When you type ‘work’ in Google Images or any large image bank, you’ll see thousands of photos showing offices.
However, office work doesn’t have to be done in the office. Did you know that Basecamp, Toptal, Zapier, Aha!, InVision App and many other tech companies have entirely remote, distributed teams? Digital nomadism (or working from home) or in coworking spaces continue to grow each year. No commute, no open space noise, and no one stopping by and interrupting. No wonder that no other perk is demanded as often by employees like the ability to work remotely (from time to time).
It’s a challenge for employers, although managing a distributed, or virtual team, is not as much different as when everyone shares an office. In any case, it's not the same. The biggest challenge is usually to create a true team feeling, which is much easier in the office than online.
What is a distributed team?
A distributed team is a group of coworkers who work remotely, either nearby or far away. They may work in the same city, but from home or internationally. They communicate via online means and do not share a physical office space.
How to manage a distributed team
To make managers’ lives easier, we have gathered 11 tips for managing a distributed team by exploring ways to make remote teams feel as connected as teams who work out of the same office.
11 tips for managing a distributed team:
- Hold structured weekly and daily meetings
- Create a multi-channel meeting environment
- Don’t rely on email
- Use the right software
- Focus on results
- Make your expectations clear and realistic
- Find the right people
- Put extra attention into onboarding
- Create a true team feeling
- Trust your team, but check in from time to time
- Agree on time boundaries and respect time zones
Staying connected is crucial for every team, but it’s more difficult for a distributed team. Let’s be frank: asking spontaneous questions and exchanging ideas is always more comfortable and more natural when done face-to-face. Some people deal with it by having a tablet with a constant video conference with their team members. There is no need to talk all the time, but they know that others are there in case they want to ask for something spontaneously.
If this is too much for your team, regular meetings are a must. Depending on the needs of your team, they can be daily or weekly. It may also be a good idea to see each other twice a week, for example on Monday to share what everyone is going to do for the week, and on Friday to summarize the week.
There is one golden rule that works for every team: always structure your meetings. Endless meetings or video conferences with no agenda and no goal are one of the biggest and the most annoying productivity killers. Avoid them at all cost. Still, it may be tough in a distributed team where people don’t connect as often.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution: let every first 10-15 minutes to be assigned for an informal chat about what is going on in everybody lives. After 15 minutes sharp, it’s time to talk about work and to keep to the agenda.
Meetings and staying connected are essential in managing remote teams. Communication channels must be clear and easily accessible. Why multi-channel? Because even in the office, people often use many devices, not to mention when they work remotely or on the go. Desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone, even a smart watch can all serve as office equipment. Employees widely claim that they expect to have a consistent digital experience no matter if they’re at home or work. Managers should be facilitators and equip their teams with meeting tools that answer their needs.
Working on different devices is useful, but coworkers need to work together to call themselves a team. It’s something that managers can make possible thanks to the right tools, like virtual desktops, which allow employees to work together on a project while using the same operating system from any device.
Not only because checking a company mailbox every five minutes doesn’t make a person a productive employer, but also because email isn’t the most efficient collaboration tool. Endless threads are frustrating and hard to search, and attachments are hard to find, edit, and manage. Picture a situation when you receive a document from a client, but want to work on it with another team member. Would you rather get a traditional Word document to download from the email, or have a link to the same Word document in the Cloud ready to be shared, edited, tagged, and commented on by others?
The aforementioned virtual desktops, all-in-one collaboration software tools and video meeting software are essential for every remote team. Employees and independent contractors need to create and edit documents that are securely stored in the Cloud, access them quickly anytime and anywhere they want, share them with others, and make sure they’re synchronized on every device they use. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, mobility, performance, and management of software has a massive impact on productivity in traditional and distributed teams.
Check out G2 Track to help you manage your company’s software usage while optimizing your tech stack!
It’s a common myth that it’s harder to track and control results from remote employees. Still, sharing an office doesn’t guarantee productivity. The best way to see if an employee performs is to focus on results, not on hours spent connected or on instant availability. Don’t impose fixed working hours when it doesn’t matter. If you’re afraid that your contractor may outsource the task and give access to confidential files to someone who is not trusted, simply prohibit it in the contract and set sanctions for violation.
Thinking employees can read managers’ minds is unrealistic. However, communication is usually easier in-office. People can interpret each other’s body language and talk more often. In a distributed environment, it’s easier to overlook or misunderstand an instruction. That’s why it’s crucial to write and speak clearly while agreeing on realistic tasks and deadlines.
Expectations must be measurable, so set clear KPIs and deadlines. Employees must know what they’re supposed to do. Managers need to make sure that tasks are precise and timely. Otherwise, every project is in jeopardy.
Working remotely is not for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A common stereotype is that working from home equals working while distracted. But an office can be equally distracting, especially if it’s an open office format.
Stereotypes, however, have some truth to them. Regardless, it’s self-discipline that tends to be a challenge for some. Your task as a manager is to find those who enjoy remote work and understand its speciality. Having a few years of experience as a freelancer or home office employee is definitely a good sign when considering who to hire.
Onboarding is crucial for every team. When new employees feel welcome and get access to all of the tools and information they need, they’re more engaged and efficient. Easier said than done, especially with remote workers who aren’t surrounded by colleagues that they can eat lunch with or talk to regularly. With remote employees, onboarding must be well-structured. It’s also a good idea to assign a mentor to help a new remote employee to start their work smoothly.
Remote work can feel lonely. Office chats and long lunch breaks can be distracting and unproductive, but at the same time, they’re a part of social life. It’s harder to feel team spirit when working from home. The easiest thing to do is to use collaboration tools not only for doing work but also for fun.
Use team collaboration software tools, like Slack where your employees can communicate freely about their hobbies, the news, and other non-work things. Create channels where people can share their favorite Spotify playlists, pictures of their pets, or feelings about their most-recent TV show binge. If possible, organize company retreats and offline meetings as well, within reason. It’s not cheap, especially when the team is distributed around the world, but for all the benefits of remote work, having face-to-face team building time is priceless.
Although sharing an office doesn’t guarantee productivity, it’s easier to keep track of what everyone is doing if you can see them. For distributed teams, collaboration tools are handy in terms of checking in and staying connected. It’s not about micromanagement and lack of trust, but about the ability to react if someone is stuck or needs help.
When working from home 100 percent of the time, it’s harder to achieve a work-life balance. When does work end and when does it begin again?
Not everyone has the luxury of a home office, and most remote employees have the same laptop for work and personal use. It makes it harder to disconnect when work is done. That’s why it’s so important to agree on time boundaries. If work requires answering messages in the evenings or on the weekends, be clear about it at the beginning.
It may be a challenge with employees working from different continents (which means you should allow them to work according to their time zones), but still set meetings when everybody can attend. It may require starting earlier or later than a typical 9-to-5 job, but as long as you cover this with your employees from the beginning, you won’t have any problems.
Managing a remote team can be harder than a traditional management role, but the benefits often exceed the challenges. Hiring internationally gives managers access to a global talent pool and allows for reducing office costs. From the employee’s perspective, it gives them the flexibility they often seek.
Companies that consist of an entirely remote workforce are rare, but those that cooperate with freelancers or allow their employees to work from home are on the rise. Moreover, it is important to stress that managing a team (when even one person works outside of the office) requires a different mindset. Luckily, using the right tools and keeping the above-mentioned tips in mind, it is possible to have a distributed team that thrives.
Want to learn more on how other managers keep their teams and schedules in check? Read up on tips for staying organized as a manager or CEO!