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How to to increase team accountability – even when you’re remote

Building a culture of accountability into your team’s DNA

May 15, 2021

Accountability — it’s the willingness to accept personal responsibility for our own actions. And successful teams can’t thrive without it.

Ever worked on a team routinely plagued with missed deadlines, broken promises, or vague expectations? Or where managers constantly nagged and micromanaged? It’s likely the team didn’t have a culture of accountability.

Accountability fosters better work relationships, improves job satisfaction, and helps teams work more effectively together. It empowers ICs with ownership over their work and fuels more effective teamwork, since folks know they can count on each other to get things done. Mastering team accountability can help teams have better performance discussions and hold each other accountable in a more supportive way too. It inspires individuals to exceed their goals and improve their performance, and it’s intrinsically linked to results (and revenue). Employee engagement, according to Gallup, helps companies outperform their competitors, and can result in 21% greater profitability.

Despite the clear benefits, if your team struggles with accountability you’re not alone. 25% of remote managers say lack of accountability is one of the biggest hurdles their team needs to overcome. According to another study, 93% of employees don’t understand what their team is trying to accomplish (let alone how they can contribute to help get there), and 85% of leaders aren’t defining clear enough expectations for employees in the first place.

What is team accountability?

On a team, accountability means the team follows through on its commitments, finishes projects on time, and meets its goals. Team accountability requires each individual to be accountable for their own piece too — both for long-term goals and day-to-day work. On teams with strong accountability, ICs take ownership of their work, communicate openly and often about commitments, and complete tasks they commit to in a timely manner.

So often, teams only discuss accountability when things go wrong. It can be a term charged with negative connotations including stress, fear, and even disciplinary measures. But it doesn’t need to be.

Building systems for team accountability — like regular planning and goal-setting, or standards around sharing progress updates — ensures accountability feels fair and non-judgemental. It’s less about a manager or teammate nagging you for information, and more about adhering to a process everyone has agreed upon. The system holds you accountable, not just the people.

Why remote teams struggle with accountability

It’s harder to align on expectations

When you work remotely, you miss out on natural opportunities to build alignment and ask questions. It can be harder for folks to know what’s expected on any given project or of certain roles, which can lead to unnecessary work and misunderstandings. Teammates might feel like someone is dropping the ball, when in fact, it’s actually not that person’s responsibility or they didn’t even know it was in the first place. Plus, when you’re spread across multiple time zones, it can be challenging to know what’s expected in terms of ways of working, online hours, or response times over Slack or email.

Communication takes more work

Developing remote practices for communication that successfully keep everyone in the loop can be daunting at first. Teammates often feel like they’re spending more time reporting on their work than getting work done. For managers, it can feel like there are endless status updates floating around in their inbox, project management systems, or both. Some people share too much; others share too little. Important updates can easily get lost in the mix and, if there’s not a single source of truth, it’s hard to track down what’s been shared in the past.

The pressure to report on progress: Especially for teams new to remote work, there’s often added pressure from leadership to report on progress. Leaders want to know teams and projects are running smoothly. Generally, this comes from a place of good intention, but can quickly create a trickle-down micromanagement effect as managers and leads scramble to stay on top of their team.

It can be harder to feel progress and purpose

When you work from home, it can be easy to forget about the rest of the team and how your work fits into the bigger picture. It’s harder to keep tabs on team goals, especially if they’re not being talked about regularly, and oftentimes folks start to doubt whether their work is impactful, resulting in a lack of engagement and lower levels of motivation. When individuals lose momentum, projects stall, and the team is more likely to experience burnout. When you’re remote, it’s also easier to focus on individual work over collaborative projects — which ultimately changes what work gets done.

3 ways managers can foster remote accountability

1. Define clear expectations around roles, projects, and ways of working

When you WFH, things that were naturally resolved or aligned upon when you sat together in an office can take a lot more effort and intentionality. To fill these gaps, it’s important to develop standardized practices that focus on communicating expectations with specificity and clarity.

