Remote, cross-functional, and co-located teams come with pitfalls, such as lack of contact and demanding challenges from family stresses. Winning strategies include establishing strong team relationships, and developing gameplans to hold your remote workers accountable. The goal is to develop strong trust, establish clear structures, and manage social relationships — not to mention, observe for specific behaviours.
Here are three tips for managing, understanding, and developing strong remote, cross-functional, and co-located team environments.
Manage Your Teams
The difference between remote work and traditional office settings is just that — it’s different. Projects are different. Meetings are different. It even makes for different teams. At the same time, it also calls for a different approach to maintain, and even encourage, higher levels of productivity1. One of the benefits of remote work is the smaller team size. Teams that can split into smaller groups offers opportunities for easier communication — and less time standing around the water cooler.
Working in remote environments does come with its rewards. You get to sleep longer, there is no commute, the kitchen is always open, and pyjama pants are the new normal2. It also advocates for transparency in communication regarding best practices in video conferencing and shorter meetings. This extra time, if used properly, adds the benefit of thought and ability to see yourself as a part of the whole and connected on the bigger picture3.
That being said, social isolation is a real issue for remote workers. Add a global pandemic on top of that, throw in some family stresses and disrupted schedules, and you have the perfect formula for acute distress — that could potentially only get worse4. Address this challenge and schedule more face-to-face interactions with individual video meetings. Build stronger relationships with trust and even better communication. When given a chance, offer flexibility and understanding, such as extending deadlines when possible, or accommodating last minutes schedule changes. Make it the exception, and not the rule, but be prepared to make adjustments5.
Keep remote employees updated on small and big updates, and ask for the same in return for their own updates or new information. Take and review notes from all communication and video meetings, follow-up on key details and avoid duplications, and share the information in a central drive6. Use this moment to lead versus micro-manage, and allow your employees working in different timezones to give you input on timelines. Start stand-up meetings with an ice-breaker or brag about recent team work. This is the time to unite your team — not divide it. The more you embrace a remote work environment, the more you will see its benefits far outweigh its challenges.
Establish Clear Structures
Cross-functional teams offer streamlined processes — team performance can dovetail into individual employee evaluations. Everyone on the team gets to contribute and play a role in the bigger picture. It is also an approach that applauds the workers with proper credit and recognizes individual contributions.
Cross-functional teams do come with challenges, and a recent study indicated that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional7. The study is based on failed criteria such as poor budget planning, failing to meet customer expectations, and team communication. The biggest challenge is holding the team accountable. You can avoid these common pitfalls and approach cross-functional teams with an outcome in mind — this engages the group to determine appropriate roles. Assign and establish clear structures and define clear roles of team responsibility.
Cross-functional teams offer deeper levels of collaboration and add a layer of opportunity for internal buy-in and equal voice in projects8. Employees normally working in silos now get a chance to gain valuable input for internal and external perspectives. Not to mention, they now have more access to high-level support and can network with leadership. There is also the opportunity for a clear feedback loop and the chance to encourage an organization to think strategically. It helps you identify the best team leads for projects, and it removes barriers to project success.
Build Stronger Bonds
In the COVID-19 crisis, co-located teams offer a chance to build social relationships. As teams operating in the same space, there are many benefits for co-located teams, such as regular face-to-face interactions and the opportunity to develop strong interpersonal bonds. The continuing shift to remote work as the new normal indicates a new range of behaviours9 — including an emphasis on higher levels of social orientation versus remote employees. A risk of co-located teams is the chance that the team will value their social relationship over the work product. They might even be reluctant to speak out on important issues if it affects team harmony.
The fact is that social relationships and face-to-face interaction matters. It opens dialogue and encourages your team to communicate and feel comfortable with each other. Developing a team with strong interpersonal bonds creates a unique position. It facilitates better relationships and confirms that teams see themselves as part of the team. Be the leader that helps them set and follow boundaries to keep the balance.
