The Art of Remote Team Alignment

When Tammy Bjelland, Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, and I first exchange emails in late February about the topic that we should concentrate on for this article, we agree on the theme of alignment in hybrid teams. Workplaceless, which she founded in 2017, has been focusing on this topic of late given that they know just how much effort it takes to make co-located and remote employees work effectively together. Having spent the majority of the past seven years in hybrid teams, experiencing work on both sides, I have had my fair share of alignment struggles. 

By the time we get on a call mid-March, there is no such thing as hybrid teams for the foreseeable future, instead everyone is working remotely due to COVID-19. Making sure remote team members are aligned has become even more of a challenge for many suddenly remote leaders and employees.

“Misalignment is one of the biggest sources of conflict for companies remote or not.” Without proper training or adjustment to how to work and communicate remotely, it’s a recipe for an alignment disaster. Tammy is adamant that misalignment incidents will happen in the current situation. “It’s only a matter of when it happens.”

Making sure remote teams are on the same page is something she both preaches and practices. Workplaceless has been fully distributed since founding, and Tammy makes sure that the 10 people on her team –  spread between 9 locations – are aligned every single day. The core of the business is in training leaders and teams on how to do all aspects of remote correctly. Tammy started Workplaceless because she was frustrated at the lack of professional development resources that could help her navigate and grow in her remote career. 

In this exclusive interview for the Boundless blog, we talk with Tammy about how to avoid misalignment, how to intervene if it occurs, and how to build remote team alignment in the foundation of every sudden or seasoned remote company. 

How remote team alignment breaks

For any company to run smoothly, alignment needs to be in place for all aspects of how it and its employees operate. When a company is remote, clear guidelines on that become even more essential. Without explicit directions, all facets of work are dependent on individual interpretations, which will inevitably differ between people. That’s when conflict is born: a manager expects one thing but receives something else. 

What’s unfortunate is that not meeting expectations isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, and it doesn’t happen because someone didn’t do their job. The reason is that the expectations weren’t clear since they were never communicated or agreed upon. 

“An expectation is a belief of how something is supposed to happen, and alignment is making sure that individual expectations between workers and leadership are matched up and interpreted the same way.” 

Tammy is no stranger to making assumptions instead of communicating expectations and aligning on them. She had assumed that all remote workers approached problems in a similar way to her. “When I started managing others, that assumption caused me problems.” 

What she had assumed was that everyone who works remotely deals with blockages the way that she did – by proactively doing anything possible to resolve them. She realised that most people would, in fact, stop when they are blocked and only when asked why they missed the deadline acknowledge that something had blocked them. It caused her a lot of frustration.

“I was operating from a place of my expectations, while we had never agreed that when someone is blocked, they proactively try to find a solution or raise it with me as soon as it happens.” Through her work in Workplaceless, Tammy knows just how prevalent it is to have different styles of approaching a blockage.

She warns about the many consequences that can happen due to a lack of alignment. For starters, general productivity and quality of output are at risk. Beyond that, the price companies may pay for misalignment are delayed projects, budget overheads, having to add additional resources and a lot of frustration between people. It turns out few things erode trust more than not meeting someone’s expectations.

How to fix alignment

Tammy learned that for future projects, she had to set much clearer expectations and align from the beginning. For proper alignment to exist, an expectation has to be communicated and set, agreed upon by everybody, and put down in writing. It’s when any of those general steps are omitted or not appropriately executed that conflict can quickly arise. 

Alignment guidelines should cover anything from when people are expected to be online, and how often they should respond, through to how progress will be tracked and updated, all the way to whether meetings are mandatory or not, and many others.

Nowadays, Tammy implements a clear framework for coming up to alignment on any subject. 

The process for reaching alignment

  1. Take the time to acknowledge the need for alignment the way Tammy has.  
  2. Communicate to the team that alignment will be sought before any project starts as everybody needs to be on the same page. 
  3. Get clear on what language and terms are used, and what they mean. Everyone has to be speaking the same style and using the same words when they’re talking about their goals. This is where education, training, and facilitated discussions come into play.
  4. Allow for discussion, feedback and questions throughout the whole process of reaching alignment. As you state what your expectations are, open up for discussion and input as it’s essential, this is a collaborative process. Provide opportunities for people to demonstrate their understanding by asking them to restate expectations. 
  5. Record conversation in writing as much as possible so that you can always go back and refer to that. A good practice is to ask others to take notes or minutes of those discussions. 
  6. Create the alignment agreement. Once you’ve set the expectations and heard from everybody, you have to create an alignment agreement. This is crucial because everybody will be able to reference it easily and abide by the agreement. The document will clearly state what happens in case someone doesn’t follow the rules.
  7. As projects are kicked off, keep checking in with people and making sure that those expectations are clear. It’s relatively easy at a static point in time to come together and have shared and mutual understanding of what an expectation is, but as the project is underway with lots of moving parts and external tensions, things can go astray. Ideally, check in daily, to make sure that everyone understands what those expectations are, and intervene if something is off such as people not responding or being unsure what to do when they are blocked.

