Founder's Note: The Best Piece of Wisdom I've Heard About Managing Remote Teams

Here’s one of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve heard on managing remote teams.

Autonomy without accountability equals anarchy.

I’m not sure where this phrase came from initially, but I personally heard it a while ago from David Cancel on the Seeking Wisdom podcast.

While DC wasn’t talking about remote teams, particularly in the 2016 podcast episode, his advice is even more true with today’s remote work. Managing remote teams requires you to give people a level of autonomy over the work that they do. It is also key to retaining great talent.

David Cancel also does a great job summarizing one of the key insights that we had when building Minsilo: to foster autonomy in a team and spend less time managing people, you need to be disciplined around accountability.

In the companies that we’ve worked with (and the countless we’ve researched), we’ve found that accountability works best when:

  • individual contributions are made transparently and in the open — it should be easy to identify the work each person does
  • accountability is ritualized: teams that implement (and stick with) a system like RACI more consistently deliver results and are less likely to devolve into blaming others for inadequate results
  • leaders create a culture of ownership (in the U.S. Navy SEALs call this “extreme ownership”) that starts at the top.

There is nothing more toxic than the saying of “that’s not my job.” Leaders must own the results of their teams. In fact, the Navy SEALs live by the slogan of “there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

Why is autonomy important going into 2022?

Work-from-home has replaced office work as the norm in the post-COVID world. And we expect this to continue well into 2022 and beyond.

While there is no telling what work will look like after a COVID vaccine, commuting to the office 5 days a week will likely not be the norm anymore. According to PwC, 72% of office workers would like to work remotely at least two days per week.

Employers like remote work too. 44% of employers that participated in a June 2020 study by PwC believe that their workforce is more productive than before (31% state that they’re less productive).

Remote work isn’t just about productivity. 57% of employers plan to give their workers more flexibility in the hours that they work, according to PwC, which is the number one factor to change in the shift toward remote work.

Greater flexibility in work schedule is indicative of another macro trend that is already well underway: work is not only going to be remote, but it will also happen asynchronously.

The rise in asynchronous work means people have more control over when they get work done. Schedules will overlap mostly to accommodate meetings, but more conversations will be moved to platforms that help build knowledge.

Remote work requires a new approach to management

Remote work presents new challenges for managers who now need to rethink how they lead and manage their teams. What worked before COVID will no longer work going forward.

Even when people can safely return to the office, work will never be what it was in 2019. The rules of managing teams have forever changed.

One of the changes managers need to grapple with is how they communicate with their staff. In the past, managers drove action by delegating tasks and assigning work to individual team members. They “managed” the work being done, ensuring it is completed by a deadline.

Today, the focus for managers is on creating the context for the right work to happen. Managers focus more on managing alignment rather than tasks. They focus on connecting the dots and ensuring the work that is happening achieves strategic goals and is aligned with the company vision.

Some managers have been doing this long before 2020. Successful managers know when to provide mentorship and when to step back and let their team figure it out. They see their roles as strategic, rather than as being “somebody’s boss.”

Modern managers need to think about how they can empower the people in their teams and allow their teams to accomplish more by spending less time in meetings. The goal of any successful manager should be to create a more capable team over time.

Asynchronous communication is integral to autonomy

Another key change is toward more asynchronous work. As Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of Automattic (makers of WordPress), outlined in his interview with Sam Harris, there are 5 Levels of Autonomy in every company.

As Mullenweg continues in his blog post:

“Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment.” – Matt Mullenweg

So what does Matt’s observation about autonomy have to do with remote teams and managing in 2020 and beyond? The answer lies in how we manage teams.

Instead of forcing work to happen synchronously — or on a standard schedule — the future of work happens more asynchronously. Asynchronous work allows for flexibility in personal work schedules. It even better opportunities for collaboration and creativity because it cuts down on interruptions and reduces the amount of organizational knowledge that is lost.

