Top 10 Strategies For Leading Distributed Teams

A remote worker meets with his team from his home office via a videoconferencing app.

Organizations are operating in a future that was once thought to be science fiction. As computers, the internet, and other telecommunication technologies have become ubiquitous in both professional and home environments, remote work is increasingly a reality for millions of people. And while many businesses have created new processes and procedures to adapt to a remote workforce, distributed teams are now something companies need to contend with.

Washington State University’s Executive Master of Business Administration is a 100% online degree program that prepares students to become leaders in the digital age. Business professionals who want to become effective leaders should explore what it takes to lead distributed teams.

What Is a Distributed Team?

The terms “remote” and “distributed” are often used interchangeably to describe employees of one organization operating in many different locations. However, these terms do have slightly different meanings.

The term “remote workers” generally refers to individual employees who likely work at the same central location but are operating from home on a part- or full-time basis. If they need to collaborate, meeting in an office is a possibility. In this sense, remote employees operate as individual satellites, but are tied to a singular location.

Members of a distributed team, however, can work in any location in the world. Even though each individual on the team is working remotely, they collaborate as a single unit aided by digital and telecommunication tools. Essentially, the phrase “distributed team” describes a group of employees who coordinate their work with others, unlike a single remote employee who works individually.

By these definitions, every member of a distributed team is a remote employee, but not every remote worker is part of a distributed team. It’s an important distinction for understanding the unique challenges and opportunities that come with leading a distributed workforce.

Challenges of Managing Distributed Teams

In a 2022 survey conducted by Buffer, the marketing company found that out of 2,118 remote workers surveyed, 49% work on a fully remote basis. Additionally, 23% reported working “remote-first” (nearly fully remote) and 16% were “office-occasional,” meaning they were required or encouraged to report to the office somewhat regularly.

Transitioning teams to remote operations is a practical choice for businesses in the current climate, and not only because working from home is a sought-after employee perk. Distributed teams help organizations harness the skills of a global workforce. Without being restricted by time zones or other physical boundaries, these teams bring together employees, wherever they are, who have different experiences and expertise. Furthermore, businesses have more access to global clients, can see increased employee productivity, and create a diverse team.

Of course, managing a distributed team comes with plenty of unique challenges. Employees must be accountable for their individual work along with their collaborative efforts. Leaders must model this behavior and foster a cooperative environment, while ensuring all team members have the hardware and software they need to connect.

The right strategies can help business leaders overcome some of these common leadership challenges and ensure a distributed company is operating at its full potential.

10 Solid Strategies for Leading Distributed Teams

An effective leader of a virtual team must be agile, flexible, and understand the constraints and challenges of working remotely.

Here are the top 10 ways executives can improve their business practices to better manage distributed teams.

1. Choose Employees Who Prefer Remote Work

Not every applicant is well-suited for remote working. According to a 2022 Eden study published in Forbes, only 18% of tech workers want full-time remote work, and 34% prefer full-time office work. Workplaces that allow teams the flexibility of hybrid work—in which they can work in the office sometimes and remotely at other times—may therefore have an edge over companies that rigidly implement one system over the other.

Since hiring employees is the first step in creating a distributed team, ensure you’re basing your decision on a mix of personal interviews, skill assessments, and communications tests. Ask your employees directly if they want to work remotely and listen to what they have to say. You’ll gain insight into the employee as an individual and, more importantly, how they will likely collaborate on a distributed team.

2. Communicate Consistently

Employees and project managers often take for granted how many of their small interactions in the office influence their workflows. Leaders of distributed teams who don’t have the opportunity for these in-person meetings must make it a point to be clear, concise, and consistent with how they communicate. At the same time, over-communicating can also cause confusion, because there is more opportunity for teams in different locations to get their wires crossed.

Avoid these missteps by creating meeting agendas, recording video calls, and distributing detailed notes afterward. These materials will ensure the entire team is receiving the same information.

3. Set Goals

Employees who are part of a distributed team must be accountable for their own productivity as well as for progressing toward the group’s goals. Setting objectives for daily, weekly, and even monthly tasks can help distributed teams keep on pace. Additionally, this gives managers the peace of mind that tasks are being accomplished while giving employees more independence.

When setting goals for a distributed team, make sure they follow the SMART method and align with the organization’s overarching objectives. (The SMART model uses planning that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.)

