11 pro tips for effectively managing distributed teams

by Andy Nguyen
Managing Distributed Teams

Distributed teams consist of employees working remotely from different locations. 

And with the pandemic confining millions of employees to their homes, organizations have been compelled to embrace this work model. 

However, remote work is still vulnerable to cultural differences, social inclusion, and a lack of trust and communication between team members. 

Indeed, managing distributed teams is a pressing concern for remote managers. 

But, don’t worry!

We’re here to help you out. 

In this article, we’ll take you through the 11 essential guidelines for managing a distributed workforce to ensure work efficiency and greater collaboration between your team. 

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Let’s begin.

11 effective tips for managing distributed teams

Managing distributed teams can be challenging even for the most seasoned managers.

Employees can easily feel disconnected or have communication issues with their peers and managers. And if the remote team has cultural differences, it’s an uphill task.

But with some patience, guidance, and the right set of tools, it’s a different ball game altogether.

Here’re the 11 surefire ways to help you manage your distributed team efficiently: 

1. Hire the right people

Getting the right people on board is the first step towards creating an efficient distributed team. However, it’s not a smooth ride as not every applicant is suitable for remote work. 

As a remote manager, you need to “hire doers” who can get the work done even while living in a different country. It’s best to look for employees who’re self-motivated and disciplined. Of course, you’ll have to provide them direction and guidance, but they shouldn’t need micromanagement. 

To further ensure that you have the right people on your distributed teams, base your decision on personal interviews, skill assessment, and communication skills. This will help you decide whether the candidate is fit for the position and, more importantly, is comfortable and will enjoy a distributed work model. 

Moreover, having team members with prior remote working experience is always a plus. 

2. Develop an effective onboarding process

Did you know that having a well-thought onboarding program can increase employee retention by 82%

That said, the onboarding process needs to be better structured for distributed teams. As remote employees don’t have colleagues around to talk to, it’s easy for them to feel lonely and disconnected. 

To avoid this, there’re several ways in which you can make a remote worker feel more included in the team:  

  • Avoid email altogether for the first few weeks. Instead, use other communication tools like Slack or Zoom.
  • Let the team connect face-to-face via Zoom meetings. You can also organize fun ice-breaking activities for your virtual team. This will allow everyone to know each other, connect, and build trust in a remote work environment. 
  • Organize meetups between the key stakeholders and new hires via video conference to help them understand your company culture. 
  • Assign a mentor or buddy to help a remote worker transition smoothly into the new role. 

3. Offer bonding opportunities

To ensure that your remote employees develop a sense of belongingness, get creative with your team building activities

You can have:

  • Zoom happy hours.
  • Social media pages.
  • Book clubs.
  • Private chat groups.
  • Online games.

These allow remote team members to interact with each other beyond work. 

You can even have a no-manager team meeting for employees to have light-hearted conversations and share personal success stories.  

Also, try to have in-person get-togethers whenever possible. It allows everyone to unwind and break from the monotony of meetings and problem-solving. It also gives the distributed team a chance to know one another and foster better work relationships. 

4. Manage remote employees the same way as in-office employees

You need to treat your distributed workforce just like any other in-office employee. Hold them responsible for deadlines and give your virtual team the same respect, trust, and understanding. 

Moreover, you could include every remote worker, even those working from a different country, in all office activities. 

And if your entire team is remote, you can still ensure smooth collaboration and perform the same work activities that you would otherwise. For example, have daily standups via video calls every morning or use a project management tool for sprint planning with your Scrum team.

Additionally, you can offer them the same perks and incentives you would give to your co located team

These could include: 

  • Weekly shoutout emails. 
  • Digital gift cards.
  • Additional vacation days.
  • Sponsored lunches.

5. Ensure clear communication 

When managing distributed teams, communication is key!

Without a proper communication channel, no project can reach completion, and it’s impossible to track progress. 

To ensure clear communication between distributed teams: 

  • Ditch the email: Instead of tracking endless email threads, organize your day-to-day work using a collaboration tool like Slack or ClickUp. It can help offer instant feedback, share ideas, and assign any task on the go.
  • Define communication norms: Have communication guidelines defining which discussions do or don’t require meetings. Specify the channel to be used for team communication and the response time expected from the employees. 
  • Have a video-first company culture: Prioritize a face-to-face virtual meeting over an audio call or instant messaging. This helps the team connect better by picking up non-verbal cues. 
  • Have one-to-one meetings: Try to have one-to-one video calls with your team members to understand them better. They’ll feel more valued and comfortable asking questions and giving suggestions they would hesitate to share during a team meeting.  
  • Set time boundaries and respect time zones: Remote working can make it difficult for employees to unplug. To ensure a better work life balance, set clear time boundaries and inform employees when you expect them to answer messages. Also, for remote team members who work from different time zones, schedule meetings when everyone is available. 
  • Launch a company intranet: Create a website accessible only to your employees and use it to post regular updates, training material, policy changes, etc. 
  • Provide training for intercultural communication: Train your remote work team on how to communicate with a coworker living in a different country or one with a different culture. This can help ensure that the entire team works well together without prejudices or beliefs in stereotypes. 

6. Schedule structured daily or weekly meetings 

Having regular meetings is essential to share project statuses, discuss roadblocks, and set goals for your remote team. However, having endless meetings with no clear agenda can be a productivity disrupter. 

