Setting Up and Managing Distributed Teams
With the rising growth of remote job opportunities, job seekers and hiring managers are beginning to look beyond their immediate geographical locations to find the right fit for companies and talents. Setting up and managing such teams comes with unique challenges ranging from communication to cultural differences.
What Are Distributed Teams?
A distributed team is a group of employees working from different locations. These co-workers work remotely or from a physical office away from other team members across different cities or countries.
Distributed Teams versus Remote Teams
Although used interchangeably, there is a difference between distributed teams and remote teams.
Distributed teams operate quite literally as team members are dispersed across various locations and sometimes different time zones. Physical interaction among team members is rare or nonexistent. On the other hand, remote teams consist of employees working from home or a centrally located company around each other. In a remote team, you would have some team members working away from the office, and they can also be bound to a specific location with occasional physical meetings. For instance, a remote worker for the product team of a tech company in Lagos may need to attend meetings at the office space at Ikeja.
In his book, Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart, John O’Duinn expounded on how the hiring culture of distributed organizations are better, faster, and more diverse with an all-around competitive advantage compared to traditional in-office organizations.
Here’s an excerpt from his book where he stated that “Recruiting, interviewing and hiring have become daily operational needs for every organization. If your organization is remote-friendly- with well-functioning, distributed teams- you will be able to choose from a significantly larger pool of candidates, leading to better, faster hires and a more diverse group of humans. Making your hiring process more efficient is a recurring competitive advantage.”
When setting up a distributed team, the hiring practices are similar to that of in-office roles. But with distributed teams, companies have access to a larger talent pool and a more specialized workforce. With more companies embracing remote work, communication, collaboration, and other skills non-technical needed to work remotely are in high demand.
Job Postings for Distributed Teams
When posting job openings for roles in distributed teams, certain specifics are needed. It is best to highlight everything from;
- The geographical locations targeted – Africa in its entirety or a specific country.
- How remote the company and roles are.
- The inclusion of particular keywords.
The announcement should describe how remote the role is – Is it remote with occasional meetings or distributed across different geographical locations? Is the job for a software developer in Africa in its entirety, or one based in a particular country?
For instance, an excerpt from this job post by Twitter “Residing in and working from Ghana is required (Note: Our Ghana entity will be in Accra. Remote work from other locations is permitted.)”.
While a job post on Tamborin “Pick anywhere you want to work from within the GMT -9 and GMT +3 time zones, as long as you have a fast, stable, Wi-Fi connection.”
These locations indicate where the applicants should be based. While one is searching for talents in a particular country, the other is across two different time zones, thus involving more countries and widening the pool.
Job postings should also include keywords likely to be searched for by applicants. Such words include:
- Work from home
- Distributed team
- Virtual team
- Dispersed team
Some websites with remote job postings:
- Tamborin – is a job board that curates remote jobs and work resources for African technical talents.
- Flexjobs provides professional remote and flexible jobs at every career
- Weworkremotely is an online board used by companies like Google and Amazon.
- Justremote provides job listings from different countries.
Assessing applicants for openings in a distributed team is based on the possession of skills needed to thrive in a remote job and the ability to work remotely.
Qualities of An Ideal Remote Worker
When hiring remote employees, you have to find people with the characteristics needed to thrive at remote work. Such qualities include;
1. Effective Communication: Members of distributed teams rely primarily on virtual communication. The ideal remote worker should be skilled in following remote work communication models:
- Synchronous communication: Information is exchanged in real-time, like a phone call.
- Asynchronous communication: Information is exchanged independent of time or does not require immediate response like emails and online forums.
Potential hires should know which channels are preferred to enable work to run smoothly across the different locations.
2. Self-Motivation: In an interview with Infoq, John O’Duinn said, “If you cannot reach out and touch all of your co-workers on their shoulder when you need to ask a question, you are in a distributed team.” Working remote requires a lot of autonomy, as ideal candidates should be skilled enough to execute projects with little to no supervision and productive time management.
3. Technology Savvy: All toolkits for distributed teams are online. From communication to mind mapping of ideas and, most importantly, execution of projects. Ideal remote workers should be comfortable using these tools as their productivity and success depend on them.
Evaluating the Ability to Work Remotely
When hiring members for distributed teams, remote experience is not a requirement. Autonomy while working at a previous role or possession of uncommon skills can be used instead of experience. These suggest that applicants are resourceful, capable of creating a routine, and can work with little supervision.
