How to effectively manage a distributed team
These days it’s common place to have a distributed or decentralised team, made up of people working from many different locations around the country and even around the world.
This is true of the Yellow Door team. Although our main office is situated in the heart of Cape Town, we have team members and partners based in Stellenbosch, Clanwilliam, Knysna, Harare and London.
We have chosen a distributed team as we believe we have created a stronger team by hiring and collaborating with the best people - regardless of location. That said, it most definitely has its challenges and we have had to be intentional about overcoming them, and making it work for everyone involved - including our wide client base that also expands over provincial and international borders!
Here are a few tips that could be of use:
1) Stay clear of information silos
It’s natural for team members who work in the same office to share information more easily. They attend meetings in person and often work across from each other - hence they know what is happening almost all the time.
However, if you’re not very deliberate and strategic in making sure the bigger team is always kept up to speed, information silos can form. What becomes common knowledge in one location, might not even reach other locations or individuals. This can lead to confusion and frustration on large projects that include the greater team.
We’ve worked hard to counter these ‘information imbalances’ through the use of Google Drive, and putting weekly rhythms in place to make sure everyone is up to speed with the latest developments of each project or client.
2) Avoid inbox overload
As not all team members are in the same office to simply pop over and ask a question, the temptation is to revert to writing a ‘quick email’. These however, fast accumulate, and lead to overloaded inboxes!
To save the time that goes into responding to each of these ‘quick emails’, we’ve moved over to a communication app called Slack. Each of our services has a dedicated channel and it allows for quick and efficient correspondence, which also centralises all information. It also kills the ‘I’m sure I sent it to you’ elephant in the room.
Although you address a specific person, all team members see the communication and account managers are ‘CCed’. This has made a big difference in preventing information silos.
All task allocations are also made through the task management system Asana. Once completed, the person responsible simply clicks ‘task completed’ and the manager is notified without any manual, time consuming communication.
3) Leverage the power of face-to-face and telephone communication
Communicating via email and online communication apps like Slack, Trello, Evernote etc. is the primary way distributed teams liaise every day. However, as casual ‘water cooler’ or ‘corridor moments’ aren’t a possibility, it’s important to pick up the phone or plan for face-to-face team moments every now and again.
This is a human, more emotive element to relationships, which builds trust and creates the opportunity to iron out any misunderstandings or misperceptions.
We make this work through scheduling weekly phone or Skype calls, and planning workshops and in-person gatherings at least once a year. (Read up on the most recent workshop which Emma and I ran in Knysna)
4) Respect work hours, time zones and availability
Working across international time zones and different work capacities can be a challenge for even the most organised team manager. It requires a lot more forward planning, anticipation of possible problems and curve-balls, and making sure lead-times are realistic and achievable.
Post everyone’s availability, time zones and daily ‘office hours’ in a central place for easy reference.
We also make use of a time tracking app, called Tickspot, which monitors time spent one each project and client. This is especially helpful for those team members who have very limited hours per month.
5) Build a team of ONE
Make sure that it never becomes ‘them’ and ‘us’. Ensure that unity and a sense of being part of one core family is at the heart of your team’s culture and values.
Regularly create the opportunity for team members to give feedback both formally and informally in order to pinpoint any pressure areas. Also clarify each team member's responsibilities and expectations in relation to other team members, as this goes a long way in preventing misunderstandings.
6) In it to win
Keep the goal of ‘winning’ as the core, unifying focus of the entire team and always clarify ‘the win’ for each project.
Each person should aim to ‘win’ personally, by developing their skill set and delivering excellent service. The team should aim to ‘win’ collectively by providing a top-class end product or campaign, and the client must ‘win’ by seeing real results following the implementation of our work.
This central purpose keeps the distributed team connected and unified, especially on complex, long-term projects.
In summary, working in a multi-site or distributed team is fast becoming the norm, and as technology advances, it most definitely becomes easier. However, managers and business leaders will always have to be intentional about the relational dynamic and keeping a team unified in more ways than their email signature. Perhaps the question should not be ‘How do I manage these challenges?’, but rather ‘How can I maximise the opportunities and benefits of working in a decentralised set-up?’.
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