Common Challenges with Distributed Operations (and How to Solve Them)

When managing a distributed team where some or all members of your teamwork in different physical locations, it’s easy for things to go unnoticed. Whether it’s low employee morale, inefficiencies in processes, missed opportunities on projects or lack of team collaboration, these unnoticed issues can turn into major stumbling blocks for your team over time. Even with all the advancements in technology related to communication, collaboration and productivity for distributed operations, effectively managing and running a distributed workforce is still challenging. We’ve outlined some of the common challenges for distributed teams and provided tips to help overcome each obstacle.

7 Common Distributed Team Challenges and Solutions

  1. Lack of in-person interaction

    According to a recent remote work survey, the number one challenge for remote workers is communication. Without being able to casually stop by a coworker’s desk or have “water cooler talk” in the break room, many fully remote employees find the lack of human interaction lonely. It also becomes increasingly more challenging to build authentic relationships and effectively communicate when you have a distributed team. Commonly used text-based communication tools like email and chat apps make it difficult to judge coworkers’ emotions, pick up on nonverbal cues or read body language.

    Solution: Foster a video-first culture

    Video conferencing helps strengthen distributed teams by allowing coworkers to communicate face-to-face, similar to in-person interactions. Unlike chat-based communication or audio only calls, video conferencing makes it easy to read facial expressions, body language and other nonverbal cues that are essential to effective communication. In fact, studies show 93% of communication is nonverbal. Foster a video-first culture that places a priority on using video conferencing tools as your main source of communication to help increase your distributed team’s engagement and connect on a deeper level.

  2. Lack of trust

    How do you know if your remote team members are actually working if you can’t see them? The nature of geographically distributed teams, with employees working at different times and locations, makes it hard for some managers to trust remote members of their team. Even though studies show remote workers are generally more productive than their office-based colleagues, some managers still struggle with the idea that remote team members are actually getting work done when left to their own devices.

    Solution: Create clear guidelines and measurable goals

    As a manager, it’s important to have clearly defined guidelines in writing for how all members of your team should work. These guidelines may include which meetings all team members should attend, required response times to issues, hours during the day all team members should be online, quality of work standards and other specific expectations. Additionally, creating measurable tasks with due date for each member of your team will ensure everyone is contributing to the team’s overall goals. There are a number of online project management workflows that support this process and make it easy to effectively manage your distributed team’s productivity.

  3. Distracting environments for remote workers

    Many employees enjoy working from home, a coffee shop or even the beach but some struggle with these distracting environments. Whether it’s housework, kids, pets or an enticing nap, there are plenty of distractions competing for your attention in remote work environments. Each distraction can cause a remote worker to procrastinate and diminish their work-related output.

    Solution: Ensure accountability

    One of the benefits of having employees that work from home or other non-office locations is they get to work when they are most productive. For some employees this may mean they work after or before typical daytime work hours. However, there may be occasions when a deadline is looming, and a remote employee doesn’t seem focused on completing the project on time. To best manage this problem, ensure each member of your team is accountable for their work and they clearly know when their individual tasks are due. Without invading privacy, it’s also good to have regular one-on-one check-ins with remote employees to gauge progress. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone on your team to work at the same pace, but you should have a general idea of how long each task should take and set goals and due dates accordingly. So even if a remote team member gets distracted during the day with a non-work-related activity, they will still be accountable for finishing their tasks on time like the rest of your team.

  4. Lack of company culture

    Since some employees may work together in a traditional office environment while others work remotely from home, coworker spaces or smaller satellite offices, building and maintaining a unified company culture across geographically distributed teams is one of the biggest challenges for companies with a global workforce. With the lack of in person interaction, remote employees often feel left out and excluded from the company culture.

    Solution: Create opportunities for team building and bonding

    For geographically distributed teams, your company’s culture has to go beyond traditional in-office parties, games and happy hours. Instead find ways for your team to connect face-to-face using video conferencing. You can host team bonding video calls where coworkers can chat and interact with each other casually, play games or have fun challenges. There are also a number of virtual ice breaker activities you can do with your distributed team using video conferencing. Additionally, it’s a good idea to partner new employees with other colleagues. This buddy system can double as an opportunity for mentoring and help establish deeper relationships and encourage better give-and-take among all team members. For additional tips check out [link to Ch. Distributed Work Ch 4 - Remote Work Culture]

  5. Productivity issues

    One of the major challenges of managing a distributed team is ensuring all employees finish their work on time, efficiently and up to the company’s standards. Without the day-to-day oversight in a distributed work environment, some remote team members may not use their time wisely. Additionally, poor communication, lack of measurable goals and accountability issues can all affect your team’s productivity.

    Solution: Develop processes

    In order to keep your team on track and productive you’ll need to develop and implement a set of streamlined processes. In addition to using project management software like Asana and Monday.com, many teams find having daily or weekly quick syncs are essential to fostering collaboration and productivity. Having an informal group check-in using video conferencing on a regular basis keeps the team on the same page and holds each team member accountable for their daily tasks and ongoing projects. Managers should also set up regular one-on-one video calls with their direct reports. This gives employees a designated time to discuss the progress of projects or any work-related issues.

  6. Cultural differences

    Many enterprise companies employ people from all over the world. This diverse global workforce may include employees that have drastically different cultures, work ethics, communication styles, values and context. As a result, distributed teams may find it difficult to understand each other and effectively work together. Managers are faced with the challenge of overcoming cultural differences and finding common ground to successfully manage their diverse team.

    Solution: Implement cross-cultural training program

    Cross-cultural, or multicultural training, is meant to help people overcome cultural challenges, deal with stereotypes and learn how to effectively communicate and listen better. Since every distributed team is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all cross-cultural training program, but you should have a plan in place that fosters multicultural understanding and learning for your diverse team. During onboarding of new employees, host fun ice breaker video conferencing sessions and invite team members to share their favorite regional foods, customs and stories. You can also use resources like My Life Elsewhere, which is a collaborative community that allows you to compare the country you live in with other countries around the world. It shows you various statistics that differentiate your country from others, including cost of living, geographic size, quality of life and culture so you have a better understanding of what it’s like to live and work in your coworker’s country.

  7. Time zone mismatch

    Globally distributed teams are often made up of employees that span multiple time zones. This can make scheduling team meetings or getting quick responses from remote coworkers difficult. When you sit next to your teammate in an office environment it’s easy to turn to them and quickly ask a question mid-day on a project, but when your coworker sits thousands of miles away or possibly multiple time zones away this simple task becomes much more challenging. Your remote coworker may be asleep or away from work during your normal workday hours.

    Solution: Find overlap in everyone’s daytime work hours

    Use tools like Every Time Zone and Time and Date to help choose meeting times that are during everyone’s typical daytime work hours. For some, this might be in the morning while for others, it’s the afternoon or early evening. The daytime work hours overlap will also let you know when you can expect quick responses from remote members of your team. For teams that have vastly different time zones, you need to get creative. Record the video conferencing meeting for those who couldn’t attend the live meeting so they can still view the meeting at a later time. In addition, you can maximize productivity by planning ahead. Ensure your remote team members that work opposite hours have everything they need to effectively work on their tasks before the end of your workday so you can return to work the next day with the tasks completed.