Interviewing Remote Work Applicants
Communication is an integral part of distributed teams, and interviews should consider this. The preferred mode of communication for the interview- video, audio, or text, should mirror the environment successful applicants would be working. Testing candidates in this form can give an idea about their proficiency with using such communications channels.
Evaluate written communication skills by assigning candidates with pre/post interview assignments such as writing a sample email or writing a plan to be integrated. This will help you assess the clarity and tone of candidates and their ability to communicate their ideas clearly and concisely.
Verbal communication can be through video calls, often via pair video calls. This interview setup simulates a small group meeting and has a pair of interviewers assessing the candidate with one interviewer leading while the other observes.
Questions to Ask Remote Work Applicants
Questions should be tailor-made to the applicants’ remote work experience and skills. Applicants with relevant work experience should answer questions about the skills necessary to thrive as remote workers. Applicants with no remote work experience should answer questions about transferable skills that can help them settle into remote work, their expectations about the challenges that may arise, and how they plan to adjust. The expected responses should showcase resourcefulness and the skills needed to work well within the structure necessary for working remotely.
Applicants should also state the conditions or situations in which they are most and least productive. These questions take the team structure into consideration, as some teams are more collaborative and others are more autonomous. The responses provided by applicants can help generate insight as to whether they would be a good fit and how the company’s structure may impact their productivity.
Interviewers should also provide applicants with genuine information about the team structure and what they should expect. Providing genuine information to applicants shows transparency, thus, allowing uninterested applicants to filter themselves out. It also reduces employee churn due to the inability to fit in with the team and increases the chances of hiring candidates who are best fit for the company.
Compensating Remote Employees
Structures have to be in place when compensating members of distributed teams. Two approaches used are global salary and local salary models.
The global salary model compensates all remote employees with the same role and experience level with the same fixed amount.
The local salary model compensates remote employees by considering the local cost of living, the local labour market’s intensity, and adjusting the salary rates accordingly.
Comparison of Salary Models: Local versus Global Salary
An advantage of having distributed teams in organizations is low wages when hiring skilled talents from other cities or countries, which is the driving force of the local salary model.
For the local salary model, a baseline wage is set against the role in one location, usually the head office or a location with reliable labour market data. Compensation of remote workers is then discounted based on either cost of living or competitive local salaries, or both. This local salary model works in low-wages areas where remote employees still earn higher when compared to that of local companies.
The overall advantage of this is that it is cheaper for companies because they get the talent without matching competitive salaries in their immediate environment. It also gives people the ability to afford a similar standard of living for doing similar work.
A disadvantage is the lack of reliable data on certain factors like the cost of living and the labour market in places. Decisions are based on approximations and estimations that are usually inconsistent and inaccurate. The creation of bands – high, medium, and low – categorizing living costs may help prevent inaccuracy.
Another disadvantage is the possibility of remote employees changing locations as this requires reviewing their salary since it was previously benchmarked against their location. Frequent relocation by employees can become tiresome as updating the salary structure would be a continuous task. It is ideal to have employees know from the onset that the salary is based on market forces and changes accordingly.
The global salary model is considered fair by employees. Employees believe they should be paid the same salary for doing the same work as counterparts in other cities or countries.
Global salaries attract skilled talents experienced in working remote who believe the labour market is global and competitive salaries are by other remote companies and not tied to a local salary. It also instils employees with a sense of value as their inputs are equally valued regardless of their location and can help improve productivity.
The adopted model is often based on the companies’ philosophy as it is ill-advised to base it on just cost-effectiveness or practicality.
Onboarding Remote Employees
Onboarding is a process that involves the integration of new employees into an organization. Onboarding is instrumental to the potential success of a new hire and the overall culture of the team.
“Pay attention to your culture and your hires from the very beginning“- Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn.
The onboarding process in traditional offices has colleagues around to clarify and teach norms, explain strategies and help new hires get familiar with tools. For distributed teams, onboarding enables new hires to get acclimatized from inception, get accustomed to the virtual team and tools, and prevent knowledge gaps that impede productivity.
For an onboarding process to be successful, preparation must begin from the minute the applicant accepts the offer until their first day at work. Implementation of the step-by-step approach below can help achieve this.
A week to commencement:
- Send the contract and the description of the role.
- State some perks, expectations, and the company’s culture.
- Share the company’s handbook or any other information that might aid the new hire on their first day.
A day to commencement:
- Grant access to necessary tools.
