?
  • How will accountability for the completion of tasks be assigned?

You may not be able to answer all these questions at this moment. But you will need to – and soon. That means discovering more about leveraging the power of collaboration, and discovering the best tools and processes to help you communicate with each other.

If that sounds familiar, you might like to know more about GetBusy, a team task management work productivity app that keeps teams accountable:

And focused:

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