How to Effectively Manage Distributed Team

How to Effectively Manage Distributed Team

By 2030, businesses globally could face a staggering loss of $8.4 trillion in potential revenue due to the shortage of skilled professionals. In 2023, the quest for specialized software development expertise isn't confined by location anymore.

Recent data from Pew Research Center reveals that 35% of professionals in roles conducive to remote work opt for full-time remote positions. According to Upwork, 73% of companies are projected to adopt distributed teams by 2028. In fact, as of 2021, 60% of tech companies worldwide have begun outsourcing parts of their projects to external specialists. World-known enterprises such as Google, Opera, and Apple outsource to entrust their development processes to distributed engineering teams.

This encourages the question: What exactly are distributed teams? And how can you efficiently hire, expand, and oversee such a team?

What Are Distributed Teams?

Distributed teams represent a contemporary organizational structure where members collaborate on projects or tasks while geographically dispersed. Unlike traditional office setups, these teams operate remotely, often spanning diverse time zones and locations. Each member contributes expertise and efforts toward a common goal, utilizing digital tools and communication platforms to facilitate seamless collaboration.

Unlike traditional teams operating from the same office, these dedicated development team heavily rely on communication tools and collaborative software to stay connected and accomplish tasks.

How Do Fully Distributed Teams Work?

manage distributed team

Fully distributed teams operate with team members spread across different geographic locations, working remotely to achieve collective goals. This setup is defined by a reliance on digital tools and robust communication methods to facilitate seamless collaboration and task realization.

  1. Key to the functionality of fully distributed teams is the utilization of technology. These teams leverage digital communication tools, project management software, and collaboration platforms to bridge geographical gaps and enable real-time interaction. Platforms like Slack, Jira, Asana, or Trello are virtual workspaces where team members communicate, share progress, assign tasks, and collaborate efficiently.
  2. As team members operate from diverse locations and time zones, there's a heightened emphasis on trust-building and empowering individuals to manage their schedules and workload effectively.
  3. Teams adopt clear communication protocols and channels to ensure everyone remains informed, aligned, and engaged. Regular video conferences, team meetings, and asynchronous communication facilitate effective information-sharing and decision-making processes.

What are the Concerns about Managing Distributed Teams?

distributed teams challenges

Heightened Isolation

Only 31 percent of respondents favored a permanent fully-remote work model. The study highlighted certain demographics — such as social individuals, managers, fresh hires seeking colleague interactions, and those facing noisy or crowded home environments — who preferred the routines and social interactions inherent in office environments. For new employees, the absence of spontaneous interactions in remote settings presents challenges in building relationships and integrating into a company.

Blurred Work-Life Boundaries

Without clear delineation between office and personal space, distributed employees might struggle to establish a healthy balance between their professional responsibilities and personal lives. This dilemma has led to a notable increase in employee burnout, with 42 percent of the global workforce experiencing burnout.

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Communication barriers

Without the ability to have face-to-face conversations, misunderstandings can arise, leading to delays and inefficiencies. Instead, team members must rely on email, instant messaging, or video conferencing tools to communicate. This can lead to misinterpretations or delays in receiving crucial information, impacting the team's productivity.

Time zone difference

When team members are spread across different time zones, scheduling meetings and syncing up work can be a logistical nightmare. Managers must find creative solutions to accommodate these time differences and ensure everyone feels included and engaged.

How to Manage Distributed Teams Efficiently: 12 Tips

distributed workforce tools how to manage

Prioritize effective communication

Clarity in task instructions, rules, and responsibilities is key to avoiding confusion and aligning everyone with the team's goals. Reiterating these goals in meetings and using them as evaluation metrics ensures everyone knows the collective direction.

Having all team members on a collaborative project management tool promotes workflow transparency, showing remote employees how their contributions impact project progress.

Assess remote suitability in hiring

Remote work isn't a fit for everyone. When considering qualities essential in top developers – technical expertise, teamwork, and clear communication – evaluating how these soft skills translate to remote settings is crucial. Here are key characteristics to seek:

  • Remote environments lack frequent check-ins; individuals who take the initiative without constant supervision are valuable.
  • Effective remote workers possess a knack for discerning project priorities and focusing on what truly matters.
  • Focus on their overall ability to explain and convey information effectively. In many cases, this communication happens verbally as it tends to be quicker and more efficient.

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Focus on outcomes, not output

Often, managers measure productivity solely by the hours employees spend at their desks, overlooking the actual output. This approach fails to account for the quality aspect. For example, considering a developer productive solely for producing numerous lines of subpar code, compared to a colleague creating fewer lines of exceptional code in the same duration, is misguided.

