Distributed teams give companies the ability to hire the best talent for the job, taking relocation off the table, and helps companies save money on investing in office space and purchasing all of the furniture and tech to outfit the space.
Those managing remote teams are responsible for nurturing, guiding, and supporting team members from afar. But just like any long-distance relationship, it takes both creativity and commitment to make it work.
In this article, we'll look at some strategies that real brands have used to build an influential culture no matter where workers are located.
We'll talk about communications tools, building digital communities, hosting remote meetings, and of course, how video plays a role in bringing far-flung teams closer together.
What is a Distributed Team?
A distributed team is pretty much what it sounds like. Instead of housing the entire organization under one roof, distributed teams are made up of employees that work remotely and are spread all around the country or even the world.
That means that you might have a marketing manager based out of San Francisco, with a team based out of NYC, London, and India. Unlike a company with a dedicated home base that employs remote workers, a distributed team means that just about everyone on the team works remotely. There is no home base.
The rise of the distributed team has led to some new workplace challenges, including the following:
- Lack of accountability
- Little clarity around roles and tasks
- Employees operate on their own schedules
- It's difficult to track employee performance
- Hiring the right resources
- Missing accountability program
- There's often a lack of boundaries
- People don't feel as though they're part of a team
That said, challenges vary by organization. If your workplace is more traditional and depends on several people working together throughout the day, the problems are more significant.
Though in some cases--think a marketing team comprised of writers and editors, or a software development team with individuals working on their projects--may require less frequent communications.
With that in mind, let's discuss some ways to improve culture without driving your team crazy with constant notifications.
Set Boundaries and Expectations from the Get-Go
Remote teams, just like their in-house counterparts, need to define healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives. According to Buffer's 2019 State of Remote Work report, unplugging after work was the top challenge for those remote workers surveyed.
If you have certain expectations when it comes to working hours, be sure to discuss work schedules with your team members. Even if you don't care so much about when people get work done, it's a smart idea to get a basic sense of when various team members tend to be "on" versus "off."
After all, notifications and chat messages tend to be more disruptive than their inbox-bound counterparts.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Should there be "standard" communication hours for the entire team?
- If not, will you schedule regular check-ins or meetings?
- What tools will you use to keep in touch? Skype? Slack? Something else?
- How often will you meet?
Answering these questions will help you establish some communication policies that you can use to create a team guidebook that everyone can access.
Additionally, it's worth noting that remote teams need to work extra hard to create their own sense of communication norms.
According to this 2018 piece published in The Harvard Business Review, companies like Merck have established a series of acronyms such as "No Need to Respond (NNTR)" or "Four Hour Response (4HR)" that lend some certainty to the expectations associated with virtual communications.
The article also points out that individual teams might also develop their own set of norms that dictate how Slack should and should not be used.
Or, it might define the use of Facebook Groups, Google Docs, or Whatsapp communications. And for individuals, you'll want to accept that there will also be personal norms to consider, like the writing style, tone, and typical turn-around.
Work Toward Establishing a Culture of Accountability
It's a common misconception that it's harder to track and control results when you're managing a distributed team.
Remember, proximity doesn't guarantee productivity. And as such, you can't focus too much on hours worked; instead, emphasize outcomes and track what’s working.
This means focusing on the project, the day-to-day deliverables, and deadlines. Communicate project goals and milestones to your team, and trust them to deliver. Then, you'll judge their performance based on how well they meet deadlines and the quality of the work they submit.
It's also worth pointing out that accountability starts during the hiring process. Meaning, you'll need to hire the right people--you know, motivated self-starter types, and continuously reinforce your values with cultural values like holding people accountable for meeting deadlines or providing regular updates.
Be sure to clearly document your accountability expectations in your employee handbooks and corporate Wikis reiterating these values in your regular internal communications.
Use Video -- Often
According to a recent study, 55% of companies found that video conferencing tools made collaboration with remote colleagues easier, while 50% of respondents felt that video helped them be more innovative.
While video conferencing tools like Skype, Zoom, and GoToMeeting are staples of the remote workplace, consider taking things a step further by using tools like Bonjoro to send short video messages to communicate ideas instead of email.
Managers can use video to communicate policy changes, provide instructions, and offer quick updates and how-tos in a way that far-off employees can understand more easily.
Beyond sending your team video communications, you’ll also want to make sure you provide them with the tools and know-how to use video to ask questions and communicate with colleagues.
While video might not always make up for the lack of physical contact among distributed workers, it offers a more “human” alternative to email, where it’s easy to forget there’s a real person on the other side of the screen.
Empower Your Team To Make Decisions
Building on this last point, it can be hard for managers to let go and allow your remote teams to make critical decisions. In many cases, larger organizations keep the big choices in-house, which can leave remote staff feeling like they're playing second fiddle to their in-house teammates.
One of the most significant benefits of working with a distributed team is that you'll gain access to a diverse set of skills and viewpoints. Empowering decision-making, regardless of location, stands to be a competitive advantage for your organization.
Open Access to Leadership
In another HBR article, researchers found that leaders who were regarded as being the "best collaborators" or "sources of information" were the most likely to be disengaged from their colleagues.
When managing distributed teams, you lose out on conversational moments with your teams, which can lead to apathy among your employees.
As such, you'll need to make more time for employees to ask questions and receive feedback one-on-one. We recommend establishing a window of availability where your team can contact you--be it for a short video chat, phone call, or Slack session to discuss whatever's on their minds.
If you're working with a smaller team, consider scheduling a weekly one-on-one conversation where they can discuss their issues, ask any questions, and provide each employee with individual instructions.
Working remotely can make employees feel that they're contributions aren't visible to leadership or that the company doesn't care about their professional development, which, of course, doesn't exactly lead to long-term loyalty. Scheduling regular conversations, particularly video calls, can help put those feelings to rest.
Companies with an entirely distributed workforce are becoming increasingly common, and even those that haven't fully embraced the model may allow flexible remote working or use freelancers or remote staff to augment their in-house teams.
While managing a remote team can come with some unique challenges you won't find in a traditional set-up, it's important to understand that it starts with a shift in mindset, a willingness to trust those employees that you can't physically see 24/7, and embracing the right communication tools.
After writing this article we came across a phenomenal playbook from the team at Toptal, all about how to create and manage your remote team. It's full of deeply actionable insights and guidance on everything from recruiting remote workers to building team culture, and tooling. Highly recommended reading!