Good alignment requires documentation

The key to alignment in the long term is proper documentation. Everything that is discussed and agreed on in terms of alignment needs to be adequately documented so that team members can refer to it at any point. I ask Tammy what’s the right balance in terms of having enough documentation but also not too much. Here is what she advocates for:

  1. Remote work policy – this is probably the most important document for a remote organisation, which covers all aspects of remote work, alignment included. Things to keep in mind:
  • Include who the policy applies to and what the expectations are for the work environment, schedules, security, and required tools
  • Align with your teams on what are the expectations for performance, and how performance will be measured and tracked 
  • Provide clear guidance on the resources available to remote workers, including access to learning and development and promotion opportunities 
  1. Communication charter – gives information about channels of communication, and their hierarchy of usage based on urgency. Here are a few things to consider:
  • Outline whether the communication is expected to happen synchronously or asynchronously? Many seasoned remote leaders would argue that most communication should be done async, with maybe one team meeting a week. If opting to have more asynchronous communication, consider, which tools are more appropriate for that. At Boundless, we love using Twist.
  • If communication is async, make sure everything is summarised and publicly shared within the company (within reason, obviously do not share personal HR matters of any employee to the whole company). Make sure people are publicly assigned to actions
  • Put special attention to how Slack or any other instant messaging tool is used. People are used to using instant messaging in their personal lives and have certain expectations, which may not be appropriate in a work setting. Best practice is to summarise the query and send it, instead of “pinging” people and expecting them to respond immediately. This way, people will be able to answer in their own time, something which is essential for productivity when working remotely. If there are exceptions to that general rule, explain why & when it’s vital to allow interruptions. Most importantly think of everyone’s sanity when you establish rules. Encourage people not to have Slack on their phones, or at least have notifications off. Leaders can leave specific instructions for people to contact them in case of an actual emergency.
  1. Culture canvas – To create a Culture Canvas you will need to align on the fundamentals of company culture and put them down in writing. Have your team name the following elements that espouse your organization’s culture: 
  • Values: What are the values and beliefs that drive your mission? 
  • Behaviors: What behaviors show commitment to values? 
  • Attitudes: What traits and attitudes do you expect from your team?
  • Rituals: What daily/weekly/ monthly/regular rituals do you practice that reinforce culture?
  • Poll your team members on how aligned, transparent, and consistent your culture is for both remote and on-site workers 

Alignment beyond projects

While projects are a conspicuous place where alignment is essential, Tammy advises companies spend time creating guidelines for the following aspects of the business:

  1. Align on responsiveness and engagement

This will most probably be covered in the Communications Charter, and it’s imperative. Without clarity a lot of miscommunication can happen. “I’ve been in situations where projects were stalled because we were not getting proactive communication from a team member. This is referred to as ghosting. It had happened because there were no clear expectations set about the cadence of communication. People would take their time in responding, and there was little we could do about it because we hadn’t set the expectation.” 

Alongside responsiveness, Tammy also mentions how important it is to agree on engagement during synchronous meetings. Be clear that people need to have their cameras on and participate in the discussion.   

  1. Align on culture

Beyond aligning on a day to day projects, another vital side of the business where misalignment can cause problems is company culture. There is a significant danger of this happening right now with people adjusting from being in the same office and having their little rituals and ways of being isolated at home. “People have developed all of their rituals and signals of culture in a co-located context, and they haven’t taken the time to understand how that shows up for their remote team members, and how the culture looks for them.” How the company works, what its values and identity are, how people show up to work are all parts of culture that you cannot afford to be implicit about. Instead, it has to be recorded based on discussions with everyone in the organisation.  

  1. Alignment with other teams

For the proper functioning of a remote organisation, it’s important that different teams align on their activities. Whether that is aligning on hiring needs so the recruitment teams know what talent they are looking for or what sales communicates to potential leads in terms of functionality and capability, many internal and external problems can be caused by lack of alignment. Instigate the need for constant alignment between teams and encourage that teams touch base occasionally. 

Alignment in the times of COVID-19

Given the current situation, working remotely from home requires a slightly different approach, including how alignment is reached. Workplaceless have created resources for emergency or unexpected remote work, which includes a checklist that provides the essential questions and topics that both employees and managers will need to have clarity about. If you haven’t had conversations and agreements about any of the topics inside, we highly recommend that you go through them.

Just like every other aspect of the business and managing people, alignment needs to be approached with emotional intelligence and empathy on the part of leaders.

Be proactive

This means that leaders have to be even more proactive about checking in with people as well as letting them operate in their own time. They should connect and reach out, especially if they start seeing first signs of misalignment, disengagement or ghosting on the part of employees. “Everyone’s lives have been upended. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of reasonableness to ask that everyone checks in on expectations every single day because every day is different than the day before.” 

Tammy’s advice on being proactive is directed at everybody: leaders and team members alike. “It’s more important than ever that we all chip in and support each other, and make individual connections.” 

Overcommunicate

Whether in a time of crisis or not, Tammy urges everyone to remember we’re all human and have a lot of information coming at us every single day. As we have previously said on this blog, when it comes to working remotely, overcommunication is essential. No manager should assume that if employees are told once or twice something, they will remember it and do it every single time. Even if something seems obvious, it needs to be repeated.

Tammy gives an all too appropriate analogy for this. “We have known for a long time that we’re supposed to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds, but it’s only now that people are doing it. COVID-19 has given us the additional reinforcement and nudge to change our habits. Same goes with many other work-related “healthy” habits. It’s on managers to overcommunicate why they are important.”

Build an army of alignment heroes

For alignment to last and be sustained as a company scales, the culture for alignment needs to be transferred beyond founders and leaders of the company. It’s important managers agree on the importance of alignment, and they champion it within their teams and proactively set it up. “Fostering alignment heroes should come alongside alignment.” 

How do you start with remote team alignment

When it comes to establishing good alignment practices, start by acknowledging the need for it, and understanding what the risks are to not creating it. Getting there will take a lot of conversations but there is no way of hacking this as the longevity of your business depends on it. Put in the necessary time and effort to have productive conversations, and you will come out on the other side with an aligned organisation ready to move in the same direction.

When it comes to global employment, very few hacks or shortcuts will ever work. The same goes for how you employ your distributed workers. Hiring them as independent contractors is one such hack that will not serve you in the long term. Boundless can help you employ your remote workforce legally and compliantly in Ireland, the UK, Denmark, Portugal, Australia, and more coming soon. Get in touch to learn how:


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