Operating in the new normal of COVID-19 requires embracing remote work for your team. There are endless obstacles to overcome, such as isolation factors, interruptions and distractions — not to mention, accessibility to technology for disabled workers. One way to address this challenge is to take a strategic approach to meet worker requirements and still encourage voluntary engagement.
So, what are some other ways to set clear expectations to help create a culture of accountability for your remote work teams? Here are suggested methods for communicating and setting clear expectations, delegating team tasks, leading by example, and tracking team performance.
Communication and Preferences
Developing an inclusive and accountable team requires clear direction, asking the right questions, and getting your organization on the same page. This includes removing clutter and confusion and sourcing feedback on work, goals and budget.
A collaborative culture takes time and is reinforced by understanding your expectations as a leader or manager. Get the ball rolling by sharing your non-negotiable preferences, clearly communicating expected results, and creating opportunities for your team. Take the lead during stand-up meetings, and facilitate discussions to help your team determine their work expectations and establish team norms. Share meeting notes on a central drive so the team can access it for reminders.
Remember that expectations are a two-way street. Hold yourself accountable and honour your end of the deal. Agree and follow through on decisions together as a team — but set clear consequences if the team fails to meet expectations. Be deliberate on agreements and invite the team to participate in discussions regarding consequences. In the end, non-negotiables are more likely to get the results and deliver the high-performing work you want.
One best practice to open lines of communication is to listen to all expectations and avoid losing credibility by ignoring unreasonable expectations. Adjust expectations for the results you need. Reaching team performance is more than giving up control. It requires accurate and crystal clear expectations, opens the ownership process to include the overall team — and increases accountability as a by-product. It only makes sense to set your employees up for success as they transition from a more structured traditional work environment to an unstructured remote environment. Setting expectations allows your team to focus on their work, and their connection to the overall team.
Clearly Define Work
What is your delegating strategy? Do you have a system for delegating projects? And do you schedule time to discuss upcoming tasks with your team? Follow the three Ws to delegate tasks, and ask what needs to get done, when is the final deadline, and who is in charge of specific tasks. By clearly defining the task or project, you can be flexible with time ranges, and avoid interpretations. Specify what successful draft completions look like — versus reports that are ready for client submission.
Look for common pitfalls when it comes to proposing a new project, such as waiting for volunteers, instead of correctly choosing the right fit for the right job. Take some time to avoid playing favourites for assigning challenging and high-profile work. Don’t let trust in your leadership decisions erode because you unfairly delegate work. Your team will feel overlooked and perceive your behaviour as a barometer for predicting future actions. Instead, equip your team with the right experience and trust them to produce.
Prepare your team with a defined work scope and share it in a central drive. Establish strategic structure and systems and keep your remote workers engaged and accountable. Know your project needs, follow and meet strict deadlines, and share the project reins to prepare the foundation for future success. And, match the right employee to the right project and set the stage for team accountability. This will make it easier to find volunteers, delegate strategically, and increase the odds of accurate work on time, on cost and on budget.
Always Lead by Example
Leading by example, is more than a cliché — it’s action that sets the tone for how your team will approach tasks and projects. If you want to tap into your team’s full potential, start with a clear vision and the bigger picture, and give your best effort. Your team will listen carefully to what their leader says. But they will also look intently at what you do. Remote teams working in seclusion, or on cross-functional teams, need to share ideas and feedback for both you and the overall team. Your demonstrated ability to demonstrate openness will help your team feel comfortable with giving feedback.
This is the time to set and follow defined expectations for projects and deadlines, and create opportunities for your remote workers to take meaningful responsibility. Be flexible to challenges, and make adjustments when necessary — but stick to the playbook. It will help you navigate any storms and inspire your team to follow suit. Get in front of potential problems and communicate early, and often, to trouble-shoot and make quick decisions. Own your mistakes and be purposeful and deliberate with your decision. if you are wrong — admit you are wrong and address the mistake.
