A remote team's guide to accountability


Does your carefully assembled team struggle to meet deadlines and deliver the level of work you know they are capable of? Do team members come to you with complaints about their colleagues failing to carry their share of the load? Do you feel like you spend more time managing crises than people?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you and your team might have an accountability problem.

Building and maintaining accountability is a challenge every organisation and team faces. But achieving accountability can be particularly challenging for remote teams because of the physical and psychological separation characteristic of remote work.

"Latent collaboration issues become very visible when we add remote into the mix." ~Nassim Kammah, Mailchimp

However, with a consistent and systematic approach, your team can overcome its accountability problem. In this ebook, we explain why team accountability is crucial to your remote team’s success and provide you with a step-by-step guide to achieving accountability for your remote team. 

Your remote team won’t thrive without accountability

Teams are formed to work toward a common goal or goals. The tasks they perform are often highly interdependent and a failure of one can trigger a cascading failure of many. 

To succeed, your team members must trust one another. Every team member must be able to count on every other team member to fulfil their obligations. Promises must be kept and expectations met with regard to delivery dates, resource usages, and quality of work. 

Trust among your remote team members is built on a foundation of accountability. 

"When trust is present, people step forward and do their best work, together, efficiently. The align around a common purpose, take risks, think outside the box, have each other’s backs, and communicate openly and honestly." ~Dennis Reina, Michelle Reina, David Hudnut, Center for Creative Leadership (link)

Without a sense of trust backed by accountability, your team’s individual and group performance will suffer.

Low accountability causes lowered team and individual performance

A recent study completed by the leadership training company, VitalSmarts, found that 9 out of 10 team members say someone else on their team is dropping the ball when it comes to meeting deadlines, keeping track of tasks, or prioritizing their work. The study also found that these errors and missteps reduce a team’s overall performance by an average of 24%. 

The consequences of missed deadlines or miscommunications are often magnified for remote teams where differences in work schedules and time zones can turn a two-hour delay of a deliverable into a full day of lost work. 

Low accountability causes lowered employee morale and engagement

In addition to team-level performance and productivity costs, a lack of accountability results in personal and personnel costs. 

Look closely at a toxic workplace and you will find that accountability is missing. 

In a low- or no-accountability environment where poor performance or bad behaviour goes unaddressed, your team members will quickly become frustrated and unengaged. When teammates fail to meet deadlines or deliver substandard work, trust breaks down and collaboration comes to a halt. As underperformers’ work begins to affect individual and team metrics, you can expect your high-achievers to begin looking for the nearest exit.

Team accountability and retaining top talent: 49% of high-performers say good relations with co-workers is the reason they choose to stay at their current job. Employees who rate their manager’s performance poorly are 4x more likely than other employees to look for a new job.

Team accountability strengthens the trust bonds among your team members and prevents small problems from becoming major crises. Failures in accountability are costly for your organization and your team.

How to make accountability happen

When your team is geographically dispersed, peer-to-peer accountability may be difficult to implement.

Because team communications are often task-focused and asynchronous, there are fewer opportunities for problems to be identified through happenstance. Team members have less opportunity to exchange spontaneous updates or review one another’s work because they aren’t working side-by-side. And, as the manager of a remote team, your channels for ensuring accountability are similarly constrained. You will have few if any opportunities to MBWA (manage by wandering around). 

To be effective, the feedback and update actions that support remote team accountability must be systematized and intentional to ensure that they occur. Here’s a step-by-step guide to making accountability an integral part of your remote team’s culture.

1. Plan for success

Before you decide to assign accountability for a particular action and outcome to a team member, it is important that you fully understand the assignment as well as the capabilities, resources, and support that will be required to carry it out. Remember that accountability is a backup system it is there to guide and correct under-performance not to punish best efforts. Your plan for each task should empower your team to succeed.

