Leadership

Managing distributed teams

When working in or managing distributed teams, there are several challenges that one could encounter. In this post, I touch on two key challenges which are very important for effective team management in a distributed environment: Communication and Productivity.

Communication

Effective communication is very crucial in building an effective high performing team. Let’s face it, remote communication is not easy, the challenges of communication even when done in-person, cannot be overemphasized, nonetheless, when it is remote. It is essential to ensure that information flows freely across multiple levels within the team. In most distributed teams, poor communication processes pose challenges to team members communicating effectively. Relationship building among team members always helps improve communication and team performance, which is quite challenging to achieve with a distributed team.

Some tips to address communication challenges

  • Hire the right people – If team members will be working remotely, it is important to assess how they communicate through emails, phone calls. Hiring employees with great communication skills can contribute a great deal towards team success. To test good communication skills during the hiring process, it is important to ensure that candidates are interviewed by several team members from different backgrounds to ensure objective opinions on candidate’s communication skills and organization’s communication culture fit. It is also important to conduct multiple interview stages using different mediums including writing, audio interviews, video interviews, and face to face interviews.
  • Choose the Best Media for each situation – With the proliferation of communication tools available in the market, it is important to assess the team dynamics, choose and standardize communication tools to enable effective team communication. Several challenges that can hinder performance might range from being able to easily schedule meetings (especially if teams are distributed across multiple time zones) to ensuring quick communication via chat channels to effectively organizing meetings via video conferencing. Standardizing the right tools and ensuring that team members are trained to use all communication tools as part of the onboarding process is very important. For example, Google docs can be used to collaborate on a document but it can be shared with all team members via a slack channel. Here are some common tools for different purposes:
    • Scheduling: Calendly, Doodle;
    • Chat: Slack, Twist, Google Hangouts, Traditional phone call; and
    • Web and video conferencing: Zoom, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, Skype.
  1. Build the right communication culture – To build a strong communication structure, it is important to provide guidelines and rules on how communication should be approached in a distributed team. For example, with the proliferation of tools that are available, it is important to specify what kind of messages should be sent through which tools and mediums, and how team members are expected to interact with each other. Since the probability that distributed teams might be from multiple geographies and cultures, it is important to specify the official language for communication, including the use of colloquialisms and acronyms. Setting ground rules and processes also work, for example, ensure videos are on during video calls, set and share a clear agenda and for every meeting. To improve communication, it is also important to periodically get the team together in one location. This always improves remote communication and collaboration and fosters team bonding which improves virtual communication in the future.

Productivity

Sometimes, productivity could become a major challenge when employees work outside of traditional office space. If not properly approached, it could be difficult to evaluate, motivate, manage remote employees. It is important to know how to get productivity out of remote workers, to make distributed working count. While some team members may be performing below standards, some employees may burnout when working remotely due to a lack of boundaries.

Some tips to address productivity challenges

  • Develop an accountability framework – It is important to ensure that performance management systems need to be structured to support distributed team management and teams must be held accountable to high performance. It is important for teams to embrace a culture of ownership and transparency. Managers must set clear expectations for each role and have regular check-ins to gauge progress. Tools like Toggl can also be used to track hours spent on tasks to ensure transparency, particularly for those working on external clients project because this gives a clear sense of billable hours spent and can help in future task scoping.
  • Monitor team morale – Team members can get burnt out without notice in distributed work environments, especially due to lack of physical boundaries for work hours within an office. It is important to check on employee moods, to ensure morale is not lost due to employees being overworked, also employees should be encouraged to take paid time off and policies should support this. Conducting regular one-one-ones with each team members can help identify areas where they need support since they are not seen physically on a regular basis

Develop Processes to support a high performing culture – Implementing agile processes effectively can help build high performing distributed teams. For example, always ensuring that the team consistently has a shared understanding of the common goal is important for driving productivity. Ensuring that team members participate in road mapping, prioritization and product strategy can create a culture of transparency that drives productivity. Also, processes like daily stand-ups, sprint planning, and retrospectives also help in building the right culture and environment for the productivity of distributed team members. In addition, having group check-ins and periodic one on ones with team members should be added to the manager’s KPIs. These can go a long way in improving team productivity.