You will also need to understand that team members will approach projects in many different ways. Some are quick with ideas, some prefer to take a planning approach, and others feel they work best under pressure. Allow your team to determine their timelines and track project success to hold them accountable. By giving your team a voice in setting milestones, and even encouraging sprint timelines of three weeks or less, you are promoting ownership of joint deliverables. Keep an eye on team performance with regular performance reviews and conduct one-on-one sessions for open dialogue on opportunities for team collaboration.
Accountable teams need accountable leaders. If you want your team to perform at high standards, your actions must set the tone for their expected behaviours. Give your best efforts and lead by example — both verbally and visually.
 Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Carosa, C. (2020). How Can You Still Communicate Effectively With Staff And Coworkers While Working From Home. Forbes.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Neely, T. (2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review.
 Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Harvard Business Review.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
 Lovelace, D. (2020). Holding Your Team Accountable. Lynda.
Providing a quality product or service requires the coordination and balance of hundreds of discrete, interrelated steps. An error or oversight at any point in the process can contribute to a domino effect that ultimately could have disastrous outcomes. To avoid this, organizations can benefit from scenario-based learning that provides team members’ with hand’s on experience to address issues that may arise relevant to their role and the tasks they must complete, as well as the opportunity to contribute to successful results. These scenarios can then be used to create workflows, or playbooks, for their teams to ensure consistency and positive outcomes.
Scenario-based learning, also called problem-based learning, provides an opportunity for teams to work though and identify solutions to authentic, complex or ill-structured problems.[i] This requires critical thinking and analytical, problem solving skills.[ii] Participating in the process empowers individuals and teams to consider multiple scenarios in a risk-free setting and allows them to see how project outcomes are affected by the decisions made at each stage in the process.[iii] By pre-emptively considering a wide range of scenarios before issues become real-life problems, teams can work together in an environment free from counterproductive emotions that create tension and muddy the process. Instead, they can focus on the decision-making process and how and when to escalate to achieve targeted outcomes.
The need for escalation occurs from not knowing who owns a problem. Operational scenarios alleviate this problem by working through various alternatives to identify the best and most effective route, which becomes institutionalized in the playbook. This also helps overcome poor managerial decisions by those who are more likely to pass off decision making rather than empower their team to solve their own problems.[iv] For these managers, escalation is the norm rather than the exception, when the reverse is the optimal goal.
A scenario-based playbook encourages problem solving and provides the necessary training and support to increase accountability. This increases the reliability of decision making[v] and helps alleviate the uncertainty that comes with change because team members know what is expected of them and can react immediately.[vi] Each “play” represents a way of doing something that moves the task forward in a direction that will improve outcomes.[vii] A playbook may refer to a simple but critical task or a complex project, or it might be updated to reflect a minor change or a complete overhaul. Having clear, written guidelines is critical, especially in a crisis situation, so that employees are all on the same page and work toward the same results. It makes them accountable in their roles, lets them know when issues should be escalated, and identifies the specific processes and systems that should be engaged in doing so.
This approach is more critical than ever in times of uncertainty because having defined positions, responsibilities, and processes becomes even more imperative to provide crucial consistency and accountability when it is most needed. Organizations and their leadership benefit because it allows them to plan ahead for future events, both intended and unintended. Their informed decisions can better direct allocation of staffing, budgets, and other critical resources in advance of imminent challenges, [viii]ensuring responsiveness and reliability in how actions ultimately will be undertaken.[ix] While playbooks provide the important guidelines for task completion, they also recognize the value of human involvement in decision making and how that maximizes the effectiveness of human-machine interface. This will continue to be an area of growth and development as machine learning advances and becomes more indoctrinated in the workplace.
