How to Lead a Distributed Team

The 3 Most Important Aspects

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Building a distributed team is a powerful move by all means. With all the tech tools and apps at your disposal, you’re able to secure around-the-clock access. Distributed teams come in all sizes and shapes and sit everywhere, so by default they bring on board the heterogeneity, flexibility and cultural diversity that can make them an ultimate source of innovation. But in order to bring out all these positive moments, you need to lead your team wisely.

Unimpeded communication

Remember the story about Robinson Crusoe, who spent 28 years surviving on a deserted island, completely unaware of what’s going on in the world? Well, that’s exactly how your team will feel if you fail to establish a smooth flow of information. So use all the Slacks, Trellos, Skypes, Google Hangouts and whatever communication tool you can think of to keep everyone connected.

There is not a single case of a successful distributed team, which doesn’t include proper communication. Take, for instance, Automattic—the distributed team that created WordPress.com. Their founder, Matt Mullenweg, likes to repeat these words: “I will communicate as much as possible because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.” And as his team lives by this wisdom, they seem to be doing quite well.

Another example—social media company Buffer. They’ve noticed that emails or Skype messages can easily get lost in the pile of day-to-day correspondence. So they decided to implement a policy of over-communication. Every team member keeps in mind to communicate clearly and not to hesitate to repeat twice because it’s better to over-communicate than to turn into Mr. Crusoe.

Distance is a trust killer

When talking face-to-face with our pals, we might not realize what a blessing this is. Not only because we can talk without requiring the fruits of technological progress, but because we subconsciously rely on non-verbal communication to build tighter bonds within a team. Whether it’s the genuine smile of a colleague, the confident behavior of a boss or the calm gestures of a partner—they are all important for nurturing trustful relations.

Working in a distributed team you might receive none of these clues. Whenever you see a “No video” sign during a Skype meeting, your inner distrust radar starts towering suspicions around that unknown person behind the screen. This is when a distributed team starts to fall apart at the seams.

There is a good Italian proverb “far from your eyes, far from your heart”. Indeed, distance is a serious obstacle for a trustful atmosphere within a company and sometimes turning Skype video on is all you need to survive.

A good example of trustful long-distance relations is demonstrated by Zapier, the company that builds software tools for connecting different apps. They are true experts in distributed team building, they even have a textbook guide on it. They say “we build trust by sharing status updates each Friday to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on; we also hold face-to-face informal meetings and have fun together”. Sounds like a good example to learn from.

Every team member is equally valuable

Treating people equally should become a cornerstone of your distributed team. It’s easy to see how vulnerable and demotivated distributed teams might feel if they notice some privileges in your attitude towards in-house employees. Your main priority as a leader should be to nurture healthy working relationships, based on equality, trust, and mutual respect.

Don’t let your team feel that they are missing something while not being physically present in the office. Here are three things that can serve as a fundament for equal, trustful relations:

  • Appreciate your team’s work, listen to them carefully and react fairly.
  • Bear in mind time differences when scheduling meetings, don’t hesitate to let your distributed team get the better time of day.
  • Let them know that you’re concerned with their issues and defend their position on a higher level

Our experience in building long-distance working relationships have taught us an important lesson—a distributed team is a litmus test of your management skills. Being a good leader means being able to handle both in-house and distributed teams of developers, illustrators, nurses or literally anyone. If you have a problem with your distributed team, endeavor to concentrate your efforts on those three important words—communication, trust, and equality—and then sit back and watch them blossom.

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