Top 5 must-do’s to build an effective distributed team

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Executive Summary

As organizations grow to new markets and geographies and hire more people, it is rare that all staff are in one centralized location. Enter distributed — or remote — teams. Managing effective distributed teams across different cultures, time zones, and market needs has long been a recipe to acing a market.

For the vast majority of small businesses and enterprises across the world however, distributed teams were an alien concept up to a few weeks ago. The speed and breadth in which the Covid-19 coronavirus has spread across the globe have led to ‘shelter-in-place’ and lockdown orders closing down most offices and making work-from-home the norm.

Now every company has to work with distributed teams — only every such ‘team’ is a single employee — and we at Flowcast have not been exempt. However, unlike many small businesses, our teams were already distributed in different time zones and many of our staff have been working remotely. What have we learned from running our own distributed teams?

Based on our years and months of building distributed teams and managing remote staff, here are the top five must-do’s to ensure your distributed teams to work effectively.

1. Hire employees who are “managers-of-one”

Employees who need constant communication to stay engaged in their work and fulfill deliverables are not good fits for remote teams. Finding self-starters is one thing, but with every distributed team now essentially a lone employee, companies need to prioritize “managers-of-one.”

As the phrase suggests, these employees are inherently good managers: able to self-direct, manage time effectively, and require minimal hand-holding to get work done. Such employees often have a keen entrepreneurial streak, either having built new teams or worked on their own in their previous stops.

Even if you did not hire them with remote teams in mind, you can still train team members to search for answers on their own first, and then only ask the other teams if they cannot readily find solutions to their problems. Communication lines must be kept open across teams so no one feels shame for asking questions.

Fostering this self-service capability is key to not only building good managers-of-one but also charting out an SOP (standard operating procedure) so future employees need not reinvent the wheel.

Encourage your remote team members to write down any new information or solutions they discover, so that future team members can work more efficiently, backed by data sources collaboratively.

Having employees who are managers-of-one avoids unnecessary, sometimes daily, calls. Remote employees can chart their own workflow and deliverables, as long as the big picture is clear. Managers of one are given responsibility and held accountable for their decisions. They may be more productive when left on their own devices — and subsequently, raise the overall productivity of other employees.

2. Always over-communicate

Just as employees are encouraged to write down and share any new information they discover, so too should intra-company communication be documented.

Businesses can streamline the communication process by ensuring all employees write or document any decision made.in a similar structured manner. Not only does structured writing lead to repeatability and certainty, but it also avoids any potential friction between employees who write reports in different ways.

If your tech and regulatory systems allow, document all communication on a single platform that all employees can refer to; such as meeting minutes. Wherever possible, manage sharing settings so employees can add suggestions or suggest changes in documents.

Too often, multiple Zoom meetings can melt into one another. By the time you or your employee gets a breather, a key issue in the first meeting of the day may have been forgotten. With written notes that are then shared with co-workers, your teams can double-check points and propose changes if needed.

3. Turn status meetings into ‘show and tell’ podcasts

When different teams in different time zones work together, the daily “checking-in” or status meetings become even more important. However, merely having meetings because they are scheduled ahead of time will become a dreary, unengaging proposition for many employees now stuck at home.

One way to increase engagement for these daily meetings is to turn them into “show and tell” podcasts, where an employee or team presents the work they have done and explain how it correlates to other departments or teams. As with my point on “over-communication” above, record these sessions so colleagues in different time zones or departments can review them.

If employees and teams know their presentations are recorded, this adds a level of accountability and they are more likely to put in more effort rather than literally “phoning” it in.

With Zoom team meetings and WhatsApp/Slack/ Telegram being the only avenues for employees to clarify points and follow up on discussions, a lot can get lost in the havoc of multiple conversations.

With no more water cooler conversations to iron out uncertainties, “show and tell” podcasts go a long way towards keeping everyone on the same page.

4. Make video meetings a must

With no end in sight to Covid-19 lockdowns across the world, conference calls and team meetings are the norm — and can easily take up half the working day for employees that bridge different roles and products.

Be it embarrassment about being seen in casual wear or having a disorderly home, or wanting to have lunch or do chores during a call, too often employees find reasons not to switch on video cameras for their Zoom or Skype meetings.

At Flowcast, we make turning on your video camera a must — and we enforce this even for candidates’ first phone screen. Video meetings spark conversation and build relationships, a vital part of an all-remote company.

So, what if team members’ rooms, families, and pets are visible? These are the realities of work-from-home staff and can lead to conversation pieces to help team members bond and get to know each other better.

In many audio-meetings, nuances in speech can be lost in translation. With video, you can see your team members’ facial expressions and gauge their reactions. Some employees do not actively speak out when unsure, but with video, their expressions would be clear, managers and team leaders can identify whether there is a need to explain an item clearer.

5. Advocate for pair programming

A term used by engineering and R&D teams; pair programming traditionally meant a system where two developers work on a product using one machine. One programmer writes code, while the other observes and verifies his/her work — with the roles switched regularly.

Making pair programming the norm at Flowcast, with modifications, of course, has created a competitive advantage by sharing knowledge, reducing mistakes, and building a strong collaborative culture.

A team of two or more employees working on a project together arranges video meetings to brainstorm ideas and delegate work. For teams working across different time zones, these meetings are recorded for employees that are not available at the time.

Instead of sharing the same machine, this team of two or three people will share work in a unified folder. Due to different time zones and delegation of work, there will be periodical “handovers.”

For instance, at the end of his/her workday, an employee in London will hop on to a conference call with a teammate in New York to “pair up” on some work on a shared drive together or share their screens before handing over the work for the day.

Compared to just summarizing the day’s work in an email and dashing it off, pair programming ensures a team has communication lines open constantly and avoids working in silos, resulting in quicker, more effective problem-solving and creative ideas.