How to Manage and Engage your Distributed Team

team leader on zoom call to remote workers

by Adam Coleman, CEO of Lahinch-based HR software solutions provider HRLocker

Just like that, remote working is mainstream. Since the pandemic, many of the organisations that were forced to adopt remote working have decided to stick with it for the long haul. If you’re one of them, congrats! Well done! You’ve just stepped into the future of work.

Remote working looks different for every person and every organisation. Maybe your workforce is made up of digital nomads, or van lifers. Perhaps your people prefer the WFH life or a hybrid model where they can pop by the office once or twice a week.

But every organisation joining the remote work revolution will face two challenges: managing their distributed team and engaging their distributed team.

In this article, we’ll look at both sides of the coin.

Managing your distributed team

Somewhere in your home, you probably have a toolbox. If you’re not so handy, maybe it’s just a drawer full of odd screws, a hammer, and the screwdriver set gifted to you by an elderly relative.

If there’s a photo that needs hanging or a screw that needs tightening, you probably head to that drawer.

Managing a distributed team requires a toolbox too. This toolbox should contain project management software, collaborative programs, and communication platforms.

What does that look like in practice? A social media agency would likely need project management software to assign tasks and manage the social calendar, Microsoft Teams for calls and instant messaging, and 365 for drafting strategies and social posts.

Of course, it’s easier to engage with your work when you have all the information you need to hand. Waiting for an employee on the other side of the world to wake up and share a document with you means a lot of time spent losing momentum and interest.

Storing and distributing this information has to be done seamlessly and securely. Thankfully, packages like Microsoft 365 allow you to customise permissions and store files in a central location.

Beyond the basic operational infrastructure, you need to know where your employees are and what time zone they’re in. Knowing whether an ‘urgent’ email will land with someone outside of their working hours will help colleagues respect each other’s boundaries.

Thankfully, modern HR software lets you record each employee’s time zones and working hours. You can also integrate this software with your calendar to see annual leave and availability at a glance.

Having specific times where all employees are available can help organisations maintain structure and shared creative time. Setting all-team hours means you can schedule live collaboration without repeatedly checking multiple calendars.

Last but not least, trust your people. Some employers refused to let go of their bad habits during the lockdowns, monitoring and micromanaging their employees from afar.

If there was ever a time to trust your people, it’s when they’re distributed around the world. Chances are, you hired them because you know they can do great things. So do yourself a favour and let them get on with it.

Engaging your distributed team

Working with a distributed team takes more than infrastructure and software. Prepare to address the flaws in your culture, reconnect with your company’s purpose, and set collaborative goals in the name of engagement.

Having your workforce spread out across the world calls for in-person meet-ups. If anything, spending time together in person becomes more important with a distributed team. When you can’t grab a quick coffee with a colleague or catch up with your boss out of hours, those relationships need to be nurtured in other ways.

Schedule company-wide meets throughout the year, switching up the locations to make them more accessible. If a week-long company retreat somewhere warm and sunny isn’t possible, bring the team together for a specific project or campaign. Maximise the in-person collaboration time by focusing on a particular challenge or opportunity.

Between the real-life meet-ups, get creative with how you connect online. Host town halls so different departments can showcase what they’re working on. Facilitate book clubs, learning groups, and mentoring programs, so that individuals can build a sense of community.

We’re more inclined to engage with our work when the wider company mission resonates with us. Connect your distributed workforce to the company mission by giving context to individual projects.

For example, if you’ve got a copywriter who’s responsible for writing your thought leadership content, ensure they know the details of the wider marketing campaign. If your lead software developer is progressing a website redesign, make sure they understand how it fits with your organisational goals.

Equally as important is feedback. Many independent remote workers will tell you that acknowledging success is difficult. There’s little time for recognising progress when you have to move on to the next task. Leaders that provide meaningful feedback can help their remote employees see the impact of their work.

Breaking up the work week with exciting new opportunities is something we all benefit from. As you venture further into the remote work landscape, consider how you might be able to provide opportunities for lateral movement or cross-departmental working. Just like a holiday can provide that all-important change of scene, a change of teams can help your people develop new skills and perspectives.

It’s okay if your distributed set-up is a work in progress. You won’t master it overnight. Just make sure you’ve figured out how you’ll manage your people, and how you’ll engage them.