5 Best Practices for Leading A Geographically Dispersed Team

The war on talent seems to know no bounds. As organizations try to fill critical roles with people who have the right skills, they are constantly seeking strategies for attracting and retaining talent. One way organizations are filling the talent gap is by allowing team members to live and work remotely from the geographic areas they prefer. More and more teams are now either completely or partially geographically dispersed.

While this gives organizations a lot of flexibility in their hiring practices, there are also some unique challenges associated with teams working at a distance. Here are some quick tips that we share with leaders who are looking to manage a geographically dispersed team more effectively and create greater alignment among team members.

1) Communicate Responsively

One of the most critical components of building a successful team is timely communication. This is true of teams regardless of where their members are located. The importance of communication cannot be understated; teams we work with commonly rate communication as their top challenge. To operate efficiently and effectively, leaders and team members need to be committed to regular and responsive communication. Because the work done in most teams is highly interconnected, lag time can occur between when messages, assignments, or requests are sent and when they are responded to by the recipient.

While people generally have good intentions, the nature of dispersed teams can cause communication delays. As a leader, it is important that you model responsive communication and make people aware that this expectation applies to everyone. Keep in mind that if something can’t be addressed in the moment, you still need to acknowledge the message and clarify when you will be able to meet the request.

2) Be Flexible and Patient

Being the leader of a geographically dispersed team requires an added measure of flexibility and patience. Remember, your actions and behavior will set the tone for the rest of the team, influencing how they collaborate and engage with one another. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Dispersed team members often have schedules that differ from those of their colleagues.
  • Some team members may be full or part time, which can have an impact on the team’s ability to communicate, coordinate, and maintain accountability.
  • Differing time zones can make some calls or video conferences more or less convenient for some members of the group.
  • Dispersed teams tend to rely heavily on technology to communicate and execute on their work—and sometimes technology fails. When the power or internet goes down, computers don’t work, or systems break, be ready to adapt.

With these points in mind, you can encourage your team members to

Online chat

  • Have a designated workspace.
  • Establish a regular work schedule.
  • Clarify work schedules with their housemates to minimize distractions and interruptions.
  • Be prepared for technology issues or challenges that may arise.
  • Recognize that plans and clear communication are important, but things don’t always go as smoothly as intended.

You may also find that it is helpful to set some ground rules for remote meetings so team members can stay focused on relevant topics and the work to be done.

In a recent video conference with one of our clients, their dispersed team was working across many time zones and discussing the strategic direction of their company. Out of nowhere, the child of one of the meeting participants could be seen on screen waving to everyone. The CEO instantly recognized the reality of being dispersed and quickly interjected, welcoming the young person to the video conference. He also verbally acknowledged the challenges and realities that exist for those “not working in the main office.” He thanked everyone for their commitment and flexibility to the critical work being done by the team, even at a distance. This is the type of leadership that will allow a dispersed team to flourish.

3) Establish Accountability and Measure Progress

When working at a distance, it is easy to lose sight of how the work is progressing. To avoid this, establish a structure or process for daily reporting and updates. Whether it is an end-of-day summary that is messaged through enterprise-communication channels or visible systems that display KPIs and metrics, ensure that the team’s expectations are clear and consistent. This will give you, as the leader, a better understanding of how to prioritize your time, execute on the work, and coach team members. KPIs, scorecards, and visible reports eliminate social loafing; they also help people to stay aligned on goals and targets and create focus and commitment to achieving results.

In our organization, remote team members post a report at the end of each day and indicate the intensity of their workload using a simple color-code system:

Green – Light workload and able to shift and help others

Yellow – Busy, with limited time or availability to help others

Red – Facing critical deadlines or overloaded and needing support from others

The reporting mechanism that will work best for your situation is the one that will hold people accountable, align the efforts of individual team members, and help you know how to coach and develop your team so they can produce needed results.

4) Support Connection and Team UnityRemote communication

Remote team members often lack an emotional connection with their leaders and peers. They need to feel that they are part of a team and community, even if it is at a distance. People in this type of work environment often feel isolated. Isolation is a big problem when trying to build a high-performance team, so leaders need to facilitate opportunities for engagement and connection. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Actively seek out ideas, reactions, and input from all team members about important decisions or plans.
  • Recognize key moments for team members such as birthdays, holidays, or other important events. If you don’t know much about who your team members are outside of work, it’s a sign that you need to do more to build trusting relationships and a personal connection. While this takes time and effort, so does replacing good team members.
  • Just as you would walk by team member offices and say hello in a traditional team setting, reach out, say hello to, and check in with your dispersed team members. As you do so, incorporate a variety of approaches such as phone, email, text, chat, etc.
  • Recognize and celebrate accomplishments—both big and small. Many remote teams are ineffective at appropriately celebrating team progress and success. As a leader, find ways to always celebrate “better.”
  • If possible, rotate responsibility for facilitating team meetings and video conferences among team members. This takes some pressure off of you and provides development opportunities for different members of your team.
  • Distribute and cascade information on a regular basis. In this digital world, information (good or bad) can spread like wildfire. Make sure you are ahead of rumors and false information by sharing important news as early as possible. It is also important that you don’t inadvertently leave people out who should be included. When this happens, they typically find out through other channels and feel further isolated. Being forthcoming and mindful of others is key. When things go wrong, openly acknowledge the issues and express your commitment to doing better.

5) Get the Team Together Whenever You Can

In an increasingly virtual world, it is easy to focus on our task lists, projects, and immediate demands and lose the emotional connection that is essential to team success. Whenever and wherever possible, try to get your team together in the same location. This gives team members the chance to build a positive working culture and better understand the style of their teammates, which helps to build team synergy and enhance your ability to work collaboratively.

In a recent team-alignment meeting with one of our clients, one team member said, “Leadership doesn’t fully understand the impact that face-to-face get-togethers can have on our team. These meetings build our community and allow us to solve the bigger business issues we can’t tackle remotely.” Seize the opportunities to get together as much as possible, and when it isn’t feasible, be especially sensitive to how you can help the team establish trust and build unity.

While the dynamics of geographically dispersed teams will vary from team to team, leaders who can embody positive leadership attributes and incorporate these ideas into their regular practice will be able to minimize team challenges and maximize the effectiveness of each team player.

Related Services:

About the Author

Chris Stowell

Christopher Stowell is currently serving as CMOE’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing where he works with multi-national organization to develop their people. His special interests lie in coaching teamwork, strategy, e-learning, and assessment design, and delivery. Chris has a special talent in helping companies assess their organizational effectiveness and identifying key issues and opportunities in order to advance their performance and achieve long term results. Additionally, he has extensive experience in designing, coordinating, and facilitating customized adventure based experiential training events for high performance teams.