How to Manage a Distributed Team: 7 Strategies From 2 Experts
If your company is hiring a bunch of new remote workers or you are fresh to remote work, you might be wondering how to manage a distributed team. Project management and creating an agile team while remote definitely has a learning curve.
That is why we went out of our way to find real-life distributed managers and find out how they adapted to the new world of work.
For this article, we interviewed two people from different contexts of remote team management. One from a company that had some experience with a distributed workforce (before the coronavirus) and one company that had no experience at all.
Meet the Distributed Team Specialists
Veronika works for an international IT company that followed a hybrid distributed team model before the pandemic. A hybrid model means that workers spend about half of their time as co located team and the other half at home. For this company, it was two days of optional home office per week.
She is a part of the HR staff and works closely with the managers from 8 different departments. Since the pandemic (and for the last six months specifically) she has worked on a fully remote basis. She reports that her company’s hybrid model before the pandemic prepared them for this shift to being completely remote.
Jaroslav is the head of the legal department at one of the largest banks in the Czech Republic. His company worked on a completely physical basis before the pandemic and his team was shifted to remote operations in March 2020.
He is the manager of five lawyers. They have been communicating on a completely remote basis (with the occasional trip to the office) for about a year now.
What is a Distributed Team?
Greatest Challenges of Managing a Distributed Team
Before we begin with the tips and takeaways, here are Jaroslav and Veronika’s most significant challenges from managing a distributed team.
- Trusting your team to perform independently.
- Getting all the details about projects and tasks.
- Finding a balance between pushing people to work and them doing it on their own.
- Maintaining an environment that nourishes creativity.
- Keeping track of all the tasks.
- Psychological Impact on team members.
- The coordination required for the mutual sharing of information.
Managing Distributed Teams: Top 7 Strategies
Now that we’ve established some common and relatable challenges, let’s dissect the strategies we received from these two experienced professionals.
For people just entering a distributed environment, or who are struggling with their current situation, there are some easily-made mistakes that you should try to avoid.
For those who want all the tips and tricks you can find for better managing remote teams, here are some of the other recommendations Veronika and Jara gave.
1. Don’t Micromanage
Jaroslav (Jara) emphasized the avoidance of micromanagement and the importance of trust. He didn’t make this mistake himself, but some of his colleagues expressed their frustration with their team's reaction to micromanaging, saying it took a toll on the relationship between the remote team members and their team leader.
“It was really tough after that to recover the relationships because people felt mistrusted.” Looking over someone's shoulder isn’t something managers do constantly in the office and it isn’t necessary for distributed work either. Employees are entering into an unfamiliar environment and if you start working in that field with a manager constantly checking everyone's work you will feel a lot more pressure than is necessary.
Jara also mentioned that “it’s really exhausting to keep a finger on every task you assign,” and this behavior can result in managers getting overworked. Instead, he suggested having faith in your workers and only stepping in to monitor someone’s work if it’s absolutely necessary.
2. Encourage detailed information sharing and coordination
Both Jara and Veronika mentioned something about team communication, briefings, and the sharing of information. This is understandable considering the geographic barriers between distributed teams, it’s a lot harder to communicate than just tapping someone on the shoulder at the office.
“If you are sharing something at one team meeting, still, someone is always missing. Then you forget to tell that person and they are missing that information. If you’re sitting in the office then they can just overhear the details or ask a colleague and everything is fine.”
Veronika makes an excellent point here about coordination. When your whole team works in the same location not nearly as much coordination is necessary as in a distributed format. You will always have time to take a quick walk across the room and drop some info to a team member.
A lot more intention should go into writing an email or scheduling a virtual meeting video conference when you are part of a distributed workforce. Because of this extra effort, many details can be overlooked in favor of getting straight to the point. Facts and figures that one employee might consider irrelevant can get lost along the way and hurt the project in the long run.
“You have to set up the meeting, you have to check the people to see if they’re available for a phone call, you need to type a message. It’s not as easy as shooting one sentence over the desk.”