Questions to ask yourself during the planning process:

  • Who on your team has the skills needed to complete the task? 
  • What resources will they have access to and what are the limitations on the use of those resources? 
  • What are this task’s dependencies? Will the person responsible for completing the task need to wait for other team members to complete related tasks before they can begin working? 
  • Should this assignment be broken down into smaller tasks assigned to different team members?
  • Are the deadline and expected outcome for this task reasonable given the task’s dependencies, your team’s capabilities, and the available resources?

As much as possible, include your team in your planning process. Their early involvement will help you better define your goals and identify any potential roadblocks.

2. Set clear expectations

"The workforce will undoubtedly feel accountable for doing good work. The question is whether or not they will feel accountable for doing the right work--that which will help achieve the strategy." ~Dwight Mihalicz, Effective Managers

Like a contract, accountability requires a meeting of the minds. You cannot hold someone accountable for a task that they did not agree to undertake and agreement requires understanding. Without clear definitions of the goals, processes, standards, necessary participants, and desired outcomes of a task, any assessment of your team’s performance is, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, impossible.

To ensure that your team is aligned at the start of each new task, provide them with the following information:

  • WHO: Identify the team member or members who will work on the task and, most importantly, who will ultimately be held accountable for its completion. For some tasks, a single team member may be assigned to do the work, while in other instances you may assign a sub-group to collaborate.
"Without clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task." ~Tammy Erickson, London Business School

  • WHAT: provide a detailed description of the expected deliverable. Each task should have a single deliverable. If you have created a task that will produce several deliverables, consider separating the whole into sub-tasks. Use quantitative measures when describing expected deliverables. When adding qualitative requirements, be specific. Don’t assume that your team knows or shares your quality standards.
  • HOW: define the processes that should be used to complete the task. For some tasks, only the output matters and you may leave it up to your team to define how to achieve that outcome. But for other tasks, the tools, software, or methods used to achieve that output may matter. If you have a preference (or mandate) regarding how a task should be completed, be sure to let your team know before they start working.
  • WHEN: indicate the delivery date for each task and sub-task. If a task must be completed by a specific date, make this clear. Set both a date and time otherwise the deliverable that you needed first thing in the morning on the designated day may not arrive until midnight. Also, let your team know how hard or soft the task’s deadlines are--how much flexibility do they have to make adjustments and shift timelines--and what the consequences to the team and the organization will be if the schedule isn’t met.
  • WHY: Give your team context for their tasks by showing how them their tasks fit into your organization’s larger objectives. 

"Clarity on why and how the team is working together sets the foundation for progressing on their goals." ~Randy Conley, The Ken Blanchard Companies

An understanding of and focus on a shared or common purpose is one of the hallmarks of high-performing teams. A zoomed-out view of their tasks and the organization’s goals will also enable your team members to make better decisions when it comes to prioritization and resource use. 

  • RESOURCES AND LIMITATIONS: Few organizations have access to unlimited resources. Before a task is underway, clarify the human and other resources your team is authorized to use to complete the task and any limits on that authorization. For example, if your team only has access to development support one day a week, they must be prepared to complete all development-related actions on that day.
  • PRIORITIES AND AUTHORITIES: when you assign someone to be accountable for a task, you should also offer them a framework for determining priorities. If there is a conflict between completing a task on time or within budget, which is a greater priority? What are the limits of the team member’s decision making authority? Are they permitted to authorize overtime hours, outsource tasks, or order extra resources? To whom and in what circumstances should the team member report potential problems and delays?

Clarifying the boundaries of your team members’ autonomy enables them to make decisions without fearing that they will be punished for overstepping their authority.

  • ACCEPTED CONSEQUENCES: defining the consequences for failing to meet expectations is unavoidable if you want your team to have a true culture of accountability. The consequences you define should be proportionate, predictable, and consistently applied. Make sure every team member understands and accepts that they will be held accountable if they don’t follow through with their commitment. At the same time, encourage team members to be proactive about communicating problems and working with one another to develop solutions. Facilitating peer-to-peer accountability will nurture your team members’ leadership skills and empower them to work together more efficiently.