4. Utilize Modern Technology

Video conferencing applications enable individuals from around the world to meet in real time. The video conferencing company Zoom, for example, reported 300 million daily meeting participants in 2020—more people than the entire populations of Russia and Mexico combined.

Video conferencing apps are a remote leader’s best asset when it comes to managing employee engagement and team effectiveness. However, managers must also ensure their distributed employees have reliable hardware and an internet connection as well. Remember that some team members may be working from a laptop, tablet, or even their smartphone, so choose mobile-friendly communication applications.

5. Encourage Collaboration to Develop Trust

As previously mentioned, distributed teams are expected to work together while not physically in the same space. Employees must trust each other and their managers throughout the process. Some ways to build this confidence include encouraging employees to connect with their team members personally through candid conversations, and ensuring each member has defined job goals.

Be transparent with your expectations, and make sure employees are equally recognized for their work during daily or weekly calls. While it’s important to remain professional during your interactions, engaging in lighter conversations and congratulating employees on personal accomplishments can help build trust that will improve collaboration.

6. Keep a Personal Touch

While video conferences, emails, and chat dialogues are great ways to communicate throughout the day, they don’t always provide the same personal touch as in-person gatherings. If possible, offer an annual in-person conference to have team members and leadership connect and grow their relationships. If this isn’t possible, provide time during meetings for social interactions in the form of unstructured breakout sessions where team members can get to know each other.

These personal interactions are the key to developing relationships and ensuring employees feel included in the team even when they are spread across different locations.

7. Empower Local Leaders

As the manager of your distributed team, you know that your employees are spread across different states, countries, and even time zones. This is especially true for larger companies that have a global presence. In these situations, it’s important to create a hierarchy of leadership that focuses on the local level. After all, one of the benefits of having a distributed workforce is the ability to serve local markets with a team in that location.

If you manage different remote teams, it may be beneficial to empower regional employees to take on a leadership role to create a strong local foundation. In the long run, this can help you create strong dispersed offices that clients trust.

8. Build Structure

When your team works from home, they likely enjoy some flexibility when it comes to their schedule. However, as the leader of the team, you should make sure that everyone is still being productive and working toward the same goals. You can accomplish this by setting fixed schedules to ensure employees are striking the proper work-life balance, facilitating conversations to make sure they are productive, and always leaving time for comments and questions during meetings.

9. Offer Time to Connect

According to Harvard Business Review, successful remote managers have daily calls with their teams. For distributed teams, this can take the form of one-on-one calls and team meetings set during the same time each day or week. Making these calls regular and predictable means your team knows they can bring any questions or concerns they have to the table.

This differs from other meetings during the week, since the time is dedicated to what the employees need to discuss. Having these meetings is another method to help build trust between leadership and employees while utilizing telecommunications technology.

10. Create Incentives

Contributing to the success of a distributed team also means offering support and incentives. Remote workers often seek perks and benefits like their in-office counterparts, but in a different form. This could be offering a stipend or allowance to help remote employees create a productive work environment at home, providing staff development opportunities like online learning, and reimbursing teams for their internet usage. These are a few simple examples of incentives leaders can use, but don’t hesitate to ask your team which perks would best help them in their day-to-day tasks.

Develop Your Remote Leadership with an Online Executive MBA

Working on a distributed team offers employees the opportunity to work with colleagues and leaders from around the globe—without ever needing to set foot in an office. As distributed teams become more common, developing skills and strategies to manage them will be of the utmost importance.

WSU’s Online Executive MBA program (EMBA) can help students become leaders in the digital world. The program exposes students to actionable and comprehensive business strategies for leading teams, distributed or otherwise. Plus, the EMBA program provides students with opportunities to expand their professional network.

For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online degree page and take the next step toward becoming an executive leader.


Recommended Readings

7 Key Competencies for Global Business Leadership

EMBA Education and Executive Ethics

3 Ways Leadership Experience Makes You a Perfect Candidate for an EMBA


Buffer, 2022 State of Remote Work

Harvard Business Review, “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers”

Forbes, “Think Tech Workers Want Remote Work? Think Again: 5 Ways To Respond”

TeamStage, “Zoom Statistics 2022: How Video Conferencing Changed Our Lives”

U.S. Census, U.S. and World Population Clock