Top 10 Strategies For Leading Distributed Teams

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Business team having video conference in conference room at office

In 1974, British science fiction writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke forecasted an innovative idea that was almost impossible to comprehend. Computers, which weighed up to 50 pounds and operated with newly invented “floppy disks,” would be small enough to allow workers from around the world to connect and communicate remotely. These devices would broaden the scope of the workforce, allowing businesses and their employees to, in essence, work as distributed teams. In effect, Clarke developed the idea of a remote workforce.

“It will make it possible to live anywhere we’d like. Any businessman, any executive could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through a device like this,” Clarke said regarding the future of electronic devices and remote working. “This is a wonderful thing. It means we won’t have to be stuck in cities and we can live out in the country, or wherever we please, and still carry on complete interactions with human beings.”

Today, Millennials entering the workforce are seeking the flexibility that remote working provides. At the same time, employers have found benefits with distributed teams, such as these teams provide diversity to the corporate ecosystem by showcasing alternative points of view and experiences. Also, studies show telecommuting saves employers money due to lower overhead costs, increased employee retention and increased employee productivity. However, some companies are hesitant to make the change to utilizing remote workforces because they still hold onto the antiquated idea that telecommuting employees are not accountable and are often distracted.

Through Washington State University’s Executive Master of Business Administration online (EMBA) degree program, students can develop a greater understanding of remote working teams and how to best provide leadership to these types of teams while studying from any location in the world.

Flexibility And Forward Thinking

Effective leadership for distributed teams depends on the ability of the leader to be flexible while understanding the constraints of an enterprise.

Here are ten simple ways for executives to adjust business practices for smooth distributed-team management:

1. Pick employees wisely

When choosing distributed-team members, employers are cautioned to choose wisely based on personal interviews and a body of work. Additional ways to choose distributed-team members include:
• Skill-assessment testing
• Narrowly focused interview questions
• Writing tests to determine communication abilities

Scott Slater, owner of Slater’s 50/50 burger franchise, said remote employees have allowed his company to expand past a physical corporate office, but the key is the right employees.

“Choose people on your team who can thrive in that type of environment. Make sure there is a strong stance on accountability,” Slater told Business News Daily (“4 Issues Your Company’s Telecommuting Policy Should Address,” February 5, 2015).

2. Communicate

Ensuring the boss, manager, or supervisor communicates with team members and the team members communicate with each other is vital to working remotely. Mandy Brown, CEO of Editorially, advocates for “overcommunication” to avoid confusion. A great way to ensure no lines get crossed is distributing detailed notes after meetings or recording meetings so employees can review information, she said. She advises team members to be mindful of what they say and how they say it; vocal tones don’t translate well via the written word and may foster miscommunication.

“On a remote team, opportunities for misunderstanding between teammates distributed across time and geography magnify,” she said. “The best way to avoid that terrible realization halfway through a project when one person says, ‘Wait, I thought we agreed on X?’ and the other replies, ‘No, it was Y, wasn’t it?’ is to communicate decisions and plans redundantly.”

3. Focus on results

Goal setting and accountability encourage employees to remember their overall objectives when working on daily tasks, even while remote. Goal setting also provides managers with the peace of mind of knowing what is being accomplished. As a best practice, the focus on results should be realistic and employee driven. While it is important that the employees’ goals are created following the SMART method, it is also important that their goals align with the company’s overarching goal.

4. Build trust

Managers need to be able to trust employees to complete their assigned tasks and employees need to trust their managers to be helpful and supportive throughout the process. To build trust, Harvard Business Review suggests managers ensure all members of a team have defined job goals and are equally recognized for their work. Members should take some time during daily or weekly calls or meetings to recognize the accomplishments of their team members, both personally and professionally. This provides an opportunity for co-workers and managers to recognize each team members’ contributions and build the necessary social relationships to provide scaffolding for trust.

5. Personalize interactions

While video conferencing and conference calls may be an effective daily communication tool, these methods of communication do not beat direct, in-person gatherings. When in-person meetings include both in-office and remote staff, they can build stronger communications among team members, help new hires, boost morale, and advance the generation of new ideas. So, offering an annual in-person gathering is essential to developing the relationships between team members and leadership.

6. Create local leadership

Larger companies in particular, with branch offices worldwide and remote workers scattered across the seven continents, must create a hierarchy of leadership that focuses on the local level. Deborah Liu, Facebook’s head of platform and marketplace, said local leadership provides insight into the challenges faced by distributed teams.

“You don’t want them to feel like they have less opportunity and less growth,” Liu said of remote workers. “Having a local leadership team creates a strong foundation in which you can build a strong office in the long-term.”

7. Encourage structure

Host regularly scheduled check-in meetings to ensure everyone is working toward the same goal. Below are four key elements necessary to ensure meetings with distributed team members are structured for productivity:
• A single facilitator who can direct conversations
• A working agenda with copies distributed among all participants
• Effective use of video-conferencing tools (such as or
• Time for comments and questions

8. Use up-to-date technology

Distributed employees must have reliable computers and Internet connections to perform work tasks. Today’s professionals are steering away from desktop computers to laptops, tablets, and even smartphones. At the same time, a solid communication tool – such as Slack or Azendoo – is a perfect usage of technology for real-time notifications.

9. Employ set schedules

In a world where the lines between working hours and personal time have become blurred, managers have to ensure that remote employees keep to set schedules to avoid violating federal overtime laws. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) generally requires employers to pay non-exempt employees at an overtime rate of time and a half.

10. Provide incentives

Companies that have successfully expanded their workforce to distributed teams offer their employees support and incentives for success, including:

• A remote working allowance or stipend for employees to create their own home-office space or direct reimbursement for internet, mobile data, and cell phone plans.
• Staff development opportunities that are not reserved for in-office workers, including opportunities for conference attendance and other learning experiences.
• Frequent feedback that allows remote employees to celebrate their talents.

As the trend toward distributed workforces grow, managers and leaders must be able to incorporate traditional business acumen with modern innovation. Studies show remote employees are better workers because they are less stressed and are able to better focus on work. Global Workplace Analytics also found employees are happier when they have the flexibility to work remotely because they feel more empowered. “People are sick of the rat race, eager to take control of their lives, and desperate to find a balance between work and life,” Global Workplace Analytics found.

Further, employers have found that allowing telecommuting reduces attrition because employees are happier, which ultimately helps their bottom line.


With courses delivered from an executive’s point of view, Executive MBA online students at Washington State University study the advanced practices and principles that guide today’s most successful business leaders. The program also provides opportunities to expand your professional network. For more information, visit WSU’s online EMBA degree website.

Recommended Reading:


Australian Broadcast Company —

Editorially —

Business News Daily —

Forbes —

Harvard Business Review — —

Hubstaff —

U.S. Department of Labor —

Global Workplace Analytics —

Golden Rules of Goal Setting —