Distributed Team Management

Katarzyna Lawera

The pandemic has accelerated many processes in various aspects of our lives. It has made the topic of the distributed team the number one issue for all those who deal with the subjects of managing, motivating and maintaining work commitment.

Many texts and studies are being written on the subject, in which management theorists and practitioners point out pitfalls, risks and possible solutions. These visions have in common that nurturing a sense of community is fundamental and most important in managing a distributed team.

Some call this identification with the company. But what exactly is this company that I am supposed to identify with? I always recall one manager who used to say that it’s not the company that solves problems. It’s the people. There is no such thing as a company. There are the people who make it up: people that we like or dislike, form bonds, cooperate or compete with.

So I prefer to talk about building bonds and a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging is one of the basic human needs we satisfy in relationships. It is also strongly linked to the need for security. Being embedded in a group makes us feel safer, more mentally resilient and more eager.

So how do we take care of the feeling of belonging in a team in a situation of remote work?

Let’s start by thinking about what built a sense of belonging before the pandemic ruined our routines. These were very small and sometimes seemingly insignificant things: a good morning smile, a few sentences exchanged while waiting for coffee in the company kitchen, a short conversation when we took our eyes off the monitor for a moment. These brief moments meant that we exchanged information in passing. And this allowed us to know what the people in my team were doing, what they liked, how they spent their last evening, where they were going on holiday. These are things that build bonds and a sense of belonging.

How do we create a space to share such information when we work remotely?
There are different ideas, and each team needs to find the one that works best for them. Some may arrange to meet in real life once a week or every other week. This is obviously not possible for everyone.

Many teams have a practice of starting the day with a short meeting where everyone says what they will be working on today, what they managed to close yesterday and what still needs to be done. And it’s not about daily project teams. It’s about exchanging very general information in a team where people from different projects come together. Such meetings give the feeling that we are starting to work with the whole team. Co-workers wake up and gather their energy, and some face tasks that could not be closed yesterday. It’s a very supportive experience that impacts us even though we don’t even think about it.

I have also encountered the practice of meeting at the end of the week or the end of the day for a general review, but also a looser chat before the weekend. Contrary to fears, people are happy to call in for such meetings and sometimes even spontaneously extend them for casual conversations.

In a scattered team situation, you have to take more care with the emotions in the team. They are harder to spot and harder to react to immediately. However, it is not worth giving in to the temptation to ignore them when something happened a few days ago, and we pretend that it resolved itself. Even if the issue has died down, the unresolved matter will come back and make a mess again. This is why it is vital for a leader to be attentive to conflicts and help resolve them.

When working remotely, it is essential how we communicate. We use instant messaging, which allows us to send information to the whole team. But the truth about us humans is that if something is to everyone, it is to no one. So-called diffusion of responsibility affects us all, so it’s crucial that the information you’re supposed to communicate in some situations is personalised – sent to a specific person with a headline just for that person. Particularly pay attention to this if it involves an invitation to an event. Ensure that the information has reached everyone and that everyone has understood it well.

Ensure that everyone can benefit from the development programme. It is not enough to announce it. Make sure everyone understands what it is and who is entitled to it. Talk to everyone about what ideas they have for using the training days for themselves, help them understand what they need in their job and how to reach for it.

Set boundaries. We all need boundaries to feel secure in our lives, to know what is within our competence and responsibilities and what is no longer. This sense of certainty is one of the important aspects of commitment. And commitment is built on clearly drawn boundaries.

Communicate clearly what the rules of cooperation in the team are. Point out behaviours that are not acceptable and assertively communicate expectations. This will not always meet with full approval, and you can expect complaints and dissatisfaction. However, if these rules are well thought out and are for good collaboration, be a guardian of them, as they will ultimately give a sense of clarity that helps us all.

And finally, ensure understanding. Try to present the team with a broader vision where they can see what the work they are doing is for, what bigger picture it is embedded in, and how it fits into the company’s goals. Understanding makes us engage differently with tasks and value what we do differently. There is an excellent comparison: If you tell a man to split stones, he will do it and think it is hard work, but if you tell him that the stones he is splitting are for building a temple, he may see a different value in it. Show your people what kind of temples they are building: help them find more meaning in what they are doing.