March 31, 2020

Developing Effective Workflows in Remote Teams

Workflow roadblocks happen in all work processes that involve collaboration, regardless of whether workers are remote or onsite. However, the possibilities for inefficiency multiply when there are additional barriers to communication, and remote teams may feel uniquely stymied by communication challenges. Whether you’ve had problems in the past with ineffective workflows or you simply want to get a great start on collaborations with onsite and offsite workers, try this process to move projects effectively from their inception to their conclusion.

Assemble All Involved Parties

It is very hard to have a serious workflow discussion without getting all stakeholders in the virtual “room.” Figure out what makes the most sense for you, be it a Slack channel, a video call, or a conference call. Schedule so that everyone can be there and impress upon individual team members how essential this meeting is. It can help you all perform better in the future, so everyone has a stake in it.

Discuss and Document the Current Process

Whatever work you do, a workflow consists of the individual steps and who does them. It also includes all of the “project hand-off” moments: whenever someone completes their tasks and moves the project into someone else’s queue of work. Most offices and remote teams already have some form of workflow, but when it is ad hoc and made up as workers go along, there can be serious blind spots. This is the stage where, as a remote team, you should be honest with yourselves: how long are the projects taking? Should they be happening faster? Is there a way to communicate more effectively? Work as hard as you can to avoid blaming individuals, which can create defensiveness, and instead blame the structure and the workflow environment, which is what you are trying to solve.

Take Note of Redundancies, Roadblocks, and Missed Steps

Two major things should emerge from this discussion: one is any redundancies, where two or more people are doing such similar actions that they are essentially replicating work, and the other is roadblocks, where one person’s role cannot advance without someone else’s information and both end up in a Catch-22. Again, these things aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but everyone can be part of pointing these problems out and finding solutions. If a workflow has been designed here and there, without consistency, there is a chance that no one even knew that things were taking as long as they were. Roadblocks and redundancies aren’t the only thing you might discover: you may find out that everyone thought someone else was doing one step, when in reality it wasn’t being done at all. This will not make your workflow shorter, but it will help you deliver a better product.

Chart a More Effective Workflow

A final workflow for your team should result in a high-quality deliverable that is completed as promptly as possible. Start from the beginning and re-chart the course of the project based on the information you now have: what will keep things moving? What kinds of turnaround deadlines are reasonable? How can each member of the team be sure to have what they need, when they need it? Everyone can weigh in, but make sure there is a team lead who can arbitrate any concerns about someone taking on too much or too little in the process. Emphasize that the workflow isn’t to monitor and police, but rather to increase quality and efficiency. If anyone has a concern about the timeline being unrealistic, take note and incorporate a way to allow time for that individual to do his or her steps of the process.

Choose a Workflow Management Tool

While you certainly can manage a workflow that is on paper, remote teams tend to need a collaborative software-based tool if they want to keep a workflow consistently functioning. Luckily, a variety of project management software allows for individuals to virtually “hand-off” elements of projects and document their participation. A manager or team lead need only look at which steps have been checked off and annotated with the date to know exactly where in the process each item might be. These tools are only as useful as the information you input into them, so it might be best to research 2-3 potential tools or create a couple of sample workflows before the meeting in order to get all the team members on board with a workflow management solution.

Commit to The Communication Method of Choice

Once the workflow is created (make sure someone is assigned to this task itself!), the big hurdle is buy-in. It’s easy to feel somewhat individualistic while working remotely, but if there is a documented way that you should be handing off project elements, make sure you follow it. As a team lead, check in with team members whenever the process isn’t followed. There’s no point to hounding people, but make sure they know that the process helps everyone work to the best of their abilities. When the workflow management tool indicates a new roadblock or that someone is overwhelmed, decide how to proceed within the framework: can someone whose work is taking less time take on another step in the process? Make it clear that the workflow is about evening out workload while accomplishing the team’s broader goals.

Revise as Needed!

While it’d be great to get a remote work workflow perfect on the first try, that is unlikely to happen. You may discover you need a new tool, or a less cumbersome method of alerting each other about tasks. You may realize your timeline was too ambitious or not ambitious enough. As needed, schedule check-ins and revise the process in a way that makes sense for your team. This isn’t a sign that the workflow is a bad idea, but rather the natural next step once you’ve created a workflow. Circumstances change, and your team settles into their remote schedules. It only makes sense to incorporate new information and new projects and help the workflow fit them.

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