How to Work with Distributed Teams

Do you remember the days before the pandemic when getting ready to leave the house and transferring to the office was a part of your everyday routine? We neither! We, too, have forgotten how far away those times are. 

Remote work has become a standard part of our lives. The lack of commuting freed up time to focus on our hobbies and created new opportunities. Now businesses and employees can cut costs, save time, and collaborate with people from different countries (or even continents). And it all works!

The pandemic introduced most of the world to remote conditions, online meetings, and accidentally muted microphones. Unfortunately, we’ve also experienced many obstacles and challenges in our own home offices. Working as a distributed team member has become our daily routine, but not everything is as easy as we would like it to be.

How can you prevent burnout in a team that’s dispersed across the globe? Are there any practices, tips, or tools that can help you improve your online communication and collaboration? We struggle with the same questions, so here’s what we found out when trying to solve them.

What are the challenges of a distributed team?

Can geographically dispersed teams perform and collaborate efficiently? While there are many benefits, working in a distributed team can cause many pitfalls in certain situations. Below, we present the top seven common challenges you can come across while working from home.

1. Lack of in-person interaction

How many times have you heard your colleagues say something brilliant while having a cup of coffee? Plenty! Not being able to chit-chat in an office corridor is the reason why many ideas may never turn into reality. Having to communicate via emails or online communicators, such as Slack or Teams, may distort the normal pace of conversations, cause delays, and great visions may never see the daylight.

While working remotely, communication is significantly reduced as well as any social interactions. Remote workers might feel isolated in their four walls, resulting in decreased motivation. This situation can be especially difficult for extroverts thriving amongst other peers, having their momentum while collaborating on projects, or just enjoying that office vibe.

What could be the solution?

Foster small talks, 1:1 sessions with managers, or virtual team hangouts. Try the digital form of “water cooler” chats that used to be an integral part of office work for many employees. Such actions can strengthen the relationships between workers, ensure that casual conversations still occur, and make everyone feel connected with the team. And they don’t have to last an hour — a 15-minute session per week will do!

To prevent the lack of interactions, you can centralize the communication channels among team members to build a successful distributed team collaboration. With a common space for sharing updates, questions, and feedback, all team members can stay in the loop and work together effectively. Practicing “coffee sync” meetings can also help bond with different team members while having an informal chat.

2. Lack of maintaining the company culture

Developing and maintaining the internal corporate culture is still a significant factor when working remotely. Even minor misunderstandings can snowball into huge problems if they are not resolved quickly enough with appropriate measures. And when you add cultural differences to the pot, you get the perfect recipe for disaster.

What could be the solution?

If employees don’t work from the same place every day, it might be difficult for them to connect or understand each other, leading to colossal collaboration and communication barriers. Try to provide more opportunities for digital team-building activities. Consider using online tools that allow you to interact face-to-face with others.

And how about a weekend getaway? If possible, hold yearly (or seasonal) gatherings with everyone who would like to spend time with actual people, not avatars. Organize annual company retreats where you fly everyone out to one location in the world and spend an entire week together reinforcing professional and social ties. We’re pretty sure that these will be the events you won’t quickly forget!

3. Productivity issues

The success and effectiveness of the company hugely depend on how coordinated and motivated the teams are. To achieve common goals, tasks must be completed according to their deadlines and following agreed-upon standards. When working remotely, it might be challenging to deliver projects at a level satisfactory for their owner, causing possible delays.

What could be the solution?

Set clear expectations on what, when, and why projects should be delivered before serious work even starts. The clearer the goals are defined and expressed, the better. If you don’t communicate what you expect from your team, it can lead to further problems, including disruption to the workflow.

Use tools that can help with product management while also keeping the team’s productivity at a satisfactory level. Consider using Jira to manage your work or Confluence to create a unified knowledge base. Check in regularly with your coworkers to ensure they are on track and engaged in the process. If any risks occur on the horizon, schedule meetings to discuss project statuses and provide changes or help to weak links.

4. Lack of motivation

Employee motivation plays a crucial role in the team’s performance. But it’s a great challenge to keep dispersed teams inspired and engaged. According to the Harvard Business Review article, three negative aspects contribute to the decline in productivity — emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

What could be the solution?

Don’t forget to let your team members know that you appreciate their everyday contribution. Working from home can make everyone feel isolated, left out, and, unfortunately, unmotivated. To prevent this from happening, make your employees’ efforts noticed and appreciated by having team dinners after completing a demanding project, rewarding individuals with salary raises, or providing feedback acknowledging professional skills.

