Managing Distributed teams

Gauri Chhabra

“The world is flat”, said Thomas Friedman. And when he said that, maybe little did we know that it would get flatter day by day and year after year. As we enter 2016, we enter a flatter world where the playing field is more level than ever. With initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ ruling in 2015, more and more companies have set shops on Indian soil. This has created a canvas where people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, languages and contexts interact and function.
If you are a team lead who manages distributed teams, let me tell you, your work is going to be full of challenges. It’s easy to feel disconnected from others, run into communication problems with time zones, and when you add cultural differences into the mix things can get complicated quickly. More than the physical distance, the central problem is social distance, or managing the emotional connection between coworkers. Even when people are sitting in the same office floors, the level of social distance is usually low more so in terms of geographically diverse teams. They can’t easily connect and align, so they experience high levels of social distance and struggle to develop effective interactions.
Here are some ways we’ve learned to make overcome the challenges:
Bridging cultural gaps- a
part of orientation:
Whenever you induct a new member in your team, besides his technical skills and competencies, as a team lead, it is imperative to give him an ‘Immersion Program’ of the cultural differences amongst members of the same team.  For instance, what passes for normal discourse in Germany or France may be seen as offensive in Asia. It can be important to state the objective and spell out the purpose ahead of time – simply put in the room what would otherwise be an implied understanding if everyone were coming from the same geography. There is also a difference in the way people view power distance. In eastern cultures there is a lot of power distance that people maintain whereas in the western cultures, the respect is in the heart and it stems from the way the work is done- the power distance is less. When working across cultures, it’s vital to know how the other person works and builds trust, and lean into that style.
Focus on Results
Managing a distributed team won’t work for every type of business, nor for every type of person. I run an offshore arm of an IT firm that has people from all backgrounds and cultures on the same teams. We have occasional cultural issues but normally the way we work isn’t much different than how we would work if we were in an office together. What has been clear to me from day one, however, is that creating a results-only culture is key. We don’t track employee work hours and offer unlimited vacation time. Rather, we encourage “forced” vacation time for those team members who are tempted to never go on vacation. The point is, we don’t care what our team members are doing as long as they’re producing the results we do care about, and are able to produce those results on a sustained basis. This at times also means that in a 100 people company, you may find not more than 20 people working in the office premises. The rest may be working from home or at the client’s side.
Hold daily scrums
When I first read the book” Agile Samurai”, I got to know what daily scrum meant. It is a daily meeting that goes not more than 10 min and includes members from all across teams even if they are in diverse locations. Because we all work remotely we can’t have these meetings in person so we do them on slack. The meeting is simple–each of us posts three things we’re going to get done that day and if there is a roadblock. . If we see an opportunity to provide input on the others’ to-do list, we offer it. If someone needs help with an item, this is their chance to ask for it. It takes about almost 30 min each day, but makes a huge difference when it comes to feeling like everyone knows what every else is doing.
Looping in everyone
For an in depth understanding of the health of the project and where is  it heading it is imperative to have an all-hand meeting each week. These meetings last approximately half an hour and each member of our team gives a brief report of the highlights from the past week and what they’ll be working on the next week. At times, we don’t use this meeting to manage projects or coordinate anything–it’s purely to help everyone stay in the loop and hear each other’s’ voices. There are also separate weekly project management meetings for a more in depth understanding. These meetings are more in-depth.
Check in emails regularly
Managing a global team requires constant communication. If you are sitting at geographically diverse places, an hour’s delay in checking your mail that requires an instant query may lead to an actual 24 hours of delay or turnaround time causing rifts and mistrust between teams. To avoid such communication breakdowns, make brief check-ins a matter of company culture. Set up a weekly conference call with the entire team, but also make sure to schedule regular one-to-ones with individual team members. Creating a structure of mandatory meetings and check-ins will decrease the likelihood that small interpersonal errors turn into serious miscommunications.
Listen, listen, listen:
As a leader, you need to be an extremely good listener – so good that anyone can just walk in through the door and share his concern with you. Over a third of employees think their bosses do not listen to their workplace concerns. Leaders may have to be more comfortable in making decisions with less information than they would like but that doesn’t mean their teams are equally comfortable.
Helping people be more comfortable with ambiguity is important, particularly for teams working together virtually and across borders. Different people like to raise issues in different ways, and not always in an open forum. The leaders’ job is to understand the important concerns and remove the barriers. Leaders need to be seen to be listening to, and acting on, the concerns of their diverse teams.
Tackle conflict
Not enough leaders handle workplace conflict well. Among a diverse team, whether of age, geography or cultural background, conflict will arise and as a leader, you must be skilled in dealing with it. People need a set of ground rules that help them understand the expected consistencies amongst all the differences they experience, and to help deal with confrontation and conflict. Without solid ground rules, people won’t understand what they can expect and misunderstanding will often escalate into conflict. When describing effective leadership, employees do not point to the big, company-wide initiatives like values, but rather having a common set of guidelines for things like meetings and day-to-day conversations.
Create confluence
Create confluence of people with common interest. It might be book reading, technology, passion for cars, anything. For instance, you may create a club of book readers. You may create a list of books to be read every week and share it with other members of your team through a Google sheet. If you think the book is critical, you can buy it for everyone and then use the spreadsheet to track what books you bought for whom. Sometimes you may read books at the same time and discuss them, which fosters a sense of connection through shared knowledge.
The writing on the wall is very clear: diversity and inclusion is now a leadership strategy. It is a topic all leaders should take seriously- more seriously as we step into 2016 with a flatter and more diverse world.


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