How do you manage a distributed team?
From the very beginning, Beutler Ink has been a distributed company. Our current core team is spread across eight different states (plus DC!) and we use contractors based not just across the country but around the globe. While distributed working has its advantages, there are also challenges, which we have to manage. As with any company, the usual management rules apply, but some are heightened because of the distance involved. If you're working with a team based in different cities, or considering it, we've found that the following tactics go a long way towards effectively managing a distributed team. And we'll bet these can work for you:
Set expectations up front
Making sure your employees are going to be happy and effective working as part of a distributed team starts before they become employees. It's not always easy, but choosing individuals who are proven self-starters and great at managing their time and working without in-person supervision is crucial. More than this, though, it's vitally important to make sure that potential employees will be content with home working or working from a coworking space. Not everyone is suited to working alone—and that's OK!—but those who can get along in this type of team will need to be happy with Skype, Google+ and IM instead of face time (rather than FaceTime) with co-workers.
We make it clear in interviews that we don't have a central office, and press applicants to be honest with themselves as to whether they'd enjoy this type of structure. From early in the process we look to set expectations about what our distributed setup is like, so that there are no surprises once the new employee starts settling in.
Communication, communication, communication
This one is so important I'll say it once more: clear, frequent communication is absolutely key to managing distributed workers. When there's no office, there's no way to peek in on your employees and see who's working hard and—wait for it—who's hardly working. Likewise, you can't read your employees' faces for confusion or discomfort. To make up for this deficit, you have to keep in regular contact, via Skype, email, IM and video chat if needed. And if you're not sure what they're thinking, ask. Better still, discuss this potential problem ahead of time, so your colleagues know that sometimes you might have to ask.
We set specific check-ins for projects, and also keep in touch more often to make sure that everyone is online, on-task and not getting too stuck working by themselves. If something comes up, we have to address it straightaway, focusing on solutions. Keeping lines of communication open in both directions is particularly helpful: at any time, team members know they can ask their managers for a chat or just fire off a simple question. And we work hard on keeping communication clear, otherwise there's potential for misunderstanding. Cutting to the chase, all while stating things simply and straightforwardly, makes everyone's lives easier.
The final aspect to managing a distributed team is flexibility. The main advantage for employees in distributed working is being able to offer employees a more flexible work life. The main advantage to our company is being able to tap the talents of people who might work hundreds or thousands of miles away. Being able to work from anywhere, adjust hours around your own schedule and work in your own style is fantastic!
This also requires flexibility in managing such a team. Giving everyone more freedom is good: it raises morale and makes for a more productive workforce. But it means that we have to be flexible in setting work schedules, finding meeting times and offering different ways to meet and collaborate. We use a lot of online collaboration tools—from Google Docs and Dropbox to Apollo HQ—so that team members can work on projects together, on their own schedules and in their own independent styles. By us being open to using different tools, our team can find what works best for them and for specific projects. Sure, it means you have to let go of some control and give your team more agency, but that extra freedom and responsibility will give them creative room and motivation to produce great work. And ultimately, that makes for the best results for our partners!