Learning how to manage distributed teams is becoming increasingly important as a manager in the workplace, as we find that employees are now working from various locations (including from home and as digital nomads in far-flung locations). So let’s take a look at some useful tips to make managing distributed teams something that is easier to do successfully.
What Are Distributed Teams?
A distributed team is a work team that is based in different geographic locations, aside from the main offices and company buildings.
Some employees, for example, might be physically based in the main office and warehouse and other company locations.
Other employees though, might work virtually from different corners of the world.
So, as a manager, you might be working from the head office in Manchester, England, but then have staff you manage in Delhi (India), NYC (USA), Paris (France) and even a member of staff who might be working as a digital nomad from Costa Rica.
The Challenges of Managing a Distributed Team
Advantages of Distributed Teams
There are definite advantages to having distributed teams and these include the:
- ability to hire the best person for the job regardless of where they live in the world.
- possibility to offer better working conditions for staff in terms of more freedom and flexibility.
- chance to have staff from different backgrounds, cultures and countries and as a result to have a diverse workforce with a greater range of ideas, skills and knowledge.
- opportunity as a business to reduce costs via savings from office space, utility bills, and sometimes more affordable staff from another country (the latter point coming with some ethical considerations potentially regards labour costs though).
Having mentioned the advantages above, there are of course challenges surrounding distributed teams, and especially so in respect of how you manage these teams.
Disadvantages of Distributed Teams
Typical issues include having to manage staff who:
- work in different time-zones and so are available at different times for group meetings
- have varying ways of working and communicating because of their culture
- are harder to sometimes track in terms of their work hours and workload
Let’s take a look then at some useful tips and solutions for managing distributed teams!
1. Provide Intercultural Communications Training to Your Virtual Team
As I’ve mentioned above, intercultural communication can be an important consideration for managing a distributed team, in order to improve and maintain productivity, and to have a team who work well together.
Employees in distributed teams naturally live in different countries and are often from differing cultures and have different ways of working.
For this reason, it is worth ensuring that staff understand the following, for example:
- How culture shock, culture clash, stereotypes and prejudices can impact on how to communicate online
- Cultural value dimensions
- Ways of improving cross-cultural communication in the workplace
2. Training Managers to Manage Distributed teams
One of the first things I recommend is to provide training for your managers on how to manage virtual teams.
The way to manage a distributed team on a daily and regular basis is naturally going to be virtually, i.e. online.
Managing a virtual team though is not something that comes naturally to many of us managers as this is a relatively new expectation for us.
There are methods and techniques though to being a good virtual manager and we cover this in the ‘Managing Virtual Teams’ courseware.
3. Cultural Exchanges Between Team Members
Most distributed teams tend to include employees from various cultural backgrounds.
This cultural diversity can be a great thing as discussed earlier regards the advantages of distributed teams (i.e. a greater range of ideas and input).
A benefit also is the chance for each of us in a distributed team to learn about other cultures, other countries and to get an insight into places and people from around the world.
Building on this amazing cultural diversity, an idea that I recommend is to have a different employee or two present to the other members of the team every so often.
The presentation only needs to be 5 minutes, for example, and can include:
- Overview of their job role and what they do
- A little about their town/city and where they live including any traditions and anything interesting
- A little about out of work interests
Organised in a way that is fairly casual but that provides staff with an easy way to get to know each other virtually, especially where staff have never met in person, is a great way to build a bond between the team.
4. Regular Team Meetings Online and One-To-Ones
Regular communication is a key to managing a distributed team for a number of reasons including to:
- foster a sense of belonging for your team
- ensure that everyone is on the same wavelength in terms of what you are trying to achieve as a team
- use the meetings for the cultural exchange presentations as discussed in point three
- create a sense of routine
- project your ideas as the manager, to your staff, just as you would in a team meeting in person.
Whether or not the team meetings take place daily or weekly is really up to you and dependent on the type of business involved.
Time-zones inevitably can become an issue. I’m not going to go into tips for solving that issue here, but you might want to check out this article on tips for managing staff in different timezones.
Do not forget also to hold one-to-one meetings with each member of your team frequently!
5. Virtual Onboarding and Mentoring for New Employees in the Team
One group who can often be the victims of virtual and distributed teams are those who join the work team as new employees.
You cannot, in this case, organise for the new staff member to be given a tour of the building and to be personally introduced to other staff in person.
Given though that the retention rate of new employees can be 45% higher if an effective onboarding (known as ‘Induction Training’ in the UK) process is in place, it is essential that even when new staff are geographically distanced from other staff, onboarding is still given serious consideration.
6. Learn as a Manager How to Trust Staff Who WFA or WFH
If you are managing a distributed team, one of the most difficult things can be learning to trust staff that you cannot physically see in person and manage in the traditional manner.
Learning to trust your team and learning delegation skills are invaluable in understanding how to manage a distributed team.
I recommend using one of the productivity tools that are specifically designed for managing remote and distributed teams. Some of my favourites are:
- Time Doctor – one of the leading tools for managing remote staff and fairly easy to use and does the job perfectly.
- Slack – is also a great tool for managing the productivity of your remote team
Try though to develop trust and delegate tasks effectively.
If workloads are met, then you might want to embrace some level of flexibility for the employee in question.
7. Ensure Your Team have The Tools They Need (Use a Checklist)
Being proactive in terms of ensuring that each person in the distributed team have all of the tools that they need is essential.
Working from different countries, cultures and in different environments, each employee will have a unique situation.
For some employees, for example, they will be familiar with ergonomics and understand how to avoid backache and other ailments by sitting correctly at their desk.
Along with ergonomics and how people manage their posture and seating position when working from home, it is worth working to ensure that your team also have everything they need to do their job effectively.
One example is to ensure that they are using the right antivirus and security software on the device they are using for work.
I recommend preparing a checklist and ensuring that every employee working within a distributed team are checked against the list twice a year.
Dr Valeria (Lo Iacono) Symonds
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