The first person I ever managed was located in a different office. I was in London, she was in Maidenhead. We both became very familiar with the M4.
Many years on, I've led a team where just one person out of 16 worked remotely, a team wholly based in America while I was in London, and a boss a hop, skip and a nine hour flight away.
Love it or hate it, distributed is the way the workforce is heading, especially within digital.
So here are my seven simple steps for creating an engaged and effective distributed team.
1. Understand the distribution and your people
Plot out where people are. If the team’s geographically dispersed but still within a time-zone range of up to three hours that’s going to lead you down a different path to the one you’ll take if you’re managing a group of people who are dotted right around the globe.
Similarly, understanding what type of leadership and communication style your team members will respond to best means you can adapt your approach accordingly. Personality tests can help determine this but it’s always worth trying the free and easy way: ask.
Ask how they prefer to be managed and what they need from you. One of the last people I hired requested 30 minute phone calls every day for the first few weeks of being in the job. These short but regular chats meant we built a good relationship and could work through each day’s questions and scenarios together. It was simple but extremely effective.
Developing trust and a rapport is paramount. Asking for - and truly listening to and acting on - feedback is a great first step on the path to a good working relationship.
You might not be able to fulfill everyone’s requests but once you’ve heard them you can start the dialogue about how you make it work, for you and for them.
2. Commit to communicate
However you agree to work, keeping the lines of direct communication open is critical.
Whether it’s a 30 minute one-to-one call or office hours when everyone knows they can reach you, be sure to stick to and make full use of this time to really connect with your team.
3. Make your expectations clear
Does each of your team members know:
- What their goals are?
- How you’re measuring their performance?
- How, what and when you want them to communicate to you?
- Which decisions they can make, and which they need to bring to you?
- Your business etiquette expectations?
And are they demonstrating this via their actions and behaviour?
If you can answer yes to all of these questions, make yourself a celebratory cup of tea. If not, have that cup of tea anyway while you think about what needs to change and how you can achieve it through dialogue, support or incentives.
4. Tool up
Once you’re clear on the distribution and preferred ways of working it’s a matter of matching the tools to the job.
For teams in similar time zones video-conferencing, Hangouts, virtual whiteboards and IM are all great tools for collaborating.
The same can apply to teams working across broader geographies – there are just fewer windows of opportunity. This means more planning and discipline. If you can only get the whole team on the same call once a week, be clear on what you want to achieve, have an agenda and stick to it.
I’ve always found tools that allow multiple users to edit and track documents, like Google Drive, to be invaluable to remote working, and if I ever need to collect opinions from colleagues in numerous locations I’ll typically turn to SurveyMonkey. I love join.me for instant screen sharing, and a private Facebook group is a great way of creating a virtual community.
And there is, of course, always email. The communication tool we all love to hate. Use email wisely. If you can’t say what you need to in five sentences or less, pick up the phone (unless you need a paper trail).
If the topic is even remotely contentious, pick up the phone. And remember – the more email you send, the more email you’ll receive.
5. Lead by example
Every leader casts a shadow that influences the culture and behaviour of their team, even if that team doesn’t sit in the same office. Those etiquette expectations you’ve communicated clearly… you’ll witness them more if you’re living and breathing them too.
Good leadership principles remain important regardless of where people are located.
6. Make it fun
Distance is no barrier to telling stories, sharing a laugh and bonding as a group, all of which will engage your team. There are countless ways to facilitate this and some that I’ve seen work well are:
- Guess the baby photo – everyone anonymously submits a photo of themselves as a baby and people have to guess who’s who.
- 'Get to know…' Q&As – team members take it in turn to answer a standard list of questions that are emailed regularly to the group.
- Creative challenges – everyone is tasked with making something and submitting a photo or video.
Activities like these can seem a bit fluffy, but if you find the right ones that match the passions and personalities in your team they can be really powerful. Prizes, even small ones, raise the stakes. Make sure you take cultural and religious values into account.
If you’re not sure what might work, try delegating. There’s usually at least one person in every team who excels at organising the fun stuff. Sometimes just setting the right tone can be enough to encourage ideas.
7. When it matters, meet
Even with the right organisation, tools, and commitment to virtual working, in some scenarios there’s no substitute to being face-to-face.
Forming new teams or guiding existing groups through strategic or organisational change is far more effectively achieved if everyone’s in the same room. A new hire will be able to hit the ground running much more quickly if they can spend their first week working alongside the colleagues they need to collaborate with most.
Find the budget for these occasions when it really matters to meet.