To remedy this, try pushing (gently) on your team members to be as detail-oriented as possible. Utilize instant messaging applications like Microsoft team instead of email for quick communication about smaller details. Try to encourage people to share everything they would if they were sitting right next to you.
Also, try to put a schedule on when you and your virtual team should communicate. Asynchronous communication relies on rigid details.
3. Keep Track of Everyone’s Mental Health
Home office has had a significant impact on the individuals who were forced into this new lifestyle because of the Coronavirus. In the Czech Republic, people have been dramatically affected not just by the switch to remote working, but by government regulations as well.
The Czech government locked down most schools and businesses since early fall 2020. People have been stuck in their homes with nothing to do for the better part of six months. Both Veronika and Jara noticed the gradual and detrimental effects this had on their team’s psyche.
“For the past three or four months everyone is totally fed up with the situation and looking forward to meeting in the office once again,” said Jara. Veronika’s team is having a similar experience “Some of them are really struggling. They have small children at home, they cannot focus, they are arguing with people at home, they have animals, it’s really a challenge.”
There is no cure for home office sickness. The best you can do as a manager and a team leader is to be available for your entire team to confide in. Try to monitor people’s working hours and deliverables to make sure they still have time for a healthy work-life balance.
4. Take Advantage of different perspectives
Coming from a hybrid distributed company, and despite the fatigue of the lockdown, Veronika is a strong advocate of the distributed team format. She thinks “people from different continents mean you’ll always have ideas that are out-of-the-box.”
She recommends in the onboarding process of a new distributed team member to have them tell a bit about their themselves and home country.
She also feels that the flexibility that comes with home office will be an expected benefit from prospective employees “I already received some messages from my friends saying ‘Hey we are forced to go to the office and we don’t like it. It’s really old school. Do you have some tips about companies that are more flexible?”
5. Find a Good Balance for Meeting Frequency
Jara struggled with finding the right time frame for regular meetings with his team “For example, I found out that two weeks was the proper period for us to meet with each other. When it was a shorter time everyone was not really happy about work. After a longer time, it was hard for me to follow the tasks that everyone was working with.”
He went on to express that two weeks is not a universal suggestion. You should monitor your team and trial a few different frequencies. Whichever time frame keeps everyone up to date and engaged is the best choice.
6. Regular Strategic and Casual Meetings with the Whole Company
Both Jara and Veronika spoke highly of their companies efforts to maintain company culture and keep people updated with regular meetings. At Jara’s company, the CEO records a personalized message (usually from his cellphone) every Friday afternoon for the entire company. Veronika’s company has a monthly town hall for the same purpose.
Meetings and messages like this can keep employees feeling appreciated and involved in the ongoings of the company. Even if your CEO doesn’t do it, consider mimicking this style of meeting with your team.
7. Make Time for Your Personal Life
With Jara’s management schedule, he is the only person who keeps track of his time “I’m really having a hard time keeping on the track of when I should work and when I should lend that work off.” The heads of his company give him specific tasks and deliverables and expect them by a deadline, no questions asked.
He has learned to distribute tasks more evenly between himself and his team. Otherwise, he would be up working until midnight four days a week which he has done many times in the past. By trusting his team more he has freed up some necessary time for his personal life.
Distributed Team Management: The Necessary Skills
Being a manager himself, and Veronika’s close association with management, both had some great points about the skills one needs to be an effective distributed team manager.
- Knowledge of your team members.
- Jara pointed out that knowing “how intensive your overview of the team members’ work needs to be” can save you a lot of time with managing. Knowing which employees work better independently and which flourish in a cooperative environment will also help with the distribution of tasks.
- Veronika highlighted the value of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each remote worker on your team “From my leader I always get a task that suits me. He knows if he gave me a task that is too detail-oriented then I would get lost in the specifics. Instead, he gives me tasks related to the big picture.” You need to know your team even better in a distributed environment because a lot more trust is required when meeting physically isn’t an option.
