How to lead a distributed team

4 tips on what to do when your team is suddenly split across two or more locations

With the advent of video conferencing and chat, the world of work has shifted towards being increasingly distributed. Teams work in different offices, different timezones, and different cultures. In 2018, a report from Upwork found that over two-thirds of companies had remote or distributed teammates, and it’s only grown since then.

For leaders, this shift has opened up new doors for hiring and scaling teams, but it also has brought new challenges. Most leaders have a finely tuned skill set for sensing how their team is feeling and identifying who is stuck or needs help, but those skills often rely on seeing people face-to-face. These moments aren’t always possible as you shift to a more distributed environment.

At Range, we work with many remote and distributed teams, and we’ve learned a few principles for leading teams well. Here are a few of those lessons.

1. If it can be done async, do it async

When you can rely on in-person meetings, it can be easy to default to using meetings to discuss many types of information. But meetings require everyone to be available at the same time, and they’re expensive—interrupting flow time and requiring multiple people to spend the same amount of time on one topic.

For some types of discussions, meetings are important. Video or in-person communication allows for nuanced communication and diving into disagreement that is hard over Slack or email.

But many things don’t need to be done in person. Rote status updates are a good example: unless an update informs a key decision, sharing an update can be done via email or another tool as well (and usually better) than it can be done in person. Standups are a great example.

When trying to evaluate what communication can be removed from meetings, consider whether an item is typically a one-way communication (e.g. reporting on status or a metric) or a two-way conversation (e.g., discussing what to do next). One-way and simple two-way communications are great for async or not at the same time. More complex two-way communications like one-on-ones, team decision-making, etc. are better reserved for live communication.

2. Write down team processes

The best remote teams are fanatical about writing things down. This dogma includes writing down meeting notes, key decisions, project plans, and even processes.

With distributed teams, you can’t always ask someone a question right when you need it, so having a resource that answers common questions is paramount, and make it easy to find! Otherwise, work slows down because folks are waiting for someone in another location to get back from lunch or to start their workday.

And don’t forget to make things discoverable, a good folder hierarchy will go a long way to empowering teammates to find documents and to add new ones.

Another note is to make it easy for folks to make decisions once they do have the right information. Establishing (and writing down) a decision-making process like this one from Coinbase can help.

3. Make connecting with one another a habit

Team lunches and hallway chit-chat make building team culture in person relatively straightforward. Without those frequent interactions, it’s easy for teams to find themselves only talking about work during video calls or on email threads.

To make space for team bonding, you need to make connecting habit. That way it happens often and without too much thinking. One option, that several teams we work with use, is to schedule a recurring weekly or bi-weekly meeting that’s just social time, no work discussion. Some teams do a morning breakfast call, some a happy hour chat, and others call in for a shared lunch. Regardless, the goal is to get folks talking about their lives, not just that next project.

Another option is to incorporate emotional connection and psychological safety into your work updates. Standup is a great time for this. Ask each other a team question and check in with how folks are feeling. (Psst: Our team built a free tool with over 200 icebreaker questions that help you build vulnerability over time. Check it out! 🙌)

4. Listen and iterate

Creating a process that works for your team is going to be an ongoing effort. Communicate with your team that you’re trying something out, ask them for feedback, and adjust.

Scaling, adding more locations, or changing work focus can all impact what the right process should be for you right now. Listen to the team and sense when you need to make a change.

Distributed teams are powerful when they’re effective, so learning how to evolve and improve your process will pay dividends over time.

We’d love to hear your ideas and tips for distributed teams on Twitter at @rangelabs.

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