Encourage everyone to enhance their skills or learn something new. You can support this initiative by funding a part of the course the employee has chosen or offering specific training on behalf of the company. By showing that you care, you motivate your employees to get more qualified in the areas they want to explore. After all, motivation and self-development are very closely related.

Last but not least. Don’t micromanage! It’s the easiest way to demotivate a team if you meddle in the smallest details. Meticulous control leads to an unhealthy working atmosphere.

5. Distracting home environment

We’re pretty sure you have seen the videos with kids bursting into the room during live news, cats demanding attention from their owners in front of the camera, or wives (or husbands) wanting to have a morning chat. And we can bet that at least one of these scenarios also happened to you in the last two and a half years of remote work.

Distractions are an integral part of remote work. Finding the perfect spot to tune into the work mode is already a challenge, but what’s even tougher is limiting the distractions that accompany each and every household. Ringing phones, crying children, barking dogs — that’s not something you’d encounter in the office space. These, and many more, disturbances may divert your attention and affect your performance.

What could be the solution?

Help your remote workers create their dream home office environment if your company budget allows it. You can equip them with anything they need, including desks, chairs, laptops, or noise-canceling headphones. An alternative solution that might also help is renting coworking spaces for groups of employees located in the same city but not having their office headquarters there.

6. Cultural differences and language barriers

Many companies hire people from all over the world as they might bring different skills and values to the team. However, along with the benefits, it also means that vastly different languages, cultures, and communication styles are introduced to your organization. Sooner or later, people can misunderstand each other, and awkward (or even unpleasant) situations may arise.

Of course, working in a cross-cultural remote team is a big plus as different points of view and experiences surround you. But different cultures mean different values, norms, or work styles that you may turn out not to be a fan of. It might be challenging to overcome cultural disparities and find common ground to work effectively as a team.

What could be the solution?

Try to acknowledge language and cultural barriers. If not everyone on your team speaks perfect English, ask natives to avoid using slang, idioms, or jargon. Offer language classes to those who would like to improve their skills and become more fluent.

Consider hosting ice breaker sessions for the entire team to let everyone say a few words about their culture. Such sessions allow employees to ask questions and also learn something new and interesting. This will also help in building the team’s spirit.

7. Time zones mismatch

Distributed teams mean different time zones. The workday can already be in full swing for some team members, whereas it’s early morning for others. Such conditions create a big gap between certain time zones, making it tricky to hold meetings at a time convenient for everyone.

Team members can also experience massive delays in responses to almost every question they might ask. Working late into the evening or waking up for meetings at 6 a.m. are also possible scenarios. To work effectively in such circumstances, you must step into the shoes of a master of logistics. 

What could be the solution?

Be more cautious of the standard working hours of your employees and use dedicated tools to easily find the best hour to host a meeting with your dispersed team. You can use tools like World Clock Meeting Planner or Every Time Zones to convert the time. Such free apps allow you to choose the most suitable time within everyone’s regular daytime business hours.

Record the sessions for team members who cannot attend the meeting due to the time difference. They will be able to catch up with the news at their own convenient time and get back to you with questions via Slack or other communication tools you use. Recording the meetings will also work if someone needs to take care of their child, has a doctor’s appointment, or because of a sick day.

What are the distributed teams’ best practices?

Even though more and more employees return to offices, the concept of remote work has become the new “normal” for many of us. Both companies and workers have to adjust to the current conditions accordingly. To work effectively in this new landscape, we must apply distributed workforce best practices.

Below you’ll find five best practices for a distributed team:

  • Recurring check-ins and meetings

As we have already emphasized in this article — communication is critical. The flow of conversation is extremely important to every team member, regardless of their physical location. And with employees spread across different time zones and locations, it should be the number one priority.

Consider sending daily standup updates on a dedicated Slack channel, status emails at the end of the day, all hands/town hall meetings, or 1:1s with direct reports. As you can see, the possibilities to stay up to date with your team are numerous and endless. Of course, it doesn’t mean you have to run dozens of check-ins every week by any means. 

Choose what would work best for you and your team and try it out for a couple of weeks. Ask for feedback if such workflow helps your mates with their everyday tasks. If not, rearrange meetings to ensure they will bring value to everyone. Keeping an open line of communication will help you align and push forward initiatives and projects in a distributed workforce setting.

  • Best tools and tech

Laptops, monitors, or keyboards played an obvious role in performing duties when most office workers were forced to become remote overnight. And just as working without them is impossible, working with a faulty or stuttering system is probably much more frustrating.

