Managing distributed teams – the founder’s guide

Distributed team management

Table of Contents

In this blog post, we are going to talk about common challenges of distributed teams and how to manage your team the right way.

Nowadays, thanks to all the great technologies we have built, many founders worldwide are hiring talents for their startups and “freshly” founded businesses in other countries or even in other continents. 

The access to the many talents on the other side of the planet is not the only one advantage, which this operation model has to offer us. Let’s have a look at what a distributed team actually means.

What are distributed teams?

Distributed team means a team operating in different locations without any office.

It is a very similar model to the remote or hybrid teams, but the key difference is that businesses with distributed teams don’t have any headquarter or stable location. 

Simply explained: they all work from around the world.

A typical type of business operating as distributed teams are online services, so-called agencies. Furthermore, there are many other types of companies, like software and SaaS, media and ecommerce businesses they are running fully distributed. 

There has been a clear trend since 10 years ago, which shows us a big move in this direction. And this trend is here to stay. 

By 2028, 73 percent of all departments will have remote workers shows and study from the freelancer platform Upwork. 

Sure, this study is more focused on remote workers, but it shows us how many companies and managers are willing to hire and build teams across the world without the need to have them in the office.

There are many benefits and of course some disadvantages when operating as a distributed team, let’s have a look at some of the most important. 

What are the benefits of distributed teams?

Costs

There are two main factors which affect the balance sheet when operating as a distributed team: office and salaries

No need for office. As a distributed team, business owners don’t need to spend money on expensive offices and infrastructure to provide their teams a nice place to work.

Some companies applying this model offer their employee’s compensation for the office, so they can rent some workplace in their hometown or go to a coowork to get out of their living rooms and be more productive. 

But still these costs can not compete with the high rent prices for offices in the city. 

Secondly, the salaries might be up to 40% less than salaries in your country, depending on where you are. 

A good developer in US, England or Germany might cost somewhere between 60 – $90/hour, where when companies hire developers on the same level in Asia, there is an $30/hour difference, simply because the living costs are much lower. 

Additionally, businesses can save some money in case they need 24/7 support, while a globally distributed team does not require hiring someone for the “standby”, as there is always someone available in the other timezone. 

Happier employees

Better work-life balance is something many employees are focussing on when looking for a new job. 

A good work-life balance can reduce employee turnover by 25 %, which is a great number. 

According to the statistics are time-, work flexibility and no need to commute to the office every day the biggest benefits for remote workers.

Remote work benefits statistic.

Source: Statista – What’s the biggest benefit you see to working remotely?

Better talent possibilities

One of the biggest benefits this model offer businesses today is the access to the huge talent network

An enormous flexibility and access to a global network and thousands of talented, enthusiastic people.

With platforms like Upwork and fiverr, businesses today have perfect opportunities to build a distributed team or remote team much faster than ever before

Productivity

The time we chose to work, the place and the privacy often lead to a boost of productivity. 

This allows us to focus better on what is important, while we choose the place and time which is more convenient for us. 

Follow the sun

The 24 hours schedule is what we call “follow the sun model. This advantage belongs under productivity, but it deserves its own place in this post as it is so unique.

When a business operates as a distributed team, they are able to work on a project constantly, as their team is (mostly) in every location and the time-zones allows them to work on the project persistently.

What are the challenges of distributed teams?

Control

Some founders and managers have had bad experiences with this model. Managing a team in different locations and different time-zones can be sometimes very difficult. 

The distance, no personal contact and bad visibility can unsettle the leader of the team. If you don’t implement the right tactics, you can lose the control very fast. 

Fortunately, there are many great tools and practices which help us to overcome this challenge pretty easy. We will talk about how to master this challenge in the next section. 

Communication

In globally distributed teams, communication might be a big issue.

A bigger team working on the same project in widely different timezones is facing difficulties with getting instant answers because team members on the other side of the globe are already gone. 

Furthermore, distributed remote or hybrid teams tend to neglecting or are practicing ineffectual team communication. 

Disconnection

In opposite to the on-site office culture where all team members meet each other every day, team members in distributed teams don’t see each other for a long while – or even worse – never.  

No coffee- or afterwork-talks comes here in place. 

And when the team  does not implement the right meeting culture or a team building activities, they often feel disconnected from their team. 

Bad team alignment

Caused by insufficient and ineffective communication culture in the team, alignment of the team start to be affected. 

The team is not synchronized and people are not working on the same goal or mission. 

Cultural Differences

Globally distributed teams are consisting of talents from different countries and so different cultures. 

The behavioral differences are often misunderstood and the teammates on the other part of the globe don’t understand the way we speak and express our self. 

Not only cultural, but also political, economical and language differences might affect the ability of distributed teams to collaborate. 

Distributed teams management

To effectively manage distributed teams requires some practices. While some of the best management practices might not work in such  a team, the core of the management stays the same. 

Let’s have a look at how to build the right team. 

Build your distributed team

Find talents for your team

As already mentioned, there are two main platforms used to find, recruit and hire talents for your team: upwork and fiverr.

While fiverr offer a “ready to use” predefined freelance services like one-off jobs and gigs, upwork provide you the option to search for talents which are interested in longer cooperation

Both are great resources to find talented people from anywhere in any price segment.

They have different search filters, which helps managers, business owners and recruiters to “nail down” their search queries and find the exact match much faster.

The best function in our opinion are the references or so-called “reviews” or “job-succes score”. Based on that you can find talent which have already proved experiences in particular area.

What we would recommend is to read those ratings carefully before decide.

People often write “to shiny” feedbacks for very short cooperation, which might cause that the person you try to hire is not so experienced as you would expect based on the feedback. 

