Managing a Geographically Dispersed Team

Achieving Your Goals Together, While Apart

You may never meet some of your team face-to-face.

© iStockphoto/kuzma

A long time ago – before the days of videoconferencing, intranets, and email – teams generally needed to be in the same physical location in order to work effectively.

But those days are long gone.

Now, many of us work regularly with colleagues based in different buildings, cities, countries, and even continents. Team members may be in different time zones, speak different languages, and be part of different cultures.

One team may include any variety of circumstances. Some members may work in groups of two, three, or more in the same office, while others may work individually in separate offices or at home. You may see some team members every day, but you may rarely see others – or perhaps you've never even met them!

Regardless of how people are organized, managing a team that's spread out in many locations can present huge challenges, even for the most experienced bosses. How do you ensure that everyone feels they're treated fairly, if you see some team members much more than others? How can you prevent remote team members from feeling isolated? And how do you get all members to buy into the team's objectives and stay on track?

This article will help you answer these questions, and we'll give you the specific knowledge and tools necessary to keep a dispersed team unified and motivated.

Choose the Right Team Players

When selecting people to work in a geographically dispersed team, choose individuals with the right qualities for this situation. Look for the following qualities:

  • They should be self-motivated – It's important to choose team members who have above-average self-motivation and like to work independently, rather than those who need constant encouragement and attention to get the job done.
  • They need good communication skills – There may be limited, or no, face-to-face contact, so workers should have strong communication skills. As part of this, they should be comfortable with Internet technologies, such as Skype or webcams.
  • They must be results-driven – You want workers who like to set and achieve objectives. They should be comfortable with being assessed using key performance indicators   (KPIs).
  • They should be open and honest – You can't watch over remote team members, so you have to rely on them to come to you with problems, suggestions, and other feedback. This is why it helps if you choose workers with open and straightforward personalities.

Define Your Team Purpose

With a geographically dispersed team, it's essential for members to unite around a common purpose. Everyone must agree to the team's goals.

Creating a team charter   is an excellent way to achieve this. A team charter is a "roadmap" for your team. It ensures that all workers are focused on the right thing from the start.

You can use a team charter to state your team's mission, clearly define everyone's roles and responsibilities, identify key resources, and decide how the team operates. Team charters often use the SMART   framework (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) to set goals and objectives.

Team charters can also be useful when an established team is in trouble. For example, the difficulties of working across several continents may create stress for your team, and members may lose their focus or work toward conflicting goals. A team charter can help get everyone back on track.

Tip:

Have a strong communications strategy. This is especially important if your team members are in different time zones and speak different languages.

But make sure that the technologies you use – such as instant messaging, VoIP, and teleconferencing – are reliable. Frequent technology failures are frustrating for remote workers who can't easily pick up the phone if the video suddenly fails during a virtual meeting.

Read our article on Working in Virtual Teams   for more guidance on this.

Develop Strong Team Dynamics

Whether you're creating a new team or integrating workers into an existing team, you need to be aware of team dynamics. Managing relationships between team members can be difficult enough within a shared office space, but it's even more challenging when workers are all over the country – or the world.

With remote workers, you don't have the advantage of watching body language for signs of trouble between team members. The same is true for managing the morale of individuals. How can you tell if remote workers are unhappy if you can't see them? Watch closely for warning signs such as these:

  • Reduced output.
  • Short and abrupt emails.
  • Reluctance to engage in telephone calls or video conference calls.
  • Shortage of new ideas.

Most teams follow a "forming, storming, norming, performing"   path from the time they're first created. Identify which stage your team is in, and apply some of our suggested tools to move your workers toward the performing stage.

Give Feedback and Reward Performance

Feedback is essential for team performance and morale, and it's particularly important in a geographically dispersed context.

  • Stay in contact with everyone – In an office environment, it's easy to stop by team members' desks to comment on their work or call them into a meeting room for a quick conversation. If your team is dispersed, you need to find ways to make up for not having this ability. Often, this means using a more formal process. You may want to schedule a telephone call, or offer feedback by email if your team member works in a different time zone. For useful tips on the best ways to talk to your team members, look at our Giving
    Feedback
      article.
  • Make sure that feedback is fair and consistent – When providing feedback for dispersed teams, pay special attention to fairness. When some team members see the manager face-to-face and others don't, it can be difficult to make sure everyone feels they're getting equal treatment. You may need to set aside extra time for one-on-one calls with remote workers. The more isolated the workers, the more attention they may need. It's easy for remote staff to feel unmotivated and isolated if they're working far away from the rest of the team and in a different time zone. Stay in regular contact so that they never feel forgotten.
  • Ensure that rewards are equal – When rewarding performance, you must be sure that your incentive program is equal and fair. Do you reward workers appropriately and thoughtfully? Do workers in remote offices feel as valued and rewarded as those in the office next door to you? Read Rewarding Your Team   for some tips on saying thank you.

Promote Team Bonding

Most people who work in an office environment enjoy occasional lunches or drinks with co-workers. And then there's the tradition of having cake for people's birthdays. These are all great team-bonding activities. Unfortunately, they obviously won't work with geographically dispersed teams! As a manager, be creative about ways to achieve team bonding if workers are physically separated.

Depending on budget, you may want to get your team together once a year – or more, if possible. How about a weekend away to do some team-building activities? If budgets are tight, however, you need alternatives. Here are some ideas:

  • Set up an intranet team page – This could include a forum for suggestions or ideas on particular projects. Include photographs of team members.
  • Build a virtual team room – This is less formal than a team page. It's the virtual equivalent of your office's coffee break area. Workers could share more personal information, such as fund-raising or charity events they're involved in. And you can put up photos of cakes to celebrate birthdays (zero calories too)!
  • Use webcams – Webcams are a very inexpensive way to see other team members during phone calls and Skype conversations, and this helps your team feel more connected to one another.
  • Be sensitive to language barriers – If your workers speak different languages, make sure you have guidelines for the language used during a phone call or teleconference. Ensure that team members speak slowly and clearly enough so that others can understand. And check regularly to make sure that everyone is understanding the discussion. A written agenda for the meeting helps those whose native language is not used in the discussion, and written minutes after the meeting help too.

    Tip:

    See our Understanding Culture and Managing Around the World sections for more on working with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Key Points

Geographically dispersed teams can offer huge benefits – efficiency, cost savings, and the ability to choose team members with the best skills, regardless of their location. To make the team work well, choose the right team players, and ensure that you have strong communication technologies. Unite your team around a team charter, and communicate objectives clearly and frequently.

Give frequent, fair, and appropriate feedback to everyone, and make sure you're always available to your team members. Even if your team can't meet in person frequently, try to occasionally visit all of your remote team members so they know that they're valued.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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