- Assign company email and calendar.
- Give details on team members- the chain of command.
Commencement (First Day)
- Introductory video call.
- Confirm they have access and the necessary tools
- Share their three months plan.
- Go over the company’s handbook.
- Share an announcement to welcome the new team members with the team- over Slack or Email.
- Introduce the new team member to the team via video call or Slack, dependent on team size. Subsequent one-on-one video calls help in establishing a direct connection.
The Three months plan
The goal of onboarding is to have the new hire become productive. The three months plan is detailed, informing employees of the expectations over the first three months. This plan helps direct the progress of new employees and enables the development of skills and knowledge necessary to work autonomously.
- First month– Learning.
- The second month– Contributing
- The third month– Leading/ reaching independence.
Assigning a new employee to a buddy or mentor helps create an environment of support during the onboarding process. The buddy is a peer assisting the new employee with their three months plan. Buddies guide, answer questions about the role or company culture and help new employees to make a smooth transition.
Integrating a Remote Team
An integrated remote team operates as an entity with team members possessing high psychological safety.
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”- Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School Professor.
Psychological safety gives team members the freedom to express themselves in the team, enabling them to take more risks. Promoting integration among remote team members also promotes psychological safety.
Stages of Integration
Bruce Tuckman developed a framework used for team formation and for integrating remote teams. These stages are:
Forming: This happens at inception. At this stage, team members get acquainted and learn information about each other- names, roles. The goal or mission of the team takes shape, and boundaries are defined.
Storming: This stage involves the resolution of conflict. Conflict can ruffle some feathers, but it can also help reveal inefficiency and bring future innovation. The team members should feel safe when expressing ideas, and conflict should not be left unchecked.
Norming: At this stage, there is a sense of unity, and roles in the team are defined. Team members begin to cooperate, and the performance and productivity of the team increase.
Performing: At this stage, cooperation is at an all-time high as the team is functional and well-structured. The team is productive, conflict resolution is constructive, and psychological safety is high.
Remote One-on-One Meetings
One-on-one meetings are meetings between a team lead or manager and individual team members. These meetings can be scheduled weekly or monthly and serve as an avenue for the manager and employer to discuss the employee’s welfare, projects, or challenges faced by individual employees. The meetings help managers connect with individual members of the team and help to build trust.
Improve the quality of remote one-on-one meetings by doing the following:
- The meetings should be over a video call and should be scheduled ahead of time.
- Pay attention – Let the team member feel heard.
- Allow time for other information- prompt the employee to mention an issue they are facing.
One-on-one meetings helps to cultivate a sense of trust and enable managers to learn more about individuals.
Setting Goals and Giving Feedback
The manager of a distributed team is responsible for setting goals, providing direction, and giving constructive feedback to employees. Improve productivity by defining the goals of individuals and the team and help employees to understand expectations. When setting these goals, be candid with the employees, explain the desired outcome, and how employees would be held accountable.
- State a clear expectation- I am expecting the report by the close of the day.
- State the reason for the expectation- The early meeting with the partners.
- Explain how it fits into a bigger picture- To enable the company to get funding.
Micromanagement reduces when employees are contributors, with a greater inclination to work autonomously and collaboratively. Giving positive feedback to remote workers is essential to boost morale and make employees feel visible. It also helps to showcase admirable behaviour and spur more employees to strive for recognition.
Give the performance or corrective feedback in private to prevent humiliation and distress in other employees. Corrective feedback is given based on individuals’ objectives and role description as these highlight examples of work failing to miss the standards expected.
Mental Health and Burnout In Distributed Teams
In distributed teams, mental health issues are likely to go unobserved as team members are secluded from one another. In recent years, the need to have conversations about mental health has increased and can be facilitated by:
- Leading by example.
- Allowing mental health leave days.
- Providing optional peer groups.
- Building trust.
- Organizing mental health workshops.
Burnouts are common in overworked employees, and with distributed teams, the risk is higher. In the quest to prove their worth to the team, employees have a skewed work-life balance. Minimize burnouts by ensuring team members take breaks, setting achievable goals, and encouraging them to take leave and vacation days.
With technological advancements and the numerous advantages for organizations and individuals alike, distributed teams are here to stay.
Distributed teams grant access to a talent pool far beyond the immediate environment and encourage diversity and inclusion. Setting up and managing distributed teams can be achieved by utilizing the right recruitment tools, communication channels, and productivity tools.
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