To prevent productivity loss during remote work, every distributed organization must abide by one golden rule – Keep your meetings structured!

Depending on the nature of work and the need for the team to connect, you can schedule daily or weekly meetings. Daily standups are an excellent way for your remote team to stay in sync. It also helps keep your team accountable by creating mini-goals that they plan to accomplish for the week. 

Similarly, you can also meet twice a week, for example, on a Monday morning for sprint planning and on Friday to summarize the work done by each distributed team member. 

Additionally, you can create a weekly feedback loop to discuss team accomplishments, the most challenging part of the week, and the plan going forward. 

7. Set clear expectations, goals, and responsibilities

Not being clear about your expectations early on can negatively impact your workflows and team performance. 

To ensure that every distributed team member is working on equal footing, you can set clear and realistic expectations for individual employees and the entire team. 

These could include: 

  • What tools your team can use for team communication.
  • Working hours for different time zones.
  • Project deadlines.
  • Policy changes, as and when they occur.

You may also communicate these expectations in a written format. 

In addition to company expectations, you can set clear and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals for your distributed team. Setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals can help in building teams that are more accountable.

The next thing to do is define job responsibilities for your team members. Establish work roles and publish them in shared Google docs that are easily accessible for all employees.

8. Use the right tools 

Every organization needs a mix of tools for effective distributed team management and collaboration. 

These tools can be categorized under:

A. Recruitment and onboarding 

You’ll need a recruitment tool to reach out to the right people living in different time zones. The right tool will help you source and shortlist resumes, track applications, and conduct interviews.

You’ll also need an onboarding software solution to help new hires transition smoothly into the new role. Tools like BreezyHR and BambooHR are popular choices for recruitment and onboarding. 

B. Communication

Asynchronous communication (when there’s a time lag between information sharing) within distributed employees could be made easy. 

You can use these two communication tools to make distributed team collaboration a breeze:

1. Instant messaging

You could use team communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams for instant messaging and asynchronous communication. 

The tool sends real-time messages and notifications to help teams stay on top of things.

2. Video conferencing

Popular video conferencing tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts can help your distributed employees connect face-to-face. 

Some tools also allow you to record meetings and archive them for future reference.

C. Mind mapping

A mind map is a diagram with tasks or concepts arranged around and originating from a central idea. 

Mind mapping tools offer a whiteboard to brainstorm such ideas with your dispersed team in real-time. Popular collaboration tools in this category are MindMeister and Coggle. 

D. Payroll management

You can also use a separate payroll management tool to pay your distributed team on time. Platforms like ADP, Quickbooks, and Gusto are quite popular.

E. Productivity management 

Several productivity management tools can help a distributed organization organize tasks better or monitor its employee’s work hours. 

Such tools can also track which tasks take the most time and which employees are overworked. They can even report an employee’s web usage and alert a distracted user.

You can easily do all this using a robust time tracking and productivity management tool – Time Doctor

It’s one of the most popular team management software solutions used by major companies, like Verizon and Ericsson, and SMBs, such as Thrive Market.

Here’re some of Time Doctor’s fantastic features: 

Here’s a list of all features and benefits offered by Time Doctor.

9. Give greater autonomy to your team

Constantly checking up on your distributed team can seem overbearing, and the employees can feel untrusted. It can also take away a remote employee’s freedom and flexibility to work as per their schedule. 

As a remote manager, try to offer greater freedom and autonomy to your distributed employees to handle their workload the way they prefer. You could also allow employees to use multiple devices to provide a consistent digital experience, even in a remote workspace.

But you can certainly check in from time to time to ensure that no one is facing any roadblock or needs help. 

You can have check-ins on a regular basis with different team members on different days. It could be once a day or twice a week, depending on the frequency of communication needed for the project. 

However, don’t try to micromanage your distributed team, as it can easily lead to low employee morale, reduced productivity, and job dissatisfaction. All this can negatively affect employee retention too.

10. Focus on results

Having a co located team or working a fixed number of hours doesn’t guarantee high productivity

Instead, having a result-only culture for your team members can ensure more accountability and discipline

In fact, as per the 2021 employee monitoring trends, companies found 55% of their remote workforce to be more productive when they could choose when and how long they worked.  

This means, instead of only tracking work hours, you need to focus more on how much the employees are contributing and if they’re able to deliver results consistently.  

11. Celebrate and share success 

Lastly, every employee wants to be appreciated and valued. Giving due credit and celebrating small wins can help boost employee morale and confidence. It also impacts their productivity positively.

However, don’t limit yourself only to virtual appreciation. Sharing profits from time to time can also make distributed teams feel more valued. 

Additionally, you could offer incentives to your distributed teams like:

  • Providing allowance to create a comfortable home office setup.
  • Launching wellness programs for better work life balance.
  • Offering online learning opportunities.
  • Reimbursing their internet usage. 

Taking such steps can go a long way in establishing a motivated and productive remote workforce. 

Wrapping up

Sure, managing distributed teams is way more complicated than having a traditional office setup. It certainly requires a different mindset. 

And, while the pandemic triggered the trend of distributed teams, it has now become a necessity to attract and retain the best talent.

So, whether you’re a startup, a Scrum team manager, or an enterprise, using the above tips can indeed help you in setting up and managing remote teams that’ll thrive.

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