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3 vital techniques for managing distributed teams

A distributed team, also known as a virtual, remote or dispersed team, is an increasingly popular method of gathering a group of talented individuals to collaborate on a specific task. It helps complete and maintain projects in a geographically distributed manner. For many companies a distributed team allows increased agility. It creates greater flexibility and an opportunity to utilize the expertise of team members that are not local. It also provides participants with the possibility to independently arrange and manage their responsibilities. Regardless of the location of members of a distributed team, managers need to understand three key things.

Be prepared to manage differences

Due to the self-governing and diverse nature of the setting, it is imperative to be prepared for unique challenges. Distributed teams involve people from many cultures in different locations, therefore there is a need to establish trust and prevent possible cultural conflicts. Team diversity is both enriching and challenging; it requires degree of sensitivity from the managers to prevent and overcome cultural misunderstanding.

For a general understanding of what kind of differences to expect, reading works by Geert Hofstede or Trompenaars and Hampsted-Turner would be a great first step. These authors wrote about the challenges of cross-cultural management, compared global cultures and identified general cultural characteristics. For example, some cultures are conisdered invidualistic and others are collectivistic. People in individualistic cultures (such as the United States) tend to work alone and assume a lot of responsibility on their own, while people in collectivistic cultures (such as China) tend to work within a team and rely on the team to take responsibility.

Set clear expectations and guidelines

It is vital to recognize that a distributed team requires a different management style in comparison to a conventional, physically co-located team. When managing a distributed team, it is crucial to set explicit objectives and present clear goals to maintain team coherence.

Managers need to maintain transparency throughout the project. According to Anawati & Craig, the principles of personal power, a sense of alignment, as well as guidance through unified vision are key elements regarding the functionality of cross-cultural virtual teams. Envisioning a mutually shared outcome and purpose, together with the creation of both collective and individual commitment, are of great importance in achieving good results. Motivating the team members through collectively shared rewards of successful performance can significantly increase the levels of individual devotion, as the sense of achievement is shared between all participants.

Maintain open communications

It is important to ensure that the visibility of decisions and information carries through to every member of the team. Aim to engage the team members from early on to participate in the strategy and goal creation. You may want to ask potential team members in advance how they envision ideal cooperation. When a task is of strategic significance enable direct communication between involved members.

Above all, make sure that managers arrange frequent group calls to track progress and discuss ongoing issues, as communicative channels and sharing information are key, along with a clearly defined vision. There are countless tools for enabling the practical functionality of a distributed team, from Skype for calls to Sharepoint for data sharing, and Jira for project management. Use these (or similar) tools to ensure everyone is on the same page, working towards the right goals.

Distributed teams consist of a variety of arrangements between people and companies. Often, a portion of your team stays in-house and works with another external team. When creating a distributed team by outsourcing certain tasks it is important to recognize what benefits it brings to the company – and how to manage potential risks.

Photo via Graphicstock

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