So, if you’re not already doing it, find time to incorporate scenario-based learning as part of employee development. The benefits far outweigh the costs and, in fact, are more likely to result in a long-term cost savings. Scenario-based playbooks are a proactive means of empowering employees to action by eliminating any confusion about who’s in charge, what to do, and how to get it done. Employees and teams know what is expected of them and are knowingly and willingly accountable for their part in the process, benefitting everyone across organizational levels.
[i] Rosenbaum, H., & Shermis, M. (2010). Making a case for scenario-based learning in IS and executive education. Paper presented at the 16th Americas Conference on Information Systems, Lima, Peru.
[ii] Noroozi, AL, Khakzad, N. Khan, F., MacKinnon, S., & Abbassi, R. (2013). The role of human error in risk analysis: Application of pre- and post-maintenance procedures of process facilities. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 119, 251-258.
[iv] Grenny, J. (2017). When to solve your team’s problems, and when to let them sort it out. Harvard Business Review.
[v] Accenture. (2016). Scenario-based planning: Exploring the best chance on success. Accenture Insights.
[vii] Notter, J. (2018). Creating a playbook for improving employee engagement. Forbes.
[viii] Office of Personnel Management. (nd). Scenario-based workforce planning. Office of Personnel Management Human Capital Framework.
In today’s workplace, employees often are hired for their unique skills and experience. While this hyper-focused knowledge helps create a competitive edge, it also creates demand for teams where multiple individuals can bring together their specific skill sets to strategize and respond to more complex, organizational goals. To do this successfully requires more than simply uniting appropriately credentialed members, however, it needs collaboration.
Because collaboration does not always occur organically, leaders may need to intentionally create an environment where employees can come together in exceptional ways. For this to happen, all team members needs to feel their voices are heard and matter. In other words, they need psychological safety, that is, a climate where they are comfortable being and expressing themselves. Team members need to know they can be wrong and at ease when having difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors without causing insecurity. While organizational culture has its influence here, individual behavior is more of a key driver.
Psychological safety exists only when there is a willingness by all team members to be respectful of each others’ opinions and willing to engage in healthy debate. When it comes down to it, psychological safety means being vulnerable, and that scares people. It’s not only about being comfortable speaking up yourself, or admitting to your boss that the idea you convinced her to execute was a flop, it means sticking your neck out for a colleague who may be in the hot seat. At the same time, it also means that you know that the feedback you receive, whether encouraging of your ideas or not, will be constructive and supportive.
Leaders can contribute to psychological safety by creating shared understanding, proactively seeking input, and responding appreciatively. This is important because employees perceive the level of psychological safety to be higher when leaders have positive relationships with followers. It is also important for leaders to measure employees’ views on psychological safety. This means team members, including managers, should asks for feedback, and there should be metrics in place to periodically assess how team members feel because damages to psychological safety must be repaired to ensure its continuity.
Employees want this in their workplace! A Pew Research survey found that 89% of adults think it is “essential” for top executives to create a safe and respectful workplace, making it a top three priority for businesses (along with honest and ethical leadership and providing fair pay and good benefits). However, only 30% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions at work count. This is a huge – and costly gap because psychological safety impacts important organizational outcomes.
Psychological safety leads to greater engagement and comfort in experimenting and taking risks because employees don’t fear retribution, punishment, or embarrassment. They are comfortable being collaborative and asking for or offering help. Psychological safety has a reciprocal effect in terms of engagement in that this type of environment encourages greater engagement, which itself adds to the psychological safety. Google conducted a two-year study on team performance and found that psychological safety was, by far, the most important dynamic associated with high-performing teams. Individuals who were on teams with higher psychological safety brought in more revenue, were rated as effective by executives twice as often as other employees, embraced diverse ideas, and were less likely to leave the company. High-performing teams also demonstrate higher engagement, increased motivation, better performance, and greater opportunities for learning and development.
Although psychological safety is a characteristic of the whole team, it starts with the individual. As such, team members need to get in the right headspace to create a psychologically safe team. To increase psychological safety and be more accountable in a team, members should focus on collaboration and curiosity, rather than competition and blame. Recognize that even when teams disagree, every member is a person with their own hopes, anxieties, and families who love them. Like you, they want peace and happiness in their lives.