Additionally, you can filter them by amount earned, which is very helpful if you are looking for talents with a longer tracking record. 

LinkedIn is also one of the most famous platforms to find talents for distributed teams.

There are many workers interested to join an international, dynamic startup or an agency at scale. 

It also provides you different filters and search options based on location, keyword, experience, industry and so on. Some talents even present themselves as “open for new position”. 

Additionally, you can open a job post and screen the talents which applies to it. 

Our experiences show that many talents today tend to be highly interested to join company from other country, as this is very valuable experience, and it can boost their portfolio or cv. 

Interviewing

Interviewing candidates online is sometimes difficult. Mostly when it comes to people on the other part of the globe, it is difficult to find convenient time for both. 

We advise setting up at least 2 interviews before hiring. This helps you to understand and know the candidate much better, and it also shows the seriousness of his interest.

Onboarding

In contrast to the teams with a stable office – hq – the onboarding of people in distributed teams requires better quality

Newcomers in the office profit from instant answers they get from their teammates.

That’s something that newcomers in a distributed team might miss, and they need much more time to get in.

Therefore, a well written onboarding process with proper preparation and clear plan for the newcomer are essential to get your talent to perform as soon as possible. 

It also improves the company culture as they see that you are taking care of them from the beginning.

So you drive your new talents the right way and nurture them to do the same thing for the next new talent. 

Later in this post, we are describing the importance of goals.

But in this place we need to note, that clear goals or OKR’s should be defined from the beginning.

Lead effective team meetings

The right meeting structure and schedule is essential here for success.

Distributed teams rely on proper communication, intensity of the updates and collaboration in order to perform. 

Daily standups, weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings through to spontaneous meetings and brainstorming sessions, all that must be clearly structured and documented with clear expectations. 

Ignoring the power of well-structured and prepared meetings can affect the performance of the team.

Each manager has to make sure his team is perfectly aligned, updated and motivates them to take part in the meeting. 

Some proven ways to build the right meeting culture are:

  • Set a clear agenda for each meeting and follow it
  • Always at the time
  • Stay on the topic
  • Use scorecard to keep your progress visible for each team member
  • Stick to the schedule 
  • In bigger teams – define clear roles in the meeting 
  • Set clear outcomes for each kind of meeting 
  • Come prepared and teach everyone to prepare himself too
  • Choose the right tool
  • Ask your team to use camera

One-on-one meetings should be definitely on a weekly or at least on biweekly agenda of every successful manager of distributed teams. 

As we don’t interact with our team on the same level as in the office, we should try to get closer to our team by scheduling personal meetings to know what challenges they are facing, what expectations they have and set clear goals for the next period. 

Improve team communication

Fortunately, nowadays, we are equipped with so many great tools to work on professional communication even from distance. 

But the main challenge comes to our personality. Good managers of distributed teams are perfect at mastering communication through communication tools

When it comes to making sure your distributed team is aligned, you have to over communicate sometimes.

This will overcome the disadvantage of non office culture and avoid that people are not up-to-date or misunderstanding issues

Effective communication can be learned and trained. The communication style has to align with the kind of team you are speaking to. 

When you talk to tam of developers, you might use a different style as when you speak with your sales team. 

But not only the founders and leaders have to be trained how to communicate. The whole team has to be empowered to communicate. 

The goal here is to avoid the mistakes caused by “lazy communication tendency” or minimalists in the team. Some members might try to avoid being asked. 

A good leader knows who those low level communicators are and teaches them how to overcome this bias. And here the one-on-one meeting can be a powerful tool to uncover such a behavior. 

Remember, all those valuable inputs, your team benefits from when working directly from the office, are not present here. And your mission is to connect not only with your team, but also get your team members “closer to each other”.

Removing barriers

With bad visibility comes the challenge of not being aware of what barriers your team is facing.

And sometimes those barriers that are holding your team from making progress, can be solved with extremely low efforts, when the right person takes care of them. 

This is the mission of every professional manager of distributed teams.

Knowing where they are, prioritize between them and solve them as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Motivate your team speaking about their blockers. Add them to your meeting agenda wheter and you will see how often they will solve them between each other. 

Vision, mission and goals

Transparency by managing distributed teams is the key to success.

More than in any other team structure, while working from distance your team should have access to the company mission and mission and definitely to their goals you have defined.  

And therefore teams have to work on perfect visibility of their goals – weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly – whatever makes more sense for specific teams. 

Why the company is doing what it is doing, what is the mission of the product or service.

All that must be clear, visible, and accessible for every team member in every distributed team. 

Everyone should have access to it, and occasionally it should be communicated and reminded. Ideally, it should be on the background or header of your knowledge base. 

Tool-stack

The right tool stack is what makes it possible. 

Choose the right tools for your team, depends on the size and complexity of the business:

  • Chat communication tool
  • Video conferencing
  • Task management
  • Storage for the data
  • Time tracking tool
  • Knowledge base tool

 Some visuals collaborative tools like miro or figmajam can be very helpful while working in different time zones. Your team can brainstorm and collaborate actively on new ideas without being on the call at the same time.   

Learn to trust

With low level visibility, the trust in your team can decrease.

This is also one of the common issues many founders and managers of distributed teams are facing.

When you hire the right people, you have to learn to trust them.

It is hard, specially when it comes to bigger achievements and long-term goals where you don’t see the results immediately, but as a good leaders have to find balance between full control and trust. 

Once again, clarity helps you overcome many concerns.

Regular one-on-one meetings and clearly defined goals for each period shows you how the team is performing and if they are the right one for the position. 

Operating as distributed team, might seem quite difficult, but with the right preparation and management style and altitude, we can take a big advantage from this movement.

It can really boost employee happiness in the business and definitely reduce the costs. 

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