How to Manage a Distributed Team
Managing a distributed team can be challenging. It’s easy to feel disconnected from your team, run into communication issues and when you add cultural differences into the mix, things can get complicated quickly. Harvard University instructor Julie Wilson explains, “Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly and leveraging team members' individual and collective strengths.” Successfully managing a remote team is challenging, even for the most seasoned managers. It takes time, patience and a lot of practice, but with the right processes and tools in place, it's possible to have a productive and engaged fully remote team.
8 Tips for Managing a Distributed Team
1. Hire the right people
First, you have to hire people that you can trust and are comfortable working on their own. Since you will not be able to constantly check-in on each remote team member, you need to find individuals who can positively contribute to your team without peer pressure, micromanagement and constant attention. “Hire doers,” Wade Foster, Co-founder of Zapier,says.“ Doers will get stuff done even if they are working from a secluded island. You don’t have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You’ll still have to provide direction and guidance…but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen.”
2. Onboard with the entire remote team in real-time
Developing an effective on-boarding process helps new hires quickly acclimate to their job and get to know their team. By immediately introducing new team members and providing opportunities for everyone to get to know each other through face-to-face video conferencing, employees are more likely to trust each other and feel connected to their team. There are a number of fun virtual ice breaker activities you can do with your distributed team using video conferencing. Additionally, it’s a good idea to assign a mentor to help your new employee smoothly transition into their new role. The mentor will also act as an immediate resource for the employee for when they get stuck or just have a simple question. The goal is to make the new hire feel valued and part of the team as quickly as possible.
“As someone who works remotely and manages a team of remote employees myself, I know how critical the onboarding stage is in the employee lifecycle. Successful onboarding for remote employees hinges on extending your organization’s culture beyond the four walls and through a screen. Start by ditching email almost entirely in the first few weeks and get video involved from the start to spend as much face-to-face time as possible. Further, arrange meetings with key stakeholders via video early to promote a sense of self-sufficiency and ensure the employee feels connected to the broader community.”
3. Set clear expectations
When transitioning to a fully remote team, managers should prioritize the development of clear guidelines and expectations. Most teams are made up of a diverse group of people. Some employees may have prior remote work experience, while other employees may be completely new to working from home. To ensure everyone is operating on equal footing, it’s important you set clear and realistic expectations for your entire team right away.
Not clarifying expectations early on can lead to problems and misunderstandings down the road that can cause major disruptions in your team’s workflow and performance. Clarify what tools your team will use, how you will communicate, what hours everyone is expected to work, how and when projects will be completed and, when things change, communicate that as well. Your expectations should be written down, sent in an email and readily available to your entire team. This will ensure everyone is on the same page and there is no ambiguity in what is expected of each team member.
4. Use the right online communication tools
After you have clearly defined your expectations, it’s time to find the right tools that will help your team meet those expectations and make their workdays run smoothly and efficiently. Research shows that the average office worker has 5 or more apps open at any given time, so it’s important to choose wisely to avoid creating even more app fatigue or confusion concerning where employees should go to look for information.
There are hundreds of collaboration and communications solutions and countless productivity tools designed to help distributed teams be productive. Cloud-based video conferencing tools like Lifesize and chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams make it easy to stay in constant communication with your remote team members. Project management tools like Asana, Monday.com and ProjectManager.com help with time management and keep your team on track to avoid wasting time on distractors and nonproductive work. In light of the recent coronavirus situation, many companies are offering their services for free, including Lifesize. Do your research in order to find the tools that will work best for you and your team.
5. Create a video-first culture
Without the daily in-person interactions that traditional in-office workers are accustomed to, it’s easy for employees who are working from home for the first time to feel lonely and disconnected from the rest of their team. By creating a video-first culture that places priority on using video conferencing tools for communication, as opposed to audio-only conference calls or text-based apps, your team can have meaningful and engaging face-to-face interactions. Video conferencing provides more of an “in-person” interaction and adds a human element to the conversation that is often missing in other forms of digital communication. By being able to clearly see and hear your teammates, you’re able to better understand them by picking up on nonverbal cues and connect with them on a deeper level, no matter the time zone difference.
WP Engine is the leading WordPress digital experience platform with over 500 employees located in the United States, Europe and Australia. As a company that makes their culture a top priority, they were faced with the challenge of bringing unity to teams spread out over three continents in six different offices. By having Lifesize in meeting spaces throughout all office spaces and on every employee’s laptop, coworkers can instantly connect with one another and managers can effectively manage remote employees in one-on-one video calls. Human interaction helps employees have engaging conversations and personal connections with managers and team members thousands of miles away.
6. Host regular one-on-one and team meetings
Constant communication is the key to keeping your distributed team productive and engaged. Plan for regular team meetings early in the week using video conferencing to discuss project statuses, obstacles that team members are facing and goals for the week. Then, later in the week, consider hosting longer “wrap-up” meetings to talk about team accomplishments. You can also use this time to recognize outstanding work and plan for the following week.
In addition to team meetings, stand-up meetings, regular one-on-one meetings with each of your employees are highly recommended to ensure everyone stays connected and engaged. In fact, studies have shown that employees of managers who do not have regular 1:1 meetings are four times more likely to feel disengaged at work. While 1:1 meetings can be time consuming for managers with large teams, they play a critical role in making team members feel valued as individuals while also giving them the opportunity to ask questions, discuss problems or raise suggestions that they may not have felt comfortable sharing in a group environment.
7. Overcommunicate goals to help remote employees succeed
For employees who find remote working arrangements to be difficult, overcommunicating individual goals and tasks is an effective way to ensure they are focused on the right things. This means using clear and precise language that employees can easily understand for each project. Utilize project management tools to help employees stay on task, understand each stage of the project and know when the project is due. Effectively managing a distributed team won’t work if you are simply focused on tracking employee’s work hours. Instead, the best way to measure an employee’s performance is to focus on their results. Creating a results-oriented culture means trusting your team and letting go of the arbitrary and forced nine-to-five, 40-hour workweek. Instead, focus on individual team member contributions. How and when they complete tasks should not matter as long as the work is done well and done on time.
8. Offer bonding opportunities
Since regular in-person get-togethers are not an option for most remote workers and distributed teams, find other ways to have your team bond outside of your regular team meetings. Employees can establish work-appropriate social media pages, book clubs and private chat groups where they can play games, have light-hearted conversations about their work and personal lives, post pictures of their families or pets and share personal success stories. Some companies even hosting regular virtual happy hours to let employees casually interact and catch up through video conferencing while working remotely.
Sheel Gupta, Chief Growth Officer at Humble Dot, shared on Quora how she keeps her remote team engaged, “One of the most common challenges to remote work is that team members feel lonely and disconnected. Being remote means your team is less likely to have spontaneous conversations and non-work-related activities. I encourage remote teams to bring in-office traditions into their remote work style. For example, my team has biweekly game nights and during our remote experiment, we held a virtual game night.”
Finally, try to host in-person get-togethers with your entire team at least once or twice a year. This may be challenging and expensive, but the benefits of having your team connect in-person and foster better working relationships far outweigh the travel costs.
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