Five Things to Help You Manage a Distributed Team

If you’re like me, then COVID-19 has begun to impact your work, family, and social life in so many ways. From budget cuts due to low student numbers; to long lines at the supermarket for groceries; to hording toilet paper just in case; to longer school holidays; and of course working from home.

When I first started working from home (in 2008) I had some experience of working in teams. The experience was mostly as a team member, but also as a leader/manager of the team. In all cases, the teams were all real. In the flesh. Person to person. However, when I started my practice most of the teams, and work I conducted was distributed. Not quite virtual, but almost. I had clients all over Melbourne (and Australia) as well as collaborators. As I grew, I had staff located across Melbourne too. And I never quite got the hang of managing at a distance. There was always a default to in-person meetings or other key exchanges.

However, over the last few years I’ve been playing closer attention to distributed teams. Teams that have members located across the world. Teams that allow work to be conducted during usual business hours (where the person lives) being available 24 hours. In fact, I’ve also got my own distributed team. Here are some of the things I have learnt in the process. I think these things are also useful for collocated teams. But I particularly think they will be useful for people who manage collocated teams, and now find themselves in charge of a team where all members are working from home.

1. Hold frequent meetings: One of the things about working in the same place as your team is you meet and chat regularly. Probably daily, but at least weekly. Whereas, if you’re remote those interactions don’t happen. It is not that they are not possible. They just don’t happen. You don’t walk in and chat about what you have planned for the day. You don’t discuss the work you’re currently undertaking. You don’t turn to others in the office or lab and chat about a line you’ve just read in a paper. Of course, you could pick up the phone – but you don’t do that. In distributed team, you should have frequent but short meetings (e.g. daily). That way you’ll know who’s doing what, progress being made and who needs help.

Keeping track of projects is hard enough

in person. In a distributed team it is even

harder. So use a project management space.

2. Work in the cloud: Working in the cloud means stuff is essentially always backed up. But, from a distributed team perspective, it means others can see the real file as you are editing it. Right down to your cursor position. If you have not used it – give it a go. MS Office has the functionality via Office 365, and Google Docs does too.

3. Use videoconferencing: As frustrating as poor internet is when trying to meet via video, meeting via video is way better than phone. We all know that 80% of communication is non-verbal, so why not let that 80% in?!

4. Discuss performance monthly: If you rarely see your team, then having incidental 1-1 chats about performance will be tough. But, even if you do, informal chats are great but there’s nothing like asking someone “Are you enjoying this/your role?” and then sitting back and listening to the answer. In fact, I’d say scrap the annual performance review and have a monthly chat and ask five questions. Are you enjoying the role? What should stay the same? What should change? What should go? What do you need from me?

5. Use a project management space: As students and academics, we can become overly reliant on email. Thus, we use it to communicate everything with everyone. From arranging coffee, to writing a paper, to comments on a grant. On one hand that makes sense – all the communication is in one place. But on the other hand it makes things overly distracting. Particularly when the email has multiple recipients. Shifting some of the communication to project management space (ASANA, MS Teams or Slack) can avoid unnecessary emails, while also allowing people to communicate with others about progress on particular projects.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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