- Organization of tasks
- Jara mentioned this because it was a challenge for him to change the way he organizes tasks after switching to a remote format. He stated that you need to keep track of what’s being done and then share and organize that information “in a pragmatically different way than you’re used to.” You'll need to learn how to utilize your collaboration tool and other methods in each communication channel.
- Strong Communication
- This skill is pretty clear, but Jara specifically pointed out you need it “To ensure that everyone is informed about their resources and developments, so they can then perform their work independently.” He also mentioned it’s important for everyone to be good at this, not just the leader.
- Veronika gave a good tip from her job. Every week the team leaders at her company have one on one meetings with each remote employee to debrief each other and catch up.
- Be supportive and set a clear vision and framework.
- Veronika mentioned these final skills so that team members can work independently but also build a strong team within a distributed workforce. By being available to help and make the goals/tasks clear it’s much more likely for virtual team members to perform their job effectively with no mistakes or setbacks.
Home Office Equipment
Both Veronika and Jara had to buy most of their own home office equipment. Veronika’s company supplied her with a bit more, she received a headset and a monitor. Jara was pretty disappointed with the stipend his company provided, stating it was “barely enough to buy a decent monitor.”
Now, both of them have a complete home office set up that had to be paid from their pocket. Needless to say, they weren’t satisfied with their company’s support on this issue.
Additionally, both of their companies do not use a remote office equipment provider but ship out furniture to distributed employees through internal departments and partnerships with E-Shops. Jara’s company gave every employee an account with a budget on the Czech Republic’s largest e-shop.
Veronika’s company has a department specifically dedicated to equipment distribution and works on a service request and approval basis. Individuals in this department process request one by one.
These models are very time-consuming for both the employees and the remote staff dedicated to them. The budget for employee supplies is sometimes cut to compensate for the cost of the systems.
With a home office equipment provider like Growrk, you can set a budget for your distributed employees and they will handle the orders and distribution for you.
Choose from a broad selection of laptops, ergonomic furniture, fitness equipment, top-of-the-line electronics, and even snacks, available for shipping to over 100 countries.
Automate the ordering and deployment of equipment, and pay as you go. Attract and retain the best talent with a home office experience they’ll love. They’ll even collect the equipment if the employee leaves the company.
Views of the Future
The trends of home offices are here to stay. Looking forward to a return to normalcy might not be a practical dream any longer. Both Veronika and Jara have seen specific changes in their companies that indicate they will not be returning to the way things once were.
In Veronika’s company, they were very open about their policy change. The previous hybrid model of three days in the office and two optional days at home will be replaced by two mandatory days in the office and three days working remotely.
The two days in the office will be preset by the manager so teams have two days of collaboration per week but she went on to say “we will never meet again as a whole company.”
At Jara’s company, the shift was a lot more sudden. His company rented several floors of office space in a building before the pandemic and during the summer they eliminated two floors from their lease. While there haven’t been any official announcements about the work schedule following the pandemic, Jara says the current space they have accommodates only about 65% of the personnel “not everyone is going to have a chair to sit at.”
These trends aren’t unique to these two, we see businesses shifting to formats like this in industries worldwide. Jara says this embrace of a remote format could be related to its unexpected success:
“Everything worked, as usual, everything was very smooth regarding the tasks and so on and so forth. Under normal circumstances, no one would opt for that experiment. They just wouldn’t believe people would work as they do in the office.”
With these shifts, it makes sense to adjust your mentality and your lifestyle for the inevitable future. Embrace the changes and take the advice from this article and resources like it as a means to prepare yourself for the many years of distributed team management to come.
How to manage a distributed team successfully
We would like to thank Veronika and Jaroslav for their excellent contributions and advice. Through their stories, we learned a lot about distributed team management. It’s always more meaningful to hear advice from a direct source than an overview of the industry as a whole.
Hopefully, their experience will aid you in managing your distributed team or working in a distributed environment. Remember that remote work is here to stay, so the more you adapt to the situation the more you’ll be prepared for the future of business.
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