Managing Distributed Teams: 10 Best Practices to Help You Embrace the New Way of Working

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You’re not a dinosaur, are you? We’re not talking about a guest-starring role in the next Jurassic Park movie. We mean, as a manager. Have you fully accepted and embraced the new workplace norm? Are you actively hiring remote workers? And do you know how to manage them effectively?

If not, get ready for your closeup. You are, indeed, a T-rex. And you and your company risk extinction as your competitors outperform you by reducing expenses and hiring the best talent from all over the world.

Did you know that over 57% of tech workers in the United States currently work remotely? That’s according to a recent report from IWG Global. The study also found that 50% of workers globally are spending half the work-week working outside the office. And companies that allow remote work are reaping the rewards of a happier, more productive workforce. In fact, 85% of those surveyed reported an increase in business thanks to flexible work arrangements.

There are two main reasons that some companies are still hesitant to hire a distributed workforce: fear of losing control and employees taking advantage of unsupervised working hours. But as many highly successful organizations like Basecamp, Dell, Microsoft, Salesforce, and others have learned, the benefits of distributed teams far outweigh the risks.

Based on our own expertise working remotely with hundreds of businesses, here are 10 tips for managing distributed teams that will help you embrace remote workers and keep up with (or even zoom past) your competition.



1. Shift your mindset from hours worked to results achieved.

Successfully managing globally distributed teams starts with a shift in your management mindset. You are no longer concerned with how many hours your employees work. You are concerned with the results they produce.

It is imperative to let go of the fear that remote workers won’t be as productive as in-office staff because you can’t actually see them working. Just because you witness someone come in early and stay late every day doesn’t mean that person is working harder than anybody else. It just means they get to work earlier and leave later. Unless you’re standing over their shoulder all day (you’re not, are you?), you have no idea if they’re playing solitaire on their computer in the morning and scrolling Facebook in the evening.

You must focus on the project, the day-to-day deliverables, and deadlines. You will clearly communicate these goals to your team, you will trust them to deliver, and you will judge their performance on how quickly and how well they handle their assignments.

2. Decide how you want your team to work.

After you’ve adopted this new results-oriented mindset, you need to map out exactly how you want to work. You should have a clear and documented business plan for your team before you hire anyone remotely.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How large do I want my team to be?
  • Will everyone work remotely? If not, how many team members do I want in the office vs. remote?
  • What will “standard” communication hours be for the entire team?
  • What will be our preferred method of communication? Skype? Slack? Other?
  • What other types of communication and project management applications will we use?
  • How many meetings will we have each week and what will those meetings cover?
  • What KPIs we will measure?

Once you answer all of these questions, you’ll want to create guidelines for your entire team. Develop a team guidebook and store it in a Google drive where everyone has access to it and where it can be updated in the future.

3. Choose the right communication tools.

Now that you know how you want your team to work, it’s time to find the tools you’ll need to make your workdays run smoothly and efficiently. There are a growing number of solutions that make it easy to manage a remote workforce. Do your research in order to find the ones that will work best for you and your team.

Here are some suggestions.

Messaging: Skype, Slack, Twist, Google Hangouts Chat, Convo

Project Management: Trello, Asana, Basecamp, Jira, iDoneThis

Document Storage: Google Drive, Zoho, Dropbox, Quip, OneHub

Calendars: Google Calendar for Business, Calendly, Monday.com, Float, Teamweek

Video-Conferencing: Skype Video, GoToMeeting, PukkaTeam, UberConference, Join.me

You’ll notice we didn’t include a category for email tools. That’s because email is the least effective way to communicate with a team. Too many forwards, reply-to-alls, and lost attachments make email too cumbersome for real productivity. Better to stick with an instant messaging tool that keeps all communications visible in real time for the entire team to see.

4. Hire the right people and start them on the right foot.

“We focus on two things when hiring. First, find the best people you can in the world. And second, let them do their work. Just get out of their way.”

That’s a quote from Matt Wullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic and WordPress, whose workforce is for the most part, all remote. In order to have a truly productive and successful distributed team, you have to start by hiring the right people.