3. Define your team’s SOPs

High-performing teams discuss and agree to their operating rules--standards that each team member agrees to uphold and for which they hold each other accountable. ~SHRM Toolkit

Every team is susceptible to breakdowns in communications or misunderstandings. But, remote teams are particularly susceptible to miscommunications because non-verbal cues and contextual clues are more difficult to convey during digital exchanges. Cultural and language differences can further complicate matters. Vague phrases, sarcastic humor, colloquialisms, and a lack of context can make it difficult for remote teams to reach a mutual understanding of their tasks and obligations.

For example, when you say, “Would you mind finishing this by the end of the day?” are you asking the person if they can fit the task into their schedule or are you telling them to get it done? 

Before your team undertakes a set of tasks, take the time to discuss the language you will use to share information and which communication channels are appropriate for various common circumstances. 

Questions your team’s communication SOPs should answer

  • Are team members expected to check their email or other communications channels daily, hourly, twice a day? 
  • Who gets to choose the app that team members will use to communicate about a specific task? 
  • How soon should team members expect a response to an instant message? 
  • Are weekends off-limits? 
  • What communication channels should team members to send updates and status reports? 
  • What is the best method to contact each team member for urgent matters? 
  • What time zones do team members work in? 
  • How will various time zone and other team commitments impact communications and response times? 
  • How should team members inform others when they will be unavailable or need to hold communications to do focused work? 

4. Capture crucial information

One of the biggest challenges when managing a remote team is ensuring that task-focused information is captured and maintained. 

Your remote team likely uses several different methods such as video conferences, team chat, instant messages, and email to communicate with one another. And while each one of these methods has a role to play in your collaborative activities, none of them is really suitable for the job of capturing and monitoring action items, status updates, and feedback. Without a clear strategy and appropriate tool for capturing your team’s task-focused communications, important messages can easily slip through the cracks making it difficult for you and your team to hold one another accountable. 

CEO coach Michael Watkins recommends that virtual teams overcome the fog of communication overload with a “deliverables dashboard” that, unlike your other team communication channels, is exclusively task-focused. This task communications hub will eliminate noise and allow your team to focus on the work to be done. To foster transparency and peer-to-peer accountability, information shared on this virtual command center should be visible to each member of your team. 

5. Enforce consequences

Holding others accountable is one of the biggest challenges managers and team leaders face.  Nearly 1 in 5 CEOs say that an inability to hold people accountable is their greatest weakness and 15% said that their biggest weakness was failing to get rid of underperformers. Yet leaders and team members alike long for more accountability in the workplace. 

66% of upper-level managers do too little to hold others accountable say their coworkers and peers.  

Why do two-thirds of managers avoid enforcing consequences when a team member under-performs? The primary reason is to avoid the negative social and emotional repercussions of enforcing the team’s standards. Enforcing the consequences for failing to meet the team’s defined expectations is crucial to preserving team cohesion and trust.

The consequences you impose don’t have to be negative in every situation. Of course, there may be some instances where the right decision is to remove a team member from the team, but a well-designed accountability program should include restorative consequences such as problem-identification, retraining, and reviews.

What matters most is that your remote team recognizes that there are real, reasonable, and expected consequences for failing to meet their obligations to one another.

Read on to discover a powerful tool that helps you stay accountable by default:

Empower with the right tools

When you provide your team with a framework for accountability, you empower them to perform at their best.

Workiro’s task management tool makes accountability a default behaviour for your team. It replaces your inbox with a smart to-do list, organizing your team’s communication into simple, defined tasks, with clear accountability.

Book a Discovery Call

Want to find out more about how Workiro works? Book a zoom-based discovery call with one of our experts who’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have, to ensure Workiro is the right fit for your business needs.

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