How to shape a remote team that’s uber-productive (spoiler: it’s not about measuring progress)

A thriving team has little to do with numerical analyses and everything to do with an employee's happiness and motivation. Let us explain!

Picasso was sitting in a Parisian café when a woman approached him and asked to make a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist drew the dove below and said: “That will be $10,000.”

Picasso dove drawing

“But you did that in 30 seconds.” the astonished woman replied.

“No,” Picasso said, “It has taken me 40 years to do that.”

The moral of this story? Some tasks can be done fast because we’ve honed the skill for years and years. Other tasks, like ones that are new to us, might take us days or weeks to complete. Which is exactly why we focus on our team’s outcomes, not their progress.

Assembly lines are great for making cars, but they are not ideal for allowing creativity and innovation to flourish in your company. All your team members can be productive on their own, but you can’t use a one-size-fits-all process and expect this to work for everyone.

We found that the best way to unlock your team's productivity is to set goals, allow flow, show gratitude and make everyone feel cared for. A thriving team has little to do with numerical analyses, but everything with the happiness and motivation of each employee. Let us explain!

The concept of productivity: Don’t focus on the journey, focus on the goal

It took me 3 days to write this article because I had no idea how to answer the question: how to measure your team’s productivity. But if you ask me about running a remote company, I can tell you everything you need to know in a couple of hours. 

Productivity is influenced by so many factors that it’s hard to measure while people are in the process of creation. It’s much easier to focus on the end goal. Either we see results, or we don’t—simple as that.

Each person has their own journey to arrive at a goal:

  • A Content Writer might take a walk to get fresh ideas for a blog

  • A Developer could join a coding course to improve their skills

  • A Support Specialist could have a discussion with a colleague to decide on how to best help a customer

At The Remote Company, we don’t interfere in this process. We don’t focus on how people get to their goal, as long as they show up with great results within the given deadline. This gives employees the chance to find a remote routine that works best for their individual needs.

Now, even though we don’t micromanage along the way, it’s not that our team does whatever they want and we hope for the best. We do have clear steps to make sure each team member knows where they’re heading and how to get there.

4 steps we use to inspire productivity without a one-size-fits-all process

1. Define 1 clear goal for your team

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

— Lewis Carroll

Remember, priority can’t be plural. There should be 1 goal that the entire team is collaboratively moving towards and personal tasks that align with this big goal. Decide on the most important goal for your business and communicate that clearly to everyone. 

When people know where they have to go, it’s easier for everyone to make daily decisions, come up with ideas and take responsibility for implementing them. 

For example, MailerLite’s priority is to take care of current customers. The most important metric we’re looking at is NPS (the happiness of our customers). Therefore, our support team pays attention to the quality of their answers and if they really helped our customers. If this means a conversation might take a little longer, that’s okay.

NPS for productivity

The marketing team has the same goal and uses an upside-down funnel as its marketing approach. They’re collectively finding ways to build an even stronger community of our customers, partners and experts.

Our product development team watches requests from current customers and see what features people need. Their goal for 2020 is to build the best email marketing software for digital products.

💭 Question: What’s your big goal? And what can you do today to bring you and your team 1 step closer to your goal?

2. Assign tasks that stimulate a state of flow

Now that we collectively know where we’re heading, how can we stimulate individual progress? We believe that productivity correlates with people’s ability to be in the flow. 

Flow is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment. According to the theory formulated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow can be achieved when completing a task that challenges one's skills.

Flow graph

To achieve a state of flow, team leaders should know their team members and their skills, to make sure that the tasks given are challenging but doable. Being productive should be enjoyable, as people are learning and improving their skills. You don’t want your team to be stuck in apathy (and most likely: unproductive).

A great leader has the ability to shape tasks around each individual team member’s strengths. To find out your team’s strengths, you can use the signature skill test from VIA Institute on Character. Seligman and Peterson assembled a team of social scientists to produce the VIA Classification of Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Each team member will get their 24 strengths in descending order. The more people use their top strengths at the workplace, the more they’ll feel in flow when performing their tasks. We recommend using at least 4 from your 7 top strengths.

​Real-life example on using VIA strengths

Content Writer Megan’s top 7 strengths include (from 1 to 7): Humility, Gratitude, Forgiveness, Kindness, Humor, Social Intelligence and Zest.

Her happiness level at work is almost always at an all-time high (like, really) because she uses so many of her strengths at work. In her writing and team communication, she uses humor and kindness (helping customers/colleagues). She created the Slack channels #happynews and #questionaday, where she adds gratitude by sharing good news and asking questions that stimulate uplifting thoughts. Zest (living life as an adventure) is made possible by working remotely and dragging her suitcase around the world.

Strengths are not solely related to the tasks that come with one’s job title but can be used in the workplace as a whole. Think out of the box when someone’s strengths don’t directly correlate with their daily tasks.

💭 Question: What are your signature strengths? Do you use them at work? If not, can you corporate them into your tasks?

3. Respect people’s time

The only way to complete a task is to have time for undistracted concentration. Every team leader should ensure that their team has uninterrupted time to work. Inform people in advance how you communicate and where and when their attendance is obligatory. Skip meetings that aren’t necessary. We believe that people should be able to plan their workday and have at least several hours of uninterrupted time.

Meetings that could have been an email

At The Remote Company, we only organize meetings when it’s really necessary. All video calls are announced a week in advance. There’s a clear structure on how we manage development projects so that everyone can plan their tasks independently. 

Moreover, we encourage team members to have time blocks of deep work throughout the day. A simple “Do not disturb until ...” status on Slack will tell other team members when they’re unavailable (and when they’re back). During this time, we don’t expect people to answer immediately.

💭 Question: Which meetings can be emails or Slack messages? And do team members have enough uninterrupted work time during the day?

4. Create an uplifting environment and listen often

Research by Grant & Gino (2010) shows that gratitude expressed by leaders can increase productivity by up to 50%. We motivate our team leaders to care about them, notice their small wins and really listen when they have an issue. In our Slack channels #kudos we celebrate each other out loud.

Another technique we use is not having annual performance meetings. Instead, we check in every month. This is not to evaluate people’s work, but to find out what people are proud of, where they feel challenged and if they need help. We’ve noticed that writing-based communication goes deeper and is often more sincere than talking.

Every month, we ask team members via 15Five different questions, like:

  • How are you feeling?

  • What’s going well? What are you proud of this week?

  • What challenges are you facing? Where are you stuck?

  • What do you find most exciting about work right now?

This gives us many insights: someone is sick, someone feels stuck on a project, someone is proud of a bug fix. These small details often go unnoticed but will help you to understand why people might have been more or less productive that month. If something is off, we’re quick to offer help and get people back on track.

💭 Question: Do you listen enough to your team members? When was the last time you said thank you to a colleague? 

The success principles for an uber-productive team

  • Give your team a clear goal and guidelines so everyone knows where they’re collectively heading towards. This will help people to make independent decisions that benefit the main goal.

  • Focus on what people deliver, not on how they get to completing the task. Trust your employees to find a work routine that works best for them.

  • Talented people are motivated by ambitious tasks that get them in a state of flow. Make sure you know your team’s strengths and incorporate these strengths in their work.

  • Uplift your team by showing gratitude and celebrating small and big wins.

  • Be there for your team members and listen carefully to see if they need support.

What success principle do you use for a naturally productive team?

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