You can be accountable for your contribution to creating a psychologically safe, collaborative team by adapting a new perspective. Start by reframing your perception of failure as having only disastrous outcomes. Anxiety is wasted if it turns out your boss loves the idea you agonized over bringing forward. Even if it’s rejected, you might get feedback to help you refine it, but either way, it’s very unlikely you will lose your job if your boss doesn’t like your idea. Reframing failure as just one of the many, albeit less desirable, steps on the way to success can change your attitude and approach towards conquering it.
Creating a truly psychologically safe environment means that all team members, regardless of level or location, share and benefit from the values established by the organization. In a face to face environment, team members benefit beyond formal interactions because they also can interact more casually, over coffee or lunch. Remote workers are unable to engage in the same ways. With more people working from home, by choice or need, it is increasingly important for organizations to actively and deliberately create opportunities for all team members to interact.
There are many ways to engage employees across geographical barriers and learn about their views, but the best way, hand’s down, is to ask them. This could, and should, be done on several levels. When creating a new team, or adding a member, ask each team member’s views on their skillsets, what they believe to be their greatest asset to the team, where they might need support, and so on. Don’t be afraid to include more personal information for team-building. Ask how each person got their name or a surprising fact about themselves. Be sure to document or graph responses as a reference to foster collaboration across the whole team.
Beyond work-related projects, teams should also incorporate regular “events” to develop a collaborative and supportive environment. Have coffee or happy hours (maybe at the same time, depending on where team members are located!) where conversations are focused on individuals instead of work. You can also maintain a private team site or YouTube channel where employees are encouraged to post content, such as their children’s first day of school pictures or #DreamVacation links. Building social bonds helps build positive and trusting relationships, which are critical to psychological safety and successful collaboration among teams.
 Jones, B.F. (2017). The science behind the growing importance of collaboration. Kellogg School of Management, KelloggInsight
 Borysenko, Karlyn. (2018). How to create your own psychological safety at work. Forbes.
 Frazier, M.L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R.L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70, 113-165.
 Delizonna, L., (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.
 Frazier et al.
 Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.
 Frazier et al.
Some leaders believe that accountability is intrinsic, with some employees going above and beyond every time, on every task, while others do the bare minimum of work to stay under the radar. Creating an environment designed for accountability, where all employees proudly take ownership of their tasks and outcomes can significantly improve performance at the individual, team, and organizational level.[i]
Accountability is the expectations about what an individual or organization is obliged to explain, justify, or take responsibility for. Traditionally, leaders too often have opted for hierarchical approach to accountability, enforcing a top-down chain of command. This anachronistic view reflects a workplace in which superiors delegate authority to subordinates and hold them accountable for their decision and behavior by dictating what needs to be done, how it should be done, and the expectations for outcomes.[ii] This rarely, if ever, is effective and more likely results in unresolved issues and frustration on the part of leaders and employees.
Fostering an environment of accountability must be fundamental within an organization’s culture.[iii] Knowing and being invested in the organization’s goals, objectives, and key results set the standards for accountability and other expected behaviors and contributions. To that end, everyone in the organization, from the line workers through the CEO, must have a unified understanding of the organization’s goals and what it stands for. Unfortunately, this clarity is glaringly absent from most organizations. A Workplace Accountability Study of 40,000 employees across industries found that 85% of survey participants were not sure what their organizations were trying to achieve. With such a staggering imbalance it is no wonder that there is a lack of alignment and focus in understanding and successfully completing mission critical tasks.[iv]
Other factors beyond culture also influence accountability. Large or complex organizational structures can be challenged in creating an expectation of accountability because projects often involve multiple, and perhaps geographically disparate teams, which can result in blurred leadership and boundaries. Another challenge in large organizations is that decisions or changes in direction may be made by one office, but are not quickly, accurately, or effectively shared with other entities who continue to proceed under different guidelines and goals. With so many moving parts, it is not surprising that inconsistencies arise for which few, if any, participants are willing to assume responsibility. [v]
To create trusting and collaborative relationships that serve as the foundation for accountability there are three areas to consider when assigning tasks.