Perhaps the biggest (positive) impact of asynchronous work is on the output of individual contributors. Letting employees control their schedules more allows for greater productivity, higher employee retention, and better quality work.

Here are some key points to consider:

Again, like with communication, managers need new tools for managing asynchronous work. Alignment management solutions like Minsilo can help leaders provide context and make it available, no matter when or where they work.

Autonomy requires you to have the right compensation and incentive structure.

Incentives need to align for autonomous work to really matter. As long as people continue to feel that they won’t see another dime for great work, they’ll remain disincentivized to put in the extra effort needed to go from good to great.

The incentives you offer stellar employees do not always need to be financial in nature. Incentives must align with your individual team members’ personal goals and needs: some may prioritize higher compensation, while others may care about career growth, peer recognition, or a sense of belonging to a greater purpose.

That said, do not shy away from changing your compensation structure to align with the specific goals that you’re looking to accomplish. Compensation is one of the key drivers of individual behavior. While it won’t fix a dysfunctional team – or make a bad hire a good one – it can enable your existing talent to put more care into the work they do.

And better-aligned compensation plans, such as offering employees equity and performance-based bonuses, can change the mindset and attitudes of the people on your team. But be careful which one you pick, as they’re not substitutes for each other.

Meaningful equity given to the right people (with vesting and a cliff) can help to foster an investor mindset, especially if people feel like they’re making a long-term investment in your their business. When equity is paired with the right form of leadership, it also creates a longer-term and more holistic view on value creation: individuals know that they can’t focus on “their numbers” and be successful. They have to focus on the numbers.

Performance-based bonuses can also drive results, but it creates a more transactional mindset. Most performance-based bonuses are based on meeting certain performance goals and achieving defined results. While this is good for hitting near-term targets, it can come at the cost of making long-term decisions that aren’t good for the company.

Organizational leaders need to be careful about managing incentives and aligning them to the role, person, and business need.

Using accountability and transparency to enable autonomy in Minsilo

These learnings about autonomous teams and communication led our team to make some critical decisions about how Minsilo is designed.

In particular, Minsilo is designed to provide the context needed for people to have autonomy. It provides visibility into team, department, and company-wide goals. It also helps leaders communicate strategy and share a common purpose.

We realized that transparency is integral to successfully align people. If your people don’t know what the big picture looks like, it’s hard for them to execute deliberately. A lack of transparency creates silos and prevents teams from delivering value that drives results.

We also learned that accountability must be managed in order for teams to perform their best. The best performing teams have clarity around who is working on what, as well as feeling a sense of ownership over their work.

Our research on managing accountability led to some interesting insights and practical takeaways (that apply, even if you’re not planning on using Minsilo).

For one, the accountable role in Intelligent RACI is limited to a single person. Our research shows that while many people can be responsible for accomplishing a goal or strategic initiative, only one person should be accountable for its completion. Accountability requires someone to own the work.

Speaking of RACI assignments, we took the traditional Responsible-Accountable-Consulted-Informed matrix and automated the process. While you still manually assign roles to individuals, Minsilo takes responsibility for keeping the right people engaged through automated messages that inform them of changes. Minsilo also reminds the right people to regularly update their goals and KPIs.

Another learning that we applied to Minsilo is the default-to-open nature of the product. Unlike some practitioners of the Objectives & Key Results methodology, we do not cascade goals to the individual level. There are no personal OKRs in Minsilo. Instead, goals are set at the team level and assigned to individuals through a RACI assignment.

OKRs should not be cascaded to the personal level, because personal goals lack the visibility and flexibility of team-level goals. Instead, use a RACI assignment to connect individuals to team-level goals.

Team-level goals also improve clarity around what the team is working on. This creates transparency around goals and eliminates the risk of goals masking actual progress. It also greatly reduces the effort managers, and individual contributors need to make to keep progress towards goals up-to-date (which is important to effectively run an autonomous team).

You can learn more about how Minsilo makes it simple for managers to manage accountability and get more done with fewer meetings here.