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11 Timely Tips on How to Manage Distributed Teams
Despite ample time, many leaders are still struggling over how to manage distributed teams.
Over the last few years, organizations—from the smallest to the largest—have been forced to reassess and rework long-standing work paradigms. COVID sent employees home, separating teams and changing work patterns. And while many businesses are beginning to demand employees return to the office, there is intense pushback.
Teams have proved they can work successfully, and often more productively, from their own homes. In that case, why should they return to the longer, more stressful days of the commute?
A power struggle is raging. And despite what side you’re on, the side of the team member wanting to continue to work from home or the employer who wants them back in the office, you should prepare for what comes next.
For the employer, that means you need to stop wondering how to manage distributed teams and learn how. Because for some, there is a very real chance the new work paradigm is here to stay.
The Trend Toward Distributed Teams
Before jumping into how to manage distributed teams, it’s a good idea to look at their history. It’s not just the phenomenon of COVID-19 that introduced the workforce to this type of team, the pandemic simply accelerated its adoption.
Simply put, a distributed team is one that’s made up of employees who don’t come together to work at one or several central locations. They can be spread around the globe or work in fairly close proximity.
And don’t be confused about remote teams or distributed teams. The difference is more than semantics. Just because they both work from a satellite office—in this case, their home—and they both work virtually; they are not the same
A true remote team has members who work from their home office and members working from a physical headquarters. On the other hand, a distributed team has no physical office, and the members of the team can be spread near or far. Essentially, they’re a hybrid model. And perhaps that’s what makes them a challenge, leaving so many businesses wondering how to manage their distributed teams.
We can look back as far as the 1950s and ‘60s for modern-day examples of distributed teams, which seems remarkable, given the lack of technology at the time. In the book Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart, author John O’Duinn stated that two companies, CompInc, which was founded in 1957, and Freelance Programmers, founded in 1962, were both distributed. Both were in the tech industry—such as it was back then—and part of their hiring process was ensuring that candidates had a working telephone in their homes.
Yes, you read that right. A job requirement was having a landline at home.
Since then, thanks to the technology that Industry 4.0 has brought us, there has been ongoing advancement in the adoption of such teams—with a significant push in the last few years.
Distributed Teams are More Popular Than Ever
Let’s remove the pandemic from the equation. Yes, it’s been a driving force in the push towards making and managing distributed teams, but even before then, they were becoming more mainstream. What started as something popular in tech was hopping industry boundaries.
There are several reasons for their growing popularity.
- Regardless of where we are, we have the technology to instantly connect
- Finding the right talent may mean looking beyond the city where a company has offices
- Employee retention could involve offering them flexible work options
- Competition is fierce in today’s business environment. Distributed teams can be more agile, able to respond to customer and client demands faster than ever.
However, despite such a long timeline—from the 50s until today—the question remains. How to manage distributed teams?
Thankfully, the answer isn’t shrouded in secret. The steps involved aren’t all that different—in principle at least—then how any other team is managed.
11 Tips on How to Manage Distributed Teams
Understandably, some leaders may have a hard time wrapping their heads around managing distributed teams. After all, as stated above, there are long-standing paradigms around how work should be carried out.
Assuming someone didn’t work in retail, at a fast-food joint, or the zoo, like good little drones, everyone filed into their office cubicle in the morning. And people wonder why America is dealing with the Great Resignation. Because that mindset just isn’t working anymore.
There’s a new paradigm in town so it’s time your company learned how to manage distributed teams.
1. Find and Hire the Right People
All you need to do is look at the cross-section of workers who were forced home at the beginning of the pandemic. While some thrived, others began to die inside, missing in-person, human interaction.
So part of your selection process must be choosing the right people—those who can and will be productive while working remotely. Also, understand that it takes self-discipline for employees to manage themselves at home.
The home office can have as many distractions as the corporate office—they’re just different distractions. You need to know that distributed team members can withstand the temptation of the TV, those mid-afternoon naps, or mornings when it’s impossible to get out of bed. Or accept they can work around their distractions and still get their work done.
How do you find these people? Look to their past. Have they proven they can be productive from a home office? Can past employers or clients testify to their output despite the TV, the bed, or even the laundry? Then you’ve found your unicorn—except these people aren’t as hard to find as that mythical beast. They’re everywhere.
2. Define Your Expectations
Don’t be vague and most certainly don’t expect your employees to somehow read your mind. Miscommunication at work is already a problem when speakers are face to face. It’s further exacerbated when communication is via email.
Take into consideration the diversity of your team— for instance, their work experience or cultural background. Some will have worked from home in the past, but it may be a completely new scenario for others. Be sure to make allowances—at least in the short term—for that, but everyone on the team needs to know what’s expected of them.
It’s up to you to set deadlines and measurable goals along the way. Failure to do so can result in poor performance and projects that veer off-path. In this case, less isn’t more. The reality is, you’ll likely need to over-communicate team goals—when you onboard and again, every time you review team performance and lay out your next steps.
