Guide to leading and managing distributed teams

In our global networked world it is increasingly common to have distributed teams. In a distributed team, members work from different locations.

The locations may be offices, co-working spaces or private homes. In a distributed organization, you cannot depend on in-office management. You must create a leadership and management model that works across distances and time zones.

There are significant benefits of distributed teams, but there are also challenges that must be managed carefully. Lets first look at the pros and cons.

Distributed teams

The benefits of distributed teams:

  1. Better talent. You can hire the most suitable talent without having to limit your search to the narrow geographical areas where you have offices.
  2. Self-motivated people. Those who do well working from home or a small office or co-working space are highly motivated low-maintenance people.
  3. Higher productivity. Employees who don’t work in the office will ask for very specific goals to achieve. In an office, however, it is far too easy for managers to ignore the task of setting goals and for team members to pretend to be productive.
  4. Better resistance against external crises. If all employees are in one office location, the company will have a singular dependency on local weather and traffic conditions, not to mention more severe crises in society. With people spread out, those risks are also spread out.

Note that “lower cost” is not a specific benefit of a distributed team. What you gain in lower office expenses you spend on increased travel. What you can gain by employing people in lower-cost regions is a benefit that’s available both to distributed organizations and centralized ones.

The challenges of distributed teams:

  1. Not all people are suited for working in a distributed organization. Not all leaders can lead a distributed team. You will have to screen for this in the hiring process.
  2. Error correction may be slower or more costly. When an employee or a team in a far-flung location is not productive, it takes more time and resources to enact a positive change than it would if the persons were all in the same office.
  3. It can be difficult to change from a non-distributed model to a distributed one. Organizations who are born distributed will do well as distributed organizations. Those who undergo a change from a highly centralized and office-centric model to a distributed one will have to pay very special attention to the change process.


Key principles of managing a distributed team

Some think that an office-centric organizational model is the only way things can be. But think about it – offices have existed for a very short time in the history of mankind. In the tens of thousands of years that Homo Sapiens have existed, most of the time we have been organized in a distributed way. Still today, farmers and fishermen, just to mention two examples, work as distributed teams. They coordinate many things within their groups, but each person is individually in charge of producing results on their own.

How can you lead a team at a distance when leadership traditionally happens in the moment and in the place? You do it by taking the moment and the place into the online digital world – by creating situations, places, venues, and interactions that are completely online and where everybody can participate from wherever they are whenever they like. It’s a question of asynchronous communication and leadership. The two of you are not necessarily there in the same moment, but it becomes a moment for you when you communicate it and a moment for the other person when he or she participates in it. As a leader of a distributed team, you have to go all in online.

  1. Start from the top. The top leadership must be fully committed to this model. They must learn the new leadership models and start using digital tools needed by distributed teams.
  2. Go all in online. Everything that happens in an office should go online. There should be chatrooms or other online systems that do what watercoolers and coffee breaks do in an office. There must be ways for leaders and others to express their true personality online to colleagues at other locations. Otherwise trust cannot ensue. Each method or practice of workflow, communication and decision-making must go digital. And ideally, social events at an office location should be linked up with similar events at all other locations. The life of the organization must go online.
  3. Manage with vision and culture. Command and control may work as a management model in singular organizations such as armies and vast industrial sites. But in a distributed organization the most suitable model is one based on vision and culture. Share the vision and share the company culture, and build consistent actions around that. This helps distributed teams know how to make their own decisions locally without deviating from the purpose and the goals of the organization.
  4. Never favor physical proximity. In a meeting, don’t let those who are physically present speak more than those who are dialing in. If somebody in the meeting room does something that can be observed only visually, make an effort to tell all those who dialed in what is happening. When delegating tasks, delegate them equally to colleagues at other locations and colleagues at the same location as you. When deciding on bonuses and other rewards, always think about the employees who are not in the same location as you are. Don’t punish digital behavior; reward it.
  5. Plan and budget for in-person meetings. The money saved on lower office costs should be used on travel costs. Make sure that distributed teams get chances to meet their colleagues in person. When organizing such meetings, leave ample time for social interaction and ad-hoc meetings. Encourage cross-organizational communication and bonding.
  6. State the promise and expectation at hiring. State in the job description that the job can be carried out in any location. In the interview process, screen people for interest and ability to work in a distributed team. Build an on-boarding process that can largely be done remotely.
  7. Document and record profusely. To properly support a distributed organization, information must be well-documented and available for self-service search and review by employees irrespective of location. Make it an everyday discipline for employees to document what they are doing and what they are deciding. Others will need that information, and they will need it at times of day when the author is offline. With everything documented, measured and recorded, the organization can be fully operational at all times of day and in all locations across the globe.

Offices are so last century!

Mårten Mickos

Links and more info

Here are links to writings and interviews on the topic of distributed teams:

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