How do you manage a distributed team?

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.12.46 PMThis is a question I got in a 30-minute virtual mentoring session I had recently with an MIT project team. While I had  briefly participated on a distributed team – we all worked remotely – I had never managed one; I hadn’t even read up on the subject. I wish I had read the Inc. article by Justin Bariso, Google Spent 2 Years Researching What Makes a Great Remote Team. It Came Up With These 3 Things, subtitled In a quest to create the perfect remote team, Google researchers spent two years studying more than 5,000 employees. Here’s what they learned.

If you are at all familiar with Google you know it is an engineering-driven team that is managed based on data. So I’m not surprised that when Verionica Gilrane, the manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, wanted to learn more about the productivity of and effectiveness of Google’s distributed team model she spent two years surveying 5,600 Google employees and held focus groups with about 100. You can read her findings on Google’ blog.

She came up with three top tips for making distributed work feel more connected and enjoyable:

  1. Get to know each other as people. When I first started working as a manager it used to really bug me when meetings started with smalltalk. As an introvert who suffers from SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder), the last thing I wanted to do was make smalltalk. I’m also biased towards action – I wanted to get to work, immediately. But eventually I learned that smalltalk was a lubricant, it got people comfortable talking together before settling down to work. And Google found with remote teams it’s necessary to establish a rapport amongst those located at different places. Managers need to lead by example and make an extra effort to get to know everyone on the team by spending a bit of time at meeting before diving into the agenda.
  2.  Set boundaries: Rather than managers setting rigid meeting times the manager or leader of the distributed team should ask the co-workers when they like to take meetings. I know from experience that programmers tend to start work later than typical office workers – 8:00 am meeting times aren’t going to work well for them.
  3. Forge in-person and virtual connections: Sometimes face to face meetings are needed. Team leaders should provide clear guidelines and opportunities for team members to travel for in person meetings. When the team meets face to face everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce connections forged virtually. This spring I was offered the opportunity to mentor teams virtually rather than coming in to MIT, which would have meant spending two hours commuting for a 30 minute mentoring session. While I accepted the offer I had one condition: I wanted the first meeting to be face to face. I had found from experience that if I could get to know a team in person and see how they interacted it make virtual meetings work better for me. And I recommend this tip to you if you can arrange it. While Zoom, Skype and other videoconference tools work well, they still can’t compare with face to face when it comes to observing a group’s behavior.

Google has put together a distributed playbook which I highly recommend to anyone working on or managing a remote team.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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