  • Use the S.M.A.R.T.E.R framework: Whether you’re defining expectations for a particular project, role, or your team as a whole, one tool that helps with assessing specificity and clarity is the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. framework. This framework makes certain your expectation is specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, trackable, ethical, and recorded.
  • Outline clear WFH policies: After we went fully remote, our team found it helpful to create a WFH policy that outlined clear expectations around ways of working. In the policy, we include things like: defining core work hours, windowed work (https://www.range.co/blog/windowedwork), and communicating around vacation and absences. The key is transparency. Be abundantly clear about your expectations and any potential consequences, while also acknowledging that WFH presents its own unique set of challenges. Show empathy and allow for flexibility — you never know what else team members may be juggling at home.
  • Create a detailed project spec template: Project specs and one-pagers help teams create alignment and clearly define expectations. Each one should include a clear timeline (that’s specific on timezones — “code freeze goes into effect on May 11 at 5:00 pm PST”), outline project ownership (including a RACI chart), and have specific details on the deliverable (if possible, provide examples). It can be helpful to create a project spec template for your team to save time and ensure a standard set of information is included in each one. Not sure where to start? Check out our project spec template.
  • Define project ownership: When there is a lack of clarity around project ownership, managers often feel the need to micromanage because there isn’t a point person and they’re worried about dropping the ball. Take a look at all the major projects that you have going on this quarter, and review the owners for each task. Does each task have one clear, identifiable owner? If not, work with your team to define who owns what. Many teams also like to use a RACI chart for each project — clarifying who should be responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed on the work.
  • Clearly define roles: When people know their role, they’re more likely to feel a sense of ownership and take charge of their work. Likewise, when teammates understand each other’s roles, it strengthens collaboration, communication, and trust because they know who to turn to for what and what is (and isn’t) expected. As a manager, make it a point to publicize everyone’s role and revisit expectations on a regular basis.

2. Build habits around daily planning and long-term goal setting

To be accountable to yourself and your team, first you need to define what you’re actually trying to accomplish.

  • Start the day with an individual planning exercise: For remote teams, where folks naturally have more freedom and less guidance in their day-to-day, daily planning is a small practice that can help build up personal accountability over time. On our team, individuals create their own plan for the day every morning and share it as a part of their Check-in. Especially since going fully remote, we’ve found it to be a helpful tool in building individual autonomy and self-awareness.
  • Have regular conversations around commitments and outcomes: As a team, set up a system for committing to work for a period of time — maybe it’s a two-week sprint or a month. Then include ways to check in and follow up with each other. On our team, we set expectations together in our sprint planning meeting for the coming two-week cycle, share updates about the work through our daily Check-ins, and then reflect together in a retro at the end of the sprint. The goal of this process isn’t necessarily that everyone meets their commitments 100% of the time, but rather to start a conversation about why not and what’s getting in the way (to create accountability measures).
  • Set team and individual OKRs: For longer-term goal-setting, you can help your team align their work with purpose by setting strong OKRs (objectives and key results). OKRs are goals that outline the why, in addition to the what and how. They help teams see how individual work ladders up to the big picture or a specific business objective and can be a powerful way to help folks feel their impact.

3. Create a practice of sharing progress and checking in on commitments

Daily progress updates — whether through a team standup, scrum meeting, or async Check-in — encourage more individual accountability by building expectations around sharing and moving work forward. When folks know the team cares about their work and is following their progress, they feel more motivated to get it done. When done right, daily updates can also improve transparency and make remote communication less burdensome and more impactful.

  • Try daily written updates: Written progress updates are easier for remote teams because they work for everyone’s schedule and can be read or referenced later on. You can use Range Check-ins to make the process even easier. Teams find them to be more effective and less time-intensive than other styles of status updates. Managers can see what everyone is working on in one place, ICs can easily pull in tasks from other tools to create an all-up view of their work in under 5 minutes, and leadership always has a line of sight into your team’s accomplishments.
“As a manager, Check-ins really helped me do away with all the weekly status reports in email." – Kristin Toole, Adobe
  • Engage with each other’s updates: Showing that individual work directly impacts shared team goals is a powerful way to build team accountability. One way our team does this is by reading (and engaging with) each other’s Check-ins. It helps reinforce the idea that individual work matters and shows folks their work has an impact on the team’s success and results. We’ve also found it helps our team feel more connected around shared goals, which has helped bring us together as a remote team and improves our team dynamic.
  • Give structure to your updates: As you build the habit of sharing daily updates, it can be helpful to give structure to the sharing to give folks a foundation and place to start. You’ll likely want to try different formats and see what sticks for your team. Our team likes the GROW format — Goal, Reality, Opportunities/Obstacles, Wins.

Build a foundation of accountability on your team

Accountability should be something your team talks about daily, not just when there are gaps in performance or when things go wrong.

Building systems for accountability into your team’s workflow can help ICs feel more empowered and help managers support them, without micromanagement. You can have better performance discussions, build healthy habits around planning and goal-setting, and achieve better results. If you want your team to be more effective, invest in team and individual accountability.

Start improving accountability with Range
How to to increase team accountability – even when you’re remote
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