Top 10 Strategies For Leading Distributed Teams

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Man leading team video call

Organizations are operating in a future that was once thought to be science fiction. Since computers and other telecommunication technologies became ubiquitous in both professional and home environments, remote work is now a reality. 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. Let’s explore more about what this means in context to current working conditions, including distributed teams.

Distributed Teams vs. Remote Employees

Remote and distributed are often used interchangeably to describe employees of one organization operating in many different locations. However, these terms do mean slightly different things.

According to Lisa Stienmann in a piece for Microsoft, working remotely is a term open to interpretation, and its meaning varies from company to company. Typically, it refers to individual employees who likely work at the same central location but are operating from home on a part-time or full-time basis. If they need to collaborate, meeting in an open office is a possibility. In this sense, remote employees operate as individual satellites, but are tied to a singular location.

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 telecommunication tools. Essentially, the phrase “distributed teams” 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 would be a remote employee, but not every remote worker is part of a distributed team. This essential distinction is important for understanding the unique challenges and opportunities that leading a distributed workforce brings.

Challenges of Managing Remote Teams

In a survey conducted by Buffer, the marketing company found that 31% of teams operate fully remotely. Even more (40%) report having hybrid teams in which some members work full-time remote while others are in the same office.

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 boundaries, these teams bring together employees with different experiences and expertise. Furthermore, businesses have more access to global clients, can see increased employee productivity, and create a diverse team.

Of course, leading a distributed team comes with plenty of unique challenges. Employees must be accountable for their individual work along with collaboration efforts. Leaders must be an example of this behavior and foster a cooperative environment. Similarly, they must ensure all team members have the hardware and software they need to connect.

The right strategies can help you overcome some of these common leadership challenges and ensure your distributed company is operating to 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. Take care when choosing your team

Not every applicant is well-suited for remote working. In an article for Forbes, dataPlor CEO Geoffrey Michener explained that the hiring process “requires a delicate balance of experience and cultural fit.” Not only should the team members you hire be a fit for the position, they must also show enthusiasm for the businesses and remote collaboration.

As this is the first step to creating your distributed team, ensure you’re basing your decision on a mix of personal interviews, skill assessments, and communications tests. This will give insight into the employee as an individual and, more importantly, how they will collaborate with a remote team.

  1. Communicate consistently

Employees and project managers likely 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 afterwards. These materials will ensure the entire team is receiving the same information.

  1. Set goals

Employees who are part of a remote team must be accountable for their own productivity as well as 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.

  1. Utilize modern technology

It may come as no surprise that during this past March, business conferencing apps experienced record growth. According to TechCrunch, audio and video applications had 62 million downloads during the week of March 14-21, up 90% from the weekly average in 2019.

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 communication applications that are mobile-friendly, like Slack. 

  1. Encourage collaboration to build 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. 

  1. Keep a personal touch

While video conferences, emails, and chat dialogues are great ways to communicate throughout the day, they don’t provide the same personal touch of 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 distributed 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. 

  1. Empower local leaders

As the manager of your distributed team, you know that your employees are located 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 their 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.

  1. Create 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. 

  1. Offer time to connect

According to Harvard Business Review, successful remote managers have daily calls with their team. 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.

  1. Have incentives

Contributing to the success of a distributed team also means offering support and incentives. Remote workers are often seeking perks and benefits like office personnel, 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 could help them in their day to day.

Honing Your Remote Leadership with an Online Executive MBA

WSU’s Executive MBA Online program helps students become leaders in the digital world. As distributed teams become more common, having unique skills and strategies to manage them will be of the utmost importance. The EMBA program also provides students with opportunities to expand their professional network to help them become a successful business leader. For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online degree page.


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



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WSU I Carson College of Business – Perks of Online Education

WSU I Carson College of Business – Work and Learn from Home Successfully with These 4 Tips

WSU I Carson College of Business – 4 Ways an EMBA Can Help Improve Your Leadership Skills

How Distributed Teams Can Help Your Business by Microsoft

Five Tips For Leading a Distributed Team by Forbes

State of Remote Work 2019 Report by Buffer

A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Worker by the Harvard Business Review

Videoconferencing Apps Saw a Record 62M Downloads During One Week in March by TechCrunch