Managing dispersed teams - an ongoing challenge

Anne-Lise Brown
Anne-Lise Brown ↓ 7 minute read
Jan 11, 2022
Read 140 times

One thing is pretty clear - we will never get back to the way we used to work and that, in many aspects, is great, but for sure needs a little bit of extra awareness from companies, as well as employees. Remote working is nothing extraordinary during these times and, especially in the IT industry, it was an option long before Zoom meetings were even trending. But now it is more often than not the rule, not the exception, and people, cultures, and dynamics need to adjust really quick.

In addition to flexibility and hybrid/remote working, a new wave is coming - the 4-day workweek. So it is just right to raise the question of how will all this impact the way we manage teams?

The first reality-check that we have to deal with is that a hybrid or remote-first approach is going to be THE way to work and as much as employers and psychologists would like to emphasize the importance of real, human connection, there are benefits that came with being outside of the office that people won’t easily let go of. Big organizations like Microsoft, Apple, or Adobe are already adopting hybrid approaches, while others like Twitter and Amazon are switching to a fully remote approach indefinitely. But this is not just a matter of office vs. living room, it is a shift that also raises the question of how and when one works. Flexibility and control over one’s own schedule and approach to managing tasks are key points in today’s workflow, giving employees more freedom, but also more responsibility than ever before. In addition to flexibility and hybrid/remote working, a new wave is coming - the 4-day workweek. So it is just right to raise the question of how will all this impact the way we manage teams?

High-five for embarking on the new collective journey of working remotely

Putting it simply, there are a few main aspects why the hybrid model is the middle ground that many companies will choose: better employee well-being, work-life balance, greater productivity, all while still having a feeling of belongingness and human connection, and not perceiving work as a “thriving alone” task. But one of the main drawbacks that can already be noticed is the perception (or sometimes even reality) of remote workers not being treated fairly compared to their office colleagues. A recent piece of research conducted by Kahoot! discovered the presence of bias against remote workers, with over 6 out of 10 HR leaders saying that office employees are seen as harder workers and more valuable in the team, and they are more likely to get promoted and receive regular raises. The awareness of the possibility of such a bias occurring in a hybrid workplace is essential for setting up a safe and welcoming work environment and prioritizing employee retention. Qualtrics reported that employees are five times more likely to stay in a role when their manager consistently recognizes their good work. In addition, 79 percent of employees who leave their companies cite “lack of appreciation” as the main reason for leaving.

As software engineers are most probably not going to rush into the offices any time soon, the management of teams has to adapt and acknowledge a really important characteristic of the new teams - the fact that they are dispersed. A cultural shift will certainly be required, and there are key steps that managers can do to ensure that all workers are treated equally and feel included.

As a manager/leader you have the superpower to foster a feeling of belongingness

1. Global talent acquisition. Good news: switching to working remotely has offered to many companies a broader talent pool. Maybe not as good news: as if managing people wasn’t challenging enough, now leaders need to effectively do it across time zones and cultures, with limited face-to-face interaction. So remember, you are not just managing remotely - you are managing globally. Empathy and willingness to understand one’s culture and reasoning behind their actions is going to have a great impact on the way employees perceive their work and their team. This goes beyond cuisine and traditions, it means learning about cultural values, the degree to which collectivism vs. individualism is internalized, understanding how they think about concepts like time, connection, the role that work holds in the bigger picture of their life, and also who your employee is as an individual.

2. Clear Communication. As the manager or the leader of a dispersed team, there are 3 kinds of distance to account for: 1) physical distance, meaning geographic location and time - which represents a constant, 2) operational distance, meaning how far from you is an employee in the organizational structure - which can fluctuate, and 3) affinity distance, meaning how close they fell to the core values of the company and of their team, their level of trust, loyalty and emotional commitment. As a manager, you can shorten affinity distance by making clear communication a priority. Here are some suggestions for minimizing work ambiguity in your team:

  • Slow down and set clear day-to-day expectations
  • Asking questions to ensure your message was received correctly
  • Check-in frequently and consistently
  • Ensure access to all team members to the same files and tools
  • Facilitate communication with centralized cloud-based sharing
  • Seek out to your employees, ask for feedback, and translate their insight into action
Soft skills play a big role in communicating digitally

3. Digital Body Language. Non-verbal body language delivers cues we subconsciously process when we try to connect with and build trust in others. This is not a part of communication that has to fade beyond the screen, but a skill that is even more important when the delivery of messages, thoughts, ideas, feedback, and requirements is happening digitally. Misinterpretation of digital communication is nurturing anxiety and dissatisfaction at work, and building empathy and trust relies less on what we say and more on how we say it. As Erica Dhawan states in her book, Digital Body Language, reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.When dealing with dispersed teams, video calls are not just a way to avoid misunderstandings, but also to connect with the team members on a more personal level. However, there need to be established multiple communication tools. There is one way to communicate something urgent immediately, a different way to nest a brainstorming process, and another one to discuss points of view and deliver complex feedback. From word choices, to response times, punctuations, to knowing when to choose (video) calls over chatting and emails, it is all contributing to finding a system that works beyond productivity, all the way to contentment and work satisfaction.

4. Deliverables. Here is where you need to stand up for what your expectations and values are. Going back to the bias against remote workers, in order to avoid it, you have to define deliverables and discern betweenthe actually delivered results andthe apparent implication in projects and processes. The phenomenon is not restricted to the office environment though. It can also be sustained by a“noisy” presence in the virtual activity, which intends to portray a greater involvement than in reality.

On a different note - how to approach deliverables? Simply handling tasks here and there is not the preferred way to go about managing teams, and in our latest article, we also covered why micromanaging isn’t either which is why some managers are left with the question of the limit between too much and not enough guidance. The middle ground is providing a detailed description of the task and some examples of what you envisioned the final result would be, while also giving freedom of approaching the execution of the task in a way that works for the team/the member of the team.

The need for connection with colleagues still exists and can be fostered in dispersed teams too!

5. The right technology. The previously mentionedresearch conducted by Kahoot! revealed that 91% of workers want to feel more connected to their team, and believe this could be accomplished by having access to more collaboration and employee engagement technologies. The technology chosen to engage with a remote team can be is critical to its success, but the great news is that user-friendly collaboration tools are gaining more and more popularity and are available for companies to introduce in their managing and communication protocols.

The perspectives of what dispersed teams will bring to the ever-innovating table of the tech industry are bright, and the challenge of managing such teams is exactly that - a challenge. And what do challenges bring? Some ups, some downs, some learning, some experimenting, and if we are determined enough to make it through, a great deal of satisfaction! Shall we?

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