Some people thrive in an office environment while others excel working remotely. The key is to find people who are not only qualified for the job at hand, but who have a proven track record and history of projects completed remotely. And once you hire them, get them started on the right foot with a comprehensive onboarding program.

Your onboarding process should accomplish two very important tasks: first, it should make the new employee feel welcome and part of the team and second, it should clearly communicate exactly what is expected of them and how things will operate. (Remember that guidebook you created in Step 2? Now’s the time to go over it in detail with your new employee.)

5. Choose your KPIs.

You have a distributed team management plan in place. You’ve got all the right tools. And you’ve hired the right people. Now, how will you track and measure success? Which KPIs are most important for your team?

Stats you might consider measuring could include project delivery time, number of bugs or problems discovered in a solution or code, and an increase in customer satisfaction rates or number of users.

When choosing your team’s KPIs, keep in mind they should all support the most important KPIs of the company in general. You want to be able to communicate to your people how their work ethic has improved the company’s overall performance.

6. Capitalize on different time zones.

One of the main advantages to working with distributed teams is being able to hire the very best talent from anywhere in the world. One of the main distributed teams challenges is getting used to all the different time zones associated with your new global workforce.

The good news is that you now can have people working 24-hours a day on your project. By carefully planning and spreading your workload across time zones, you can take advantage of the time differences. For instance, perhaps you have one team writing a piece of software code during the day in one country. You can have another team across the world testing that code in the evening. Or you may have clients all over the world and can now offer real live support services in each time zone.

You can use world time clocks or apps such as EveryTimeZone to help you plan and manage employee and work schedules according to standard working hours in each country.

7. Make sure your remote workers are included…in everything.

There are many things remote workers love about being able to work from anywhere: no commuting, fewer expenses, and better overall quality of life. However, the one thing they do miss about working in an office is the sense of camaraderie with their co-workers.

It’s important to find ways to include your remote workers in your day-to-day office routine. Consider hosting a “working lunch” each week where any in-office team members gather in a conference room and video-chat with remote workers (it might be a “working dinner” for them, based on their location.) Or, if your entire team is remote, host a team-wide working lunch via video-chat.

Using communication apps like the ones mentioned previously can also help to create a stronger bond amongst team members who can keep the “office banter” going through live chat or Slack. And we have to mention the awesome “Hey Taco” app as an incredibly fun and creative way to build team morale.

8. Communicate daily. Regroup weekly.

Regular communication is the axl grease that keeps your team’s engine running smoothly. For those managing distributed teams using agile, you’re already familiar with the concept of the “stand-up” meeting.

Plan for short daily structured stand-up meetings first thing in the morning to discuss project status and goals for the day. Then, once a week, preferably on Fridays, have a longer “wrap-up” meeting to talk about wins and challenges and plan for the following week.

To put it in football terms, think of your daily meetings as mini “pep-rallies” for each day and Fridays as time to “review the tapes.” (And P.S. – you should also have and encourage spontaneous communication whenever warranted.)

9. Get some face time with your team.

At least once a year, you should aim to get your entire team together in one place. This can be challenging and expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the costs and can actually end up saving you money in the future.

Employees who feel truly appreciated and part of a close-knit team are less likely to leave a company and work with a competitor. Plus, it gives team members a chance to really get to know each other and fosters better working relationships.



Your annual pilgrimage could be for a holiday celebration, a themed retreat, or an important conference. Use these types of get-togethers as a way to reward your team for all their hard work throughout the year.

10. When you celebrate, make sure everyone’s included.

Whether it’s birthdays, work-anniversaries, or big-wins, if you’re having an office celebration, make sure the remote team is included.
Having cake? Arrange ahead of time to have cupcakes delivered to your remote workers. Remote team members’ birthday? Get the team together to sing “Happy Birthday” via video chat.

The key is to make sure your remote staff never feels left out. A team that works together, plays together, and celebrates together stays together.

Conclusion

Distributed teams are no longer the workforce of the future. They’re the workforce of the present. If you’re not adapting, you’re dying.
Don’t let your fear of losing control keep you from building a distributed team that gets results. Hire the right people, trust them to do their jobs, and do everything you can to make sure everyone feels like a part of the team.

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