  1. Task Completion Rate: This metric indicates the percentage of assigned tasks completed within specified timelines. Utilizing platforms like Trello, Jira, or Asana simplifies task tracking, offering insights into completion rates.
  2. Communication Responsiveness: Evaluating the average time to respond to emails, messages, or calls provides a gauge for effective communication. Analytical tools like Slack Analytics offer valuable insights into responsiveness and communication patterns.
  3. Quality Metrics: Depending on job roles, these metrics encompass error rates, client satisfaction scores, or project reviews. Feedbackify or Zendesk can measure client satisfaction, which is particularly valuable for customer support roles.
  4. Engagement and Participation: Tracking active participation in virtual meetings, team collaborations, or brainstorming sessions demonstrates team engagement. Platforms like Zoom Reports or Voxloud enable admins to assess participation metrics effectively.
  5. Self-Initiated Projects: Monitoring the number of projects or tasks initiated without external prompting highlights individual initiative. Jira or Notion are robust platforms for team members to initiate, track, and manage self-initiated projects.

Evaluating the performance of remote teams involves focusing on pertinent metrics rather than physical presence. Metrics like the quantity of high-quality software shipped monthly might not be ideal, as it can vary widely - someone might work on numerous smaller features. At the same time, another concentrates on a single, significant project.

Regarding the "team's continuous improvement," it's essential to clarify the specific aspects intended for the team's enhancement. Are you referring to the team's skill advancement, learning curve, or the evolution of collaborative processes and efficiency? Defining the exact areas of improvement would be beneficial for more precise evaluation.

Select suitable tools

The success of remote work relies significantly on appropriate tools. Research reveals that the average office worker juggles around 5 or more apps simultaneously. Distributed team dynamics allow for flexibility beyond standard work hours. For some, this might involve responding to calls or emails while on the move.

Consider:

  • Centralized communication is key here—tools like Slack, HipChat, Flowdock, or Skype can facilitate this.
  • Online platforms share crucial information in Agile or Kanban setups. Accessible to the entire team and stakeholders, these platforms provide immediate status updates on development build pipeline dashboards, code coverage, and other critical data, ensuring a single source of truth.
  • Platforms like Zoom, Slack calls, and Skype enable one-on-ones, status meetings, and code showcases, fostering team culture and trust.

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Embrace collaborative meetings

Schedule team meetings like planning meetings, code reviews, and software demos at times suitable for all team members, irrespective of location. Strive for several hours daily when the entire team is online and engaged.

While time zone considerations are valid, many remote software developers prefer non-traditional work hours and exhibit higher productivity when allowed this flexibility. Provide the team autonomy to define optimal working hours to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Keep a consistent meeting schedule

Endless email chains and message threads can scatter focus. Plan weekly team meetings via video conferencing to delve into project updates, address hurdles team members face, and set goals for the week ahead. Consider hosting comprehensive "wrap-up" sessions later in the week to acknowledge team accomplishments, commend outstanding work, and prepare for the upcoming week.

These team meetings are consolidation points, summarizing previous discussions and solidifying action plans. Alternatives like recording meetings or sharing comprehensive meeting notes afterward ensure that everyone stays informed, even if they can't attend in real-time.

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Additionally, one-on-one sessions help remote employees stay engaged, offering a platform to address concerns privately and track progress. Research indicates that employees whose managers conduct these meetings feel more connected and engaged at work.

When team members' schedules don't align, it might be helpful to switch to a bi-weekly meeting schedule instead of a weekly one. To accommodate everyone, alternate weekly meeting times, holding sessions in the morning PST one week and in the afternoon PST the next. This approach ensures that meeting recordings are available for everyone to access asynchronously.

Establish communication standards in onboarding

A well-structured onboarding plan ensures newcomers feel welcomed and empowered. This includes outlining acceptable communication methods during work hours, specifying platforms for sharing information, and providing guidance on how to reach out to specific team members. Many organizations assign mentors to facilitate a smooth transition and address new hires' queries.

Respect boundaries

Avoid situations where, for instance, a team member in San Francisco emails someone in Berlin at an inappropriate hour, expecting an immediate response. Understanding and aligning with each other's boundaries through well-defined processes can prevent such scenarios.

Establish clear goals

Setting clear, measurable goals allows teams to craft action plans for their attainment. This clarity outlines the work required for team members to accomplish these goals. Offering autonomy within defined deadlines empowers distributed team members to manage their work schedules effectively.

Failure to set the goals can lead to future disruptions in workflow. Explicitly outline preferred communication tools, working hours, and project timelines, and promptly communicate any changes.

Clarify roles and responsibilities

Clearly defining each team member's roles and responsibilities is essential, especially in distributed teams managing multiple projects. Avoiding ambiguity in duties helps prevent overwhelming workloads and confusion.

Visual aids like organizational charts or frameworks can be useful in delineating roles and tasks. Shared documents and collaborative workspaces are must-haves for seamless collaboration in remote setups.

Provide feedback culture

Openly discuss concerns and encourage employees to do the same. Initiating feedback sessions, like engagement surveys, fosters two-way communication, ensuring everyone remains informed and engaged. These feedback sessions track progress and can signal the need for organizational changes if necessary.

Recognize achievements

Employees seek to be more than just a name on an email list. They desire a sense of belonging and purpose within a team striving for collective success. Recognizing achievements, whether at the beginning of meetings or through internal newsletters, provides employees with public acknowledgment and appreciation.

