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3 challenges of managing distributed teams

Working with distributed teams can be an effective solution for reducing development and infrastructure costs, working with experts not available locally, and getting a more measured, successful result. Despite its many advantages, many executives still consider working with distributed teams ineffective.

Here are the top 3 challenges voiced by executives, based on real risks associated with working with distributed teams. These challenges can be addressed effectively, and when they are, it leads to a more efficient work process and better results.

“I won’t see them”
“If they’re not in the office, they’re not working”

The first challenge can be roughly classified as “geographical.” These concerns speak to the belief that unless there is an immediate manager present in the room, no work gets done. While that may be true in some workplaces, there will always be people who either work or do not work – regardless of whether they work in the same room or halfway around the world. (We all know that one guy…)

Even in an intimate office environment, it is not always possible to control whether someone is doing work or not. So how do you ensure that people do work? Keep them motivated and ensure that they have clear periodic (weekly or daily) goals that they are expected to achieve. If a management process exists where people understand what they’re responsible for (and by when), then it won’t matter where their desk is located.

“I won’t understand them”

The second challenge can roughly be classified as “socio-cultural.” Distributed teams often include a global aspect to them – involving people from across the globe. As a result, many executives are concerned about proper communication with their team, and, perhaps more importantly, proper understanding of their requirements.

This issue is resolved by open communication and by building trust. Once trust is established (the time when you’re able to say “I know their definition of quality is the same as mine”), then this concern dissipates on its own. However, managers need to take proactive steps to get there. Taking interest in the members of their team, understanding concerns, documenting requirements, and most of all speaking the same language are essential.

“I won’t be able to talk to them”

The third challenge is concerned with communication (and in a global context roughly translates to “temporal” challenges). Any project, regardless of whether it is remote, virtual, distributed or in-house, and internal will fail if there is no proper communication.

The downside of distributed teams is that you do lack that face-to-face, random-conversations-by-the-water-cooler time. That means that all communication has to be active. And managers need t learn about rich communication (hint: e-mail is on the bottom of the list – and the list is on page 4). There are ways to encourage great communication through videoconferencing, periodic meetings, shifting work hours and others.

Intentional communication is the key

The main concern behind all three challenges is the fact that they speak to the executives’ fear that they will lose control and visibility of their project. This main risk can be mitigated by establishing a responsible process and emphasizing clear communication.

As with any strategy, the distributed teams have their benefits and disadvantages. Yet, working with distributed teams is not as different as managing an entire team internally. A common misconception when working with an external partner, for example, is that the project no longer needs to be managed because “they will take care of it”. Well, good luck on the results with a similar point of view. Communication is key in any environment, and simply becomes a strategic issue in a distributed, remote environment. In fact, once communication is engrained in the work process, it often yields to better, more measurable results.

In short, it’s all about intentional organization, and yes, constant management. Many companies are embracing distributed teams and remote work has picked up in recent years. Toptal, for example, recently documented the beginnings of remote working communities like Hacker Paradise and Digital Nomad. Job postings for remote work increased 26% in 2014, and HR specialists predict even more growth in coming years.

For more on how to build an effective distributed team, download this white paper.

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