How to reduce errors in your team when working remotely

Last week I was delivering a session for 3 managers, which was originally going to focus on how to have challenging conversations. One manager was struggling. Mistakes were being repeated. She addressed them through careful feedback and in a way that her colleagues understood. But the same mistakes kept happening. People weren’t doing the things they’d agreed to.

Was she doing it wrong? She asked.

Not only that, Covid, school holidays and some team members being off on long-term sick, had meant colleagues were having to cover their team mate’s work. This lead to even more errors being spotted. And more questions: Were they being covered up? Did they even know they were errors in the first place? Why was this happening? Of course no one wants errors. But with an already-stretched team, they couldn’t afford all this time that was needed to sort them out. As an example, one simple, easily-avoided mistake took up 15 extra hours to rectify.

But not all errors are equal.

In one team, they can be a big deal. The cases they work on are extremely high value and complex. Not all are clear cut. Many grey areas have to be navigated and argued. It’s work that attracts brilliant minds. Teams pride themselves on their expertise.  Admitting they don’t know something or aren’t sure of something can dent this. 

Hybrid working arrangements = more errors + less communication

Compounding this issue is the new hybrid way of working – whereby some can remain working remotely, some can come in.  This hasn’t helped the exchange of information. When you’re sitting next to your colleagues – you can just run ideas past each other. But when you’re all working from home – it’s not always so natural for some to pick up the phone and sense check their thinking. 

Some do, but a lot don’t. How do you engage those who don’t want to pick up the phone?   Another manager asked who was struggling to motivate her team. In her weekly meetings, she asks “does anyone need help with anything?” but rarely do her colleagues say yes.

In fact, some people didn’t speak much at all – they struggled with small talk and the manager found it hard to engage them.  They are quite happy at home and aren’t the ones putting their hand up to come into the office.

And then there were those that spoke a lot.

Some of the team meetings seemingly had become an opportunity for rants and moans. At home, they couldn’t really let off steam – their family or housemates didn’t really understand their situation and couldn’t offer much of a sympathetic ear. But their colleagues could.

So what could be done to reduce the incidence of errors, engage the those who work remotely and motivate the teams?

Yes, we could run a session on how to have challenging conversation but I was interested in what was causing the need for them in the first place.  What was the culture like? What were the structures in place that reinforced it?

A strong culture is now more important than ever as we are working remotely and needing to navigate hybrid ways of working.  Dan Coyle who wrote The Culture Code studied high performing teams across the world – defines it like this:

“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

But I tend to think of it like this: It’s the way people operate when no one’s looking.  It’s the values that you and your colleagues hold dear. It’s the expectations of how people are going to behave and what gets punished and what gets rewarded.  It’s how people feel on Sunday night. Culture is the stories people tell.  

And this is why, now more than ever, defining your culture and developing it is your key to motivation, high performance and success.

Develop a learning culture

What seemed clear was that the managers needed to develop more of a “learning culture”.

An atmosphere where asking for help was encouraged, where you shared what you’d learnt so that the capacity on the team grows. Precovid, this may have happened much like osmosis in the busy office. But now this channel of information has been severed. And we are poorer for it.

Use team meetings differently

In my view, team meetings are like vital life blood. They need to carry learning opportunities within them not just be round ups and updates. I wanted to argue that the emphasis on coming together needs to change – away from updates and towards learning.

I encouraged them to ask in their team meetings:

  • What have you learnt this week/fortnight?
  • What hasn’t gone well and what did you learn from it?
  • What good outcomes have you had – (sharing good news stories was something that the teams didn’t do very often, it was just expected that you would do a good job but that wasn’t very motivating).

This would mean those who struggled with small talk could engage in a way that was meaningful. And it would signal that learning is expected and it is safe to do so.

Build psychological safety

Amy Edmonson has studied this extensively. She was interested why a pattern existed in top performing medical teams showing more errors than those teams who performed less well. You can watch her TED talk here.

3  ways to build psychological safety

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

The team I was training reflected on how they could acknowledge their own fallibility and tell stories of how they’ve sometimes got it wrong.

Ask for specific feedback

When I asked if they themselves ever get ask for feedback from their line reports. Some would say in an appraisal: do you have any feedback for me?  This is a good start as studies show we’re much more likely to hear constructive feedback given to us if we have had an opportunity also to share our feedback.

I suggested that they tweaked this and ask: “What’s one thing they can do more of and one thing they can do less of?”  Then they’re more likely to get some specifics.

In short, the new normal is going to keep changing. But one things for sure, it’s those teams and individuals that can learn quickly will thrive. And managers and leaders need to create the conditions to optimise these learning opportunities.

After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Check out the confidence and communication courses as well as those on giving and receiving feedback for more information.

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