Published December 09th, 2016 by

6 Tips for Successful Working in Distributed Teams


Working as part of a distributed team can be hugely positive – it can provide employers with the opportunity to hire talented staff who they might not ordinarily have access to, and for team members it can provide a flexible working framework in which to both work from home, and flourish.

However, distributed working can of course also have its downsides – without a clear idea of who is accountable for what, and how that plays into the bigger success picture, productivity and collaboration can be held up, while communication breakdowns can lead to team tensions, as opposed to the cooperation hoped for in all productive teams.

With a few simple working processes in place which enable team members to communicate well, while all having a clear idea of how individually, and together, they are working towards the broader company aims, teams can make distributed working a great success.

1. Encourage conversation

When working together in an office, between focused working periods teams are ordinarily able to indulge in non-work-related conversation. This of course helps with team bonding but it also helps teams to understand how each other works and the nuances of how people talk – for example if you know that someone can be quite stoic on a Monday morning, but is friendly as soon as they’ve had their first cup of coffee, you’d be less likely to be offended if you received a curt message about a piece of work first thing. If you were working remotely on the other hand, and perhaps received the message just before logging off, due to a time difference, you might be quite upset or worried by the interaction.

For this reason, using tools like Slack which enable team members to create team chats or ‘random’ channels, where team members are able to post things unrelated to work, allows teams to build up a rapport, or discover each other’s chatty side (or perhaps find out the times at which they’re feeling less chatty) regardless of whether they’re based in the same office or across the world.

2. Be mindful of time

There will be a number of downsides to working in a distributed team which you should always discuss with potential remote hires during the recruitment process. That way, they’re able to make an informed decision about whether the role is truly a good fit for them before starting. One of these main downsides can be the time difference.

If you have a significant time difference, employees can wake up daily to a phone full of notifications and an inbox full of emails, plus the equivalent number of emails again, updating them on how, since the last email was sent, the situation has changed. Similarly, working remotely can result in conference calling at some fairly anti-social hours. This can mean the remote worker staying up late one night or waking up earlier another morning. It’s important to ensure you have these video calls to schedule in some face-to-face communication (we use Google Hangouts for this), but the requirement of potentially needing to be ready for calls at inconvenient times should be mentioned within the recruitment process, to prepare staff.

In order to off-set the disadvantages of a time difference, suggest to distributed team members that they adjust their notification settings to be ‘away’ overnight, so they’re not awoken by miscellaneous chat messages on Slack. Equally, try to alternate on conference call times, by also offering occasionally to get up early or stay later to make a video call. This way it’s not always the remote worker who is having to join at an inconvenient time and they’ll be more eager (and awake) to communicate with you.

Finally, it’s important to formalize ways in which colleagues are allowed to contact remote workers in other time zones, for example by establishing in which situations a call outside of their normal hours would be warranted. These procedures should then also be shared during the recruitment process, so distributed workers are aware of what would be expected from them within the role.

3. Create transparent workflows

Having transparent workflows, enables well functioning, creative and loyal teams.

It’s been found that by aiming to create a transparent and authentic working environment, by developing a feeling of mutual respect between employers and employees, companies can help to create a working environment where employees feel valued and safe within their positions. Subsequently, team members are more likely to contribute creative ideas and offer useful feedback on how the company could improve, without feeling like they’re running the risk of losing their job for being honest.

In a remote working environment, this transparency is particularly important as by actively consulting team members on working processes and decisions, team members who are not located in HQ will feel far more in the loop with company strategy and direction. Buffer, for example, whose staff are located remotely, advocate for fully transparent emails, to truly achieve an open working environment while working as part of a distributed team.

By providing distributed team members with a clear overview of team projects and progression, they’ll have a strong idea of the overall goals and the role they themselves play in achieving these targets, providing direction and encouraging accountability. Our team achieve this at MeisterTask by using the Statistics & Reports features, where all team members can keep tabs on project progression, what’s coming up and where bottle-necks are being created, so whether team members are based in our head office or remotely, they can jump in to help where needed, or see what’s coming up for them and their team.

4. Avoid team siphoning

Another tool our team find hugely useful for keeping in touch with remote team members, as well as team members located in our own office, is our morning ‘Stand Up’ meeting on Slack.

As part of our ‘Stand Up’ meeting, we each begin our morning by sharing what we’ll be working on that day, whatever time that might be, whether it’s a member of the marketing team in our Vienna office or our VP for Business Development in San Francisco. The Stand Up channel is not only a nice way to catch up with our team members but also helps to prevent siphoning between different teams, as we have an overview of what other departments are working on and can step in to offer help if another colleague mentions something we think we can assist with.

Similarly, the Stand Up meeting provides team leaders with a good idea about what everyone will be focusing on, so if your team is working remotely you can jump in to offer support to your distributed team member, where you think you could help, or follow up with them on how the tasks and aims they mentioned in their Stand Up update went.

5. Support your employee’s professional development

Despite potentially being located on the other side of the world, your team member will likely still appreciate your support and feedback, so they can not only do a good job but also continue to progress professionally.

If you’re happy with how your staff is progressing, it can sometimes seem unnecessary to provide feedback and suggestions for how your team member can improve. However, even top performers should not be overlooked when it comes to providing feedback. Senior Vice President at software company Bullhorn, Kim Castelda, explains that she’s “rarely met someone who didn’t want to be successful, and giving feedback is an essential part of that.”

To provide your team member with the tools to grow, ensure you fit in regular opportunities to provide feedback. Once you’ve found an efficient way to schedule video calls, despite a potential time difference, having these regular slots will also provide you with an opportunity to raise any concerns or wishes for improvement, before the issues develop into anything unmanageable.

6. Organize a staff retreat

Finally, despite being located physically apart, you should find ways to treat your staff (and if you can treat them all together, even better!)

An experiment from Dan Ariely found that employees working in a semiconductor factory were most incentivized to work harder, when offered free pizza. Now, of course that is difficult when you’re not all located in one factory (or office) so try thinking of other small incentives, such as perhaps gift vouchers to local cultural or music events, or restaurant vouchers for your team member and their family.

Ideally you’d be able to organise an opportunity for all team members to get together in one place, at least once a year. This could be an annual Christmas or Summer party, or perhaps a company retreat. Last year Buffer shared that they spent $111,874 on enabling their distributed team to meet face to face.

Joel Gascoigne, Buffer’s founder and CEO, explains that “once you return home, the conversations you have with team members are enhanced. You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently… and this is why we’ve found retreats to be not only a fun part part of our culture, but an absolute necessity.”

So those are our 6 tips for effective working in distributed teams. Of course every organization is different, so it would be great to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Olivia Jardine

Olivia Jardine

Communications Manager at MeisterLabs
Olivia manages content and communications at MeisterLabs, the team behind task management tool, MeisterTask and online mind mapping tool, MindMeister. Writing on all things productivity, creativity and collaboration, Olivia has a particular interest in what enables successful teams to work well, together.
Olivia Jardine

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