Benefits of Having Distributed Teams

Benefits of Having Distributed Teams

Market accessibility

To reach audiences in different time zones effectively, having team members situated in those markets becomes imperative. For instance, a company based in California but targeting the New York market faces limited overlap in working hours. However, having team members located in New York ensures continuous alignment with the target market, optimizing engagement and responsiveness.

Extended talent reach

Operating as a distributed entity expands the talent pool globally, allowing businesses to recruit top-notch professionals irrespective of geographical boundaries. The flexibility of this model extends to engaging freelance or contract talent worldwide, offering unparalleled agility to businesses and enabling rapid scaling and growth. Access to expert talent on demand enhances the overall efficiency and competitiveness of the organization.

Moreover, the values of employees—seeking remote work for enhanced family time—mean accommodating such preferences broadens the talent scope for the team, attracting top candidates.

Cost-efficiency

While salaries remain competitive, eliminating physical office spaces significantly reduces business overheads. However, distributed companies frequently reinvest these savings in remote perks and periodic face-to-face team engagements.

The reduction in physical office expenditures raises pertinent inquiries posed by CEOs regarding resource allocation and organizational focus. Dell's reported savings of over $39 million in two years and Aetna's annual $78 million savings post-remote work encouragement exemplify the cost-effective advantages of remote setups.

For employers, managing a distributed team often reduces operational expenses as it eliminates typical overheads like office space. Additionally, businesses might consider adjusting salaries based on the employees' cost of living locations. Similarly, employees benefit from reduced commuting expenses, minimal need for outside meals, and transportation costs.

Wellness and retention benefits

A 2021 survey revealed that 84% of employees found working from home a source of happiness, while 82% reported it positively impacted their mental well-being.

A distributed model offers employees greater flexibility and the opportunity to work remotely, promoting overall wellness and happiness. This, in turn, is linked to increased employee satisfaction and lower turnover rates, unlike the traditional model, which often necessitated talent relocation or the prospect of losing skilled personnel.

Focus and productivity

Research highlighted by Harvard Business Review emphasizes an increase of up to 13.5% in productivity attributed to remote work. Eliminating commute time gives employees more control over their daily schedules, allowing greater flexibility in work hours.

Remote work allows individuals to leverage their optimal creative moments, facilitating a focus on delivering quality results within stipulated deadlines. Moreover, remote environments spare individuals from the distractions often encountered in traditional office settings, fostering a dedicated focus on tasks without succumbing to unproductive interactions.

Team agility

A distributed team model, following the 'follow the sun' approach, offers a distinct speed advantage. Distributed teams, dispersed globally, maintain a continuous operational cycle across different time zones. This facilitates rapid responses to emerging opportunities and client inquiries, resulting in superior service delivery and potentially positioning businesses competitively.

Scalability

Being in diverse time zones grants operational benefits across departments like Customer Service, Sales, and Marketing. This arrangement ensures improved responsiveness, localization capabilities, and enhanced customer engagement due to synchronized time zone operations. Such proximity to local markets enables companies to penetrate new territories seamlessly and efficiently.

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Success Stories of Having Distributed Teams

The approach of these companies varied, with some opting for a fully distributed team. Progressive enterprises like Buffer, Zapier, InVision, and Automattic, the team behind WordPress, exemplify this model.

  • Zapier, operating with a fully distributed workforce from the outset, decided to continue this way as they expanded. Starting with just five individuals spread across three cities and no physical office, they observed continuous product development, customer growth, and revenue streams.
  • InVision, a platform focusing on design collaboration and prototyping, operates with over 220 employees dispersed across 14 countries. This approach aligns with an intentional strategy set by their CEO. Their core belief is that a fully distributed team enables the recruitment of the best talent globally, regardless of geographical boundaries, allowing top talent to relocate or work remotely while traveling.

In a nutshell

The success stories of companies like Basecamp, Buffer, and GitLab are proof that distance doesn't put a damper on innovation; it actually turbocharges it. With the right tools, a culture built on trust, and a fresh take on how we define a "workspace," organizations can tap into the full power of remote teams. It's not where the magic happens but how we make it happen together.

Embrace the concept of distributed teams, letting go of the traditional in-office norms. Empower these teams with metrics, effective management, suitable tools, and a culture that supports their productivity, regardless of their location. This approach unlocks the potential of remote work and running a business no matter where you are.

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FAQs

  1. What exactly are distributed teams, and why are they becoming more common?

    Distributed teams consist of individuals working remotely, often spread across various locations or time zones. These teams collaborate virtually, leveraging technology to achieve shared goals.

  2. What are the key challenges in building and leading distributed teams, and how can they be overcome?

    Key challenges in managing distributed teams include fostering communication, maintaining team cohesion, and ensuring productivity. Overcoming them involves establishing clear communication channels, setting shared goals, fostering a culture of trust, utilizing appropriate collaboration tools, and implementing structured work processes.

  3. What communication and collaboration tools are recommended for managing distributed teams?

    Several tools cater to the needs of distributed teams. Examples include Slack for real-time messaging, Zoom or Microsoft Teams for video conferencing, Asana or Trello for project management, Google Drive or Dropbox for file sharing, and Miro for visual collaboration.

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Ross Kurhanskyi
Head of partner engagement