First, is the task reasonableDoes what you are asking an employee to do make sense in terms of its structure, duration, and priority within the individual’s and organization’s schedule? Ensuring that roles and processes are clear is critical, and eliminating confusion and providing clear guidance on how the proceed is essential prior to implementation. Expectations must be clearly defined if organizational short- and long-term goals are to be met.[vi] The Workplace Accountability Study found that 50% of those surveyed disliked accountability because they didn’t know how to effectively implement it.[vii] Leaders cannot expect employees to be accountable without a clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve.
Next, ensure that the task is possibleand resources are available to support its completion. Leaders must provide support and resources, along with advice on how to improve. This helps create a learning environment where employees feel like they have the freedom to be more innovative and are comfortable seeking guidance if needed. Creating genuine accountability involves giving up the reigns, so while setting clear goals is critical, it is also important to allow employees the freedom to determine how to achieve those goals.[viii]
Employees who feel their managers care for them want to help the organization succeed; those who don’t, are unmotivated to take any initiative above and beyond their identified requirements.[ix] [x] Teams who are motivated and work well together will identify existing gaps and create new processes that enable them to handle tasks even more efficiently.[xi] Again, this must be reflected in the organization’s culture. To encourage commitment to reaching goals, engage employees in the goal-setting process.[xii] This helps ensure that they understand the expectations and increases their commitment to the project. Conversely a lack of clarity contributes to a lack of accountability.
Finally, the task must be understoodKnowing the goals is one thing, but being aligned on what successful completion of a task looks like might be something else entirely! Once goals are clearly understood, leaders should provide specific, individualized metrics for each role. Further, they should be clear on how each individual’s contributions impact the overall success of the project. This requires feedback and updates on progress, which should link specifically to the goals individuals are tasked with completing.[xiii] [xiv]
To be clear, accountability is a two way process. Inherent in the assignment of a task is a supervisor’s accountability to deliver the appropriate resources to complete the task and to provide the employee with an evaluation of her effectiveness based on pre-determined and agreed upon criteria. This iterates the need for being very clear in identifying which individuals or teams are responsible for each task and letting them know the criteria by which they will be measured, individually and as part of the overall project success. This is particularly critical with cross-functional teams. [xv]
It is also important to note that accountability shouldn’t be viewed as a precursor to punishment. Among those surveyed in the Workplace Accountability study, 80% said feedback was something that happens to them only when things go wrong, if it occurs at all![xvi] In such an environment, employees will be afraid to speak up about issues that may prevent them from task completion, and will most assuredly make them think twice before offering suggestions about a new or more efficient approach.[xvii] Certainly consequences for failing to complete tasks that are reasonable, possible, and understood should be made clear at the outset and enacted when necessary. However, penalizing employees who are unable to complete their tasks because they were not properly prepared or were required to follow an established but ineffective process is unfair and punitive. Of course, when employees know the expectations, have the resources to complete tasks, and receive feedback during the process, the likelihood of failure is virtually eliminated.
To experience the benefits that occur when accountability is an organization-wide expectation, leaders must “walk the talk” and demonstrate by example. Accountability in organizations builds trust, reduces unnecessary repetition and unproductive activity, and achieves better compliance. It may take some effort to implement effective processes, but the successful outcomes for employees and the organization are well worth the effort.
[i] Partners In Leadership. (2014). Landmark workplace study reveals “Crisis of accountability”.
[iv] Partners In Leadership
[v] Ashkenas, R. (2012). Why accountability is so muddled, and how to un-muddle it. Harvard Business Review.
[vii] Partners In Leadership