Lessons on Self-Management in Remote Teams

By Catalina Contoloru, Chief Operating Officer

Introducing #2 in #TeamPTHR’s Unorthodox and Unplugged blog series. Brought to us by Catalina Contoloru, our Chief Operating Officer, who shares a few lessons from her years of experience with self-managed remote working!



There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the work-from-home trend. With everyone having to be socially distant and staying in the house as much as possible, but continue working somehow, it’s clear the attention is going towards keeping teams functional and building remote teams that are more flexible, adaptable and fluid.

Another trend that has been on the rise in these last years is self-management. It has been around for a long time but it has grown in popularity in the last years with the work of consultants and practitioners like Frederic Laloux, Corporate Rebels, Morning Star, Buurtzorg and many others. Self-management is attractive for a lot of people and companies for its undeclared promises: more autonomous, proactive, and engaged people  – all aspects highly desired by a lot of companies. In our current context, people need to act this way if they want to help their businesses survive and reinvent. 


But how can you have a self-managed team in a remote environment? 


I was fascinated by these ideas some years ago when I learned about new ways of working so I really wanted a playground to test this way of building teams and see how it’s done in practice. I explored self-management with a small team of 10 people for 5 years before joining PTHR, with a pure curiosity of learning: How does theory translate into practice? What is important to do from the beginning? What can be built over time? How does growth happen? Can all this be done with a dispersed team? What are the challenges? 


Here are 3 most important lessons I took from this experience:


1. Self-management Doesn’t Mean No Leadership

A lot of people confuse management with leadership. In traditional organisations, management equals leadership, so there is a common belief that self-management means no leadership. It’s an ingrained belief and it doesn’t change just because someone says it’s not the case.

In reality, self-managed teams are full of leaders, but inevitably some will have more initiatives than others, some will be more active than others, especially in a remote environment, these differences can be more visible. It’s important to understand that leadership can manifest in different ways and people should have the space to bring their ideas to life, to gather people’s energies to move things forward, to start or close initiatives. 


In our group, there was an underlying assumption that everyone was equal and even though we agreed that different people will lead different projects and initiatives, we still had debates about the influence people had on steering things in one direction or another. 

In self-managed teams, there is a degree of equality: everyone has access to all information including financial information, everyone respects the same rules and principles and can take decisions for their own role, feedback and evaluation happens in the same way for everyone. However, the skills people have, their expertise and their personality will always add a new layer to their role in the organisation meaning that people can bring a different contribution to the business. 


2. Have Team Agreements and Clear Practices

These should be shaped by the team so when certain situations come up, there is clear guidance for how to behave and you don’t need to create a rule for a specific situation that can feel unfair for the people involved in it. 

Spend some time to come up with team agreements and of course others will surface as the team matures but it’s important to have a good backbone from an initial discussion about what’s important for the current team. Translate the agreements into clear behaviours and refer back to them every time you need to. Having a facilitator for this conversation is crucial as everyone should contribute and have their voices heard. 

When working remotely, not having these agreements can create a lot of confusion. Team agreements and practices should cover the main aspects of a team: decision making, work distribution, accountability, performance, conflict resolution, hiring, firing, and learning. 

We had a few areas uncovered thinking we would define a process if and when we needed it, and letting people go became a painful act for the team and business. In this situation, where practices and limits weren’t clear it ended up damaging relationships, slowing pace, and draining energy.



3. Learn About Self-Management 

Remote or not, people need to learn about self-management as a group. This is really important and can help teams be more aligned to understand the thinking behind some practices and get inspiration from other practitioners. 

Self-management requires a change in mindset as much as it requires a change in processes and systems. Don’t expect people to adapt overnight and know how to think differently. Be very intentional about the learning process: have regular calls where people come together and talk about self-management. What is it? How do we want to shape our culture? Share ideas and what you’re learning. 

In the team I worked with, we noticed that when we had more conversations about this with clear examples and ideas, people were on the same page and were really inspired by how we did things.


What I realised after some years of testing these waters is that this is a continuous process and there’s always room for improvement, self-management is an exploratory long-term process. 

There are a lot of challenges in our current world but there are also a lot of opportunities to reinvent businesses for the better and I strongly believe that the people-powered, progressive organisations will be the ones leading the way. 

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