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.

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Comments (7)
  • eeyre wrote This month
    Hi Maggi, Thanks very much for your comment. Working remotely isn't necessarily a piece of cake, for team members or managers. So recruiting people with the skills and potential to thrive in that kind of environment can be a wise move.
    I'm glad you liked the article!
    Cheers
    Elizabeth
  • Maggi wrote This month
    This is some good advice. I liked especially the part about team members recruitment. I had inherited some of my team members and, to be honest, they were real misfits. It took me a while to understand that not all people can work remotely in an international environment...
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Some great tips in there rfwilkerson! Thanks for sharing. I love the mention of messy hair days... I often communicate with team members in my very early morning in my pyjamas so I totally "get" the messy hair situation!

    Voxer sounds like a great app. I've passed it onto our editorial team to consider for upcoming app reviews that we feature.

    Glad to hear that the article had tips you can use right away. Keep us posted on other great strategies you discover.

    Dianna
  • rfwilkerson wrote Over a month ago
    As Ops Manager for a remote team of global web developers, we already face the challenge of working with skilled people whose personalities are bent toward introversion...though not always, of course. Imagine the added layer of challenge in working past this in order to build and develop the things taught in this article!

    That said, I have found that actually applying the bullet pointed items...by scheduling recurring tasks in the Google Calendar (shared with the team)...has definitely helped us slowly, but surely, overcome both the personality challenge, as well as the remote challenge. When team members know that there are scheduled times (as little as 10-15 minutes) to talk, and that I genuinely care about their upcoming wedding, new business venture, or recent hospital visit, there is scheduled, undistracted, uninterrupted, focused time for us to genuinely share in each others' lives...as much as humanly possible.

    This includes scheduling time to visit a team member's FB page each day...to interact with their lives and slowly build a relationship. It includes requiring video cams to be on for meetings...and just realizing we're gonna have messy hair days...pretty much everyday! And it involves just accepting the fact that I will to speak much...much...m..u..c..h...slower with my ESL (English as Second Language) team members.

    One tool that has helped tremendously is the app called Voxer, which turns a smart phone into a two-way radio, providing free voice to voice communications when used over wi-fi. This eliminates the consistently-buggy instant message communication method and replaces it with a more normal, meaningful, effective tool called...conversation. It connects us on that deeper human level.

    Thanks for the great article and helpful guidelines I can begin implementing immediately!
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    I would have to agree that communication is an important factor in success of the team working and the results to be achieved. before or after meetings and after conference calling or meetings it is much easier to summarize actions required.
    If these tend to be ignored at times this is likely to be the pre and post meeting momentum.

    However communication is a big part of team interaction even if undistributed and requires more co ordination because of the geographic situations, but it seems to rely on a greater sense of having the main contributors making informed input to deliver better results.

    However why should this mean that the team is performing better than another team and there should still be time given to focus the actions needed from a dispersed team.
    Maybe remembering or adding a reminder to focus the actions and communication in a distributed team places more importance on the coordinator, but it could be shared amongst the team.

    Apart from communication I would suggest that in a distributed team there seems to be more possibility of bringing in short term expert advice to handle and resolve conference meetings and additional supporting information.
    This might not always be needed and seems to suggest that the team might take longer to agree or provide results but I feel that this is not so and teams are likely to have the same or better than non distributed teams in achieving results.

    A main reason for distributed teams is surely that the workplace has evolved and businesses have evolved, working situations are different and some are more accepting of the needs of employees even if they can not always meet these.
    There are more teleworking employees so it could give better team work and present opportunity rather than difficulty.

    Wishing success to all

    Thanks
    BigK
    .
  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    No 1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Feeling out of the loop is a very bad thing for a member of a dispersed team. This can be difficult over large time zone differences, but it is not impossible. One man's late is another man's early.

    I have been in a couple of meetings where the conversation drifts to a point that I knew nothing about, but had been discussed and agreed without my input several days before.

    No 2. Accept others input. Very demotivating if your contributions or ideas are ignored. Even more so if they are discussed and you are not involved in the discussion.

    This brings out those 'Ah, why bother going to the meeting, they never listen' feelings. These in turn bring out those smug 'Told you so !' feelings when things go wrong. This in turn leads to 'Well, we will do it our way, and you can write whatever you like in the procedure'.
    None of those help to reach the overall goal, and breed distrust in to every subsequent interaction, be they distributed team, or just asking for some stand alone task.

    I have been on both good and bad teams like this, these are just the main things that I see as making the difference between a good team and a bad team.

    Try not to use email if a phone call will do (By all means send a summary of the call afterwards though), you involve the person on the other end, and get things done more quickly.
    Try not to call around two or three people if you can organise a quick conference call (Most office phones these days will let you conf a couple of other people in).
    Try to make conf calls convenient for everyone. That goes both ways by the way. Earlier this year I was involved in a project that was primarily driven by a team based in Maryland and Tennesee. I was the only member in Europe, and I made sure I was in the loop by making my 'after the kids are in bed time' available for meetings. Those calls are also easier with a small brandy to hand Can't do that in the office !
    If you are going in to second language situations, use a web share, or some other collaborative tool, since pictures are much easier to understand, demonstrations are much easier to watch than listen to. And make sure everyone can hear clearly. This may mean huddling around the microphone like it's the last candle in a blizzard, but it really helps to keep the people on the other end of the call feeling involved.

    Regards,
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    From my experience as a remote team member, the two issues that were important to me (and not done!) were having trust in all the team members to do their jobs and having clear objectives / purpose.

    It is one thing to have individual team members doing different things, however, it is equally important to trust them to do their jobs. Being micro-managed just defeated the objective of using a dispersed team!

    Having a clear purpose and clear objectives were also important so that we didn't feel adrift not know what to do or where to go.

    Anyone else have experience either managing a dispersed team or being a member of one ... and any tips to share?

    Midgie

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