The 5 Phases of Remote Teams: How to Take Remote Work to the Next Level

remote teams

If your team is still adjusting to working remotely, you’re not alone. According to remote work strategist Laurel Farrer, it typically takes six to 12 weeks for a smooth transition from on-site to remote work.

Farrer, the CEO of Connecticut-based Distribute Consulting, points out that companies are having to make an instantaneous leap into remote work and improvise their way through the adjustment. Thus, she says, it’s only natural that newly remote companies will have to troubleshoot some obstacles as they adjust, whether it’s managing equipment shortages and cybersecurity issues or training employees on new communication & collaboration platforms.

So, our first piece of remote work advice? Cut yourself some slack. Circumstances have demanded us to make a transition in a few weeks that typically takes months to achieve. It’s only natural that there will be a bit of a learning curve, and even the best companies are struggling to handle this transition with grace.

The 5 Levels of Distributed Teams

Matt Mullenweg is the cofounder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic was recently featured on neuroscientist Sam Harris’s podcast, Making Sense, and during the episode, outlined the five different levels of remote teams (or ‘distributed teams,’ as Mullenweg calls it).

Because we’re all undoubtedly in the earlier stages of the transformation to distributed teams, let’s take a quick look at this evolution of remote teams.

Level 1: Non-Deliberate Action

At this point, the company has not done anything deliberate to support remote work in their organization but employees can scrape by if they need to work from home for a day. They likely have access to their smartphone and email, and maybe take a few remote meetings. But ultimately, they save most of the real work until they’re back in the office. Pre-COVID, most of us were probably here at Level 1.

Level 2: Recreating the Office Online

Many of us in this COVID-induced remote work moment are likely in Level 2, where your employees have access to video conferencing apps like Zoom, communication platforms like Slack and email, but for the most part, you use your digital tools to try to replicate how people work and communicate in the office. Employees still mostly work 9-to-5, and the management team largely manages the team in the same way they would in-office. But the business processes aren’t necessarily adapting to best suit a virtual office dynamic.

Think of how Netflix started off as a business. They took an existing process — renting VHS tapes from Blockbuster — and made the process more digitally intuitive, but ultimately replicated what Blockbuster was doing, just with DVDs. They took an old process and applied it to a new medium, but didn’t adapt the process to complement that new medium. Ultimately, Netflix figured out that they needed to create a new process and service to suit the digital medium and now look at where we are.

Just because you can remotely replicate the processes you use to manage your team in-office doesn’t mean you necessarily should. A new medium requires a new method. And that brings us to Level 3.

Level 3: Adapting to the Medium

At Level 3, companies begin to adapt and build new habits that better fit the remote team dynamics. Collaborative planning and decision-making rule, with a reliance on tools like Google Docs and project management software like Trello or Asana.

Asynchronous communication (more on that in a moment) becomes the norm and meetings are only held when absolutely necessary. The team collaboration becomes more dynamic and flexible, rather than forcing employees into a more rigid, structured schedule.

Level 4: Embracing Asynchronous Communication

Level 4 is all about flexibility and asynchronous communication.

At the root of asynchronous communication is the idea that responses between your team don’t necessarily need to be instantaneous for your team to be productive. This means your method of communication should reflect its urgency. Need an immediate answer? Send a phone call. Okay with a response in a couple of hours? Send a Slack message or an email.

But give your team the space to structure their own days, rather than feeling like they must instantly respond to every message they get the moment that they get it.

This gives workers the time to think and get into flow state (more on that later) while helping them make better decisions. As Robert Greene says, if you want to cut emotions out of the equation, increase your response time. Giving people time to think between a question and response keeps them from blurting out the first thing that crosses their mind and helps them make more thoughtful decisions.

As Steve Glaveski, the co-founder of Collective Campus notes, “Companies that truly practice asynchronous communication have stepped out of the industrial revolution, and no longer conflate presence with productivity, or hours with output, as one might on the factory floor.”

And according to Mullenweg, distributed teams who work asynchronously and master ‘passing the baton’ can get three times more done than a local team relying on everybody in the office between 9 and 5.

Level 5: Nirvana

At this point in the game, your distributed team works better than any in-person team ever could. Achieving this level requires patience and commitment, but if you get there, you’ve made it to the future of work. How’s the view from the future?

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