3. Select Appropriate Communication & Collaboration Tools
Gone are the days of the pioneers of distributed teams. Those companies back in the ’50s and ‘60s that only had a single landline to communicate with.
Don’t assume that once you’ve provided your team with a means to communicate with each other—perhaps a company smartphone—you have done enough. If you want to know how to manage distributed teams, know this. The lack of software or even the wrong software can have a huge negative impact on their ability to be productive. That really shouldn’t be too surprising.
And realize that communication and collaboration are two different things. A radio announcer can read out a PSA which you hear but can’t respond to and it counts as communication. Collaboration involves more than a speaker and a listener. It’s multiple parties who come together collectively to accomplish a goal.
The tools you use should make that possible.
4. Hold Regular Meetings
In line with the above-mentioned need to communicate your expectations, regular meetings are essential. And this means meetings with the entire team as well as one-on-one.
Make sure you prepare for your meetings—meaning have an agenda and stick to it. Meetings without a purpose or goal simply waste time and damage productivity.
Use this time to actively listen to any concerns and try to find solutions.
5. Make Sure Your Team Has Some Fun
While you may want to incorporate a little fun into your scheduled meetings, plan for some non-work interaction.
Depending on how spread out the team is, you may be able to bring them together for social activities. If possible, make this happen because it’s an important step.
When you manage a distributed team, you need to provide them with something like a water cooler or breakroom where office staff congregates and chats. So use the collaboration tools you already have and give your team time to socialize and to build team spirit.
This type of interaction that isn’t related to work can help build strong teams.
6. Don’t Fall Back on Email
Yes, email is convenient. Certainly, not the breakthrough in communication that it was decades ago, but it has its use. Just keep email in its place because, in reality, it is one of the worst forms of effective communication. In fact, it might not be too much of a stretch to say it isn’t effective at all.
As a collaboration tool, email is a complete fail. Even if you use a program that allows you to sort “conversations” into threads where you can nest them together, email wasn’t designed for collaboration. Email is just the digital form of snail mail.
Remember point # 3 above about choosing the right collaboration and communication tools.
7. Track Results, Not Hours
Some of you wanting to learn how to manage distributed teams may be micromanagers, so this one is going to be hard to choke down.
Unless you’ve somehow added spyware to your team member’s computers or had cameras set up around their homes without their knowledge, you don’t know what they do with every hour of their workday.
You don’t need to know what they do every hour of their workday. You may need to repeat that over and over again like a mantra before it sinks in, but you need to learn and accept it.
Results are the end-game. If your team is productive and meeting deadlines, don’t focus on where they are and what they are doing during “normal working hours.” Their normal hours may not be the standard 9 to 5 of the corporate office crowd.
8. Set Response Time Rules
This may be a bit more difficult for teams spread across time zones, but you should have some sort of asynchronous communication rules in effect.
Everyone has a guideline around how much time can pass before you respond to a message—no one is expected to reply at once.
This doesn’t mean you’re asking your employees to be available 24/7, it simply means that if a message is sent via one of the teams’ usual channels there are expectations around when to expect an answer.
For example, there may be a guideline that team members should be checking for messages at least every two hours during the workday. This means that what is meant by “workday” needs to be established and those boundaries need to be respected.
How does this benefit everyone?
Members of the team can focus on work without constantly checking their communication tools. Fewer distractions translate to increased productivity.
9. Establish Clear Workflows
Clear workflows will be especially essential when you have teams spread across time zones.
One of the positives of having teams in different parts of the world can mean quicker response times. But it can also slow down a team as one member in one time zone waits for a task to be completed that’s in the hands of someone a time zone behind.
To keep a project on time and every stage of it in sight, use workflows and the appropriate project management tools.
10. Schedule Regular Check-Ins
In the physical office, managers and team members have the opportunity to walk into someone’s office when they have a question or see something that could potentially be an issue.
In a distributed team, it will be necessary to create those moments. This isn’t a meeting or social time, and it’s not hovering or micromanaging. It’s a way to stay connected, share feedback, and build rapport.
11. Celebrate the Wins
They don’t need to be big, end-of-project wins. They could be milestones met along the way, whether individual or corporate.
Even if they’re just shout-outs, celebrating wins brings a team together, fosters team spirit, and helps members feel invested.
Remote work is fast becoming the new norm, so learning how to manage distributed teams is critical. Yes, there are challenges, but the benefits are real.
One of these benefits is the ability to attract and retain the top talent—talent that often isn’t in your city or maybe even your country. And once you’ve onboarded someone, your job has just begun. As you’ve seen above, there are several steps you’ll want to take to build a strong, productive, cohesive team.
You can’t manage your distributed team as you would a traditional team. From the very foundation of how you communicate and collaborate, to the tools you use, and how you manage your workflows and projects, your role is different.
They say that only the strong survive, and in a quickly changing world that may mean changing the way you work. For example, leading teams that have more agility than ever before—more flexibility than ever before.