To have complete control over your tasks or meetings, you need to use the right tools. Very often, free versions of applications are completely sufficient to make your workflow more enjoyable. For example, Asana can help you manage your projects, and Google Calendar can help you schedule your entire week.

Oh! And don’t forget about regular updates or antivirus software on your company laptop. It will undoubtedly save you a lot of trouble and unpleasant situations like account hacks or lost passwords. 

  • Clear goals for everyone

A company’s success in a distributed workforce depends on meaningful goal-setting. Remote work gives employees the flexibility not to be tied up to the same confines of a traditional workplace. However, at the same time, it also means that goals and objectives have to be defined even more clearly and transparently so they won’t get misunderstood and the details will not be omitted (or forgotten about).

Set reasonable goals with your entire team to ensure everyone is on the same page. Try different methods to plan out the roadmaps and what you want to accomplish in the next couple of months. Use the SMART technique, where you define specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound objectives.

  • Projects and productivity trackers

Within a team, especially a distributed one, tracking projects, progress, and productivity is highly significant. As now it’s harder to have casual chats about your work, you may need a tool that will allow you to track down tasks and see at which stage of completion they are. And just as Asana or Trello are great for project management, you can also time-track your contractors’ work with Harvest.

But not only team managers can track progress in such tools. Every team member can see what their colleagues are working on, at what stage the projects are, and if any blockers affect their tasks. Monitoring work online leads to better productivity and collaboration and viewing the status of all projects across the team in one platform saves time.

  • Team bonding practices

Organize social events, like virtual happy hours or game nights, so remote workers can get together and socialize. Planning time for your team to have fun together can help them get to know each other better and bond. Such social events have a significant impact on the team’s morale as well! 

The best collaboration tools for distributed teams

To work successfully in a remote setup, you need more than a great Wi-Fi connection or self-motivation. Distributed teams use and depend on many digital tools to collaborate efficiently and deliver tasks in a timely manner. Below you’ll find a collection of indispensable tools that every remote employee should incorporate into their job.

Used by millions of people every day, Slack is one of the most popular apps that helps teams communicate daily and stay in touch with anyone in the organization. The app allows people to be involved in conversations no matter where they are located. Use it for everyday syncing, short announcements, updates, sharing inspiration, or sending requests. The sky is the limit!

Keep your documentation nice and neat in an online format. Create instructions, plan out the strategies, or simply make notes. Anything that needs to be written down can be done on Confluence. Oh, and you can use it for internal communication as well as a Help Center for your customers.

The ideal tool for Agile teams to keep track of their tasks, work on effective product delivery, and stay aligned. Add all your to-do tasks to Jira to know what to work on next. Plan out your entire week, month, or year with Jira templates.

Stay in touch with your colleagues by having regular check-in meetings. Use the tool to report your updates, see familiar teammates’ faces, and chat about anything.

How about having documentation, Jira tickets, and video chats in one place? With Whiteboards.io, it’s possible! Upload any document to your virtual board to take a look at it at any time. Import Jira tickets and edit their details from one place. (And vice versa!) No need to switch between two platforms. Anything performed on Whiteboards will be mirrored in Jira automatically.

And if you would like to collaborate with your team, conduct a brainstorming session, or organize any Agile event, hop on an audio and video call! The Whiteboards app allows you to see and hear your teammates on a virtual board without having to use other video conferencing tools.

Best templates to work with distributed teams

The beginning of this decade has definitely put team and product management to the test. And as unpredictable and uncertain as it was, now we have much more experience in those areas. Whiteboards.io offers dozens of templates you can use when collaborating with your dispersed team. 

We’ve prepared a list of the best six templates you can try with your remote employees no matter where they are: 

1. Project Planning

Plan out the project’s scope and present all of your ideas and goals on a digital whiteboard. Demonstrate complex visions on a comprehensive map where you can also manage your tasks and resources before fully committing to delegating and executing them by appropriate employees. 

Whenever you’re ready, share the plan with your stakeholders to let them know which direction you plan to go with the project. Effectively monitor the current status and progress of the tasks. Manage risks and use feedback for the next project planning phase.

2. Product Canvas

Take a look at your product and list all pros and cons of whether to develop it or not. It will give you an idea of how much value it could bring to your customers when compared with the cost. The template will be your guide to understanding your service better and using that knowledge to build and create a more robust service. Define your goal, design your concept, and see if it guides your idea to success.

Instead of bombarding your users with dozens of features, focus on incremental and consistent improvements they actually asked for. The Product Canvas template helps teams decide which features they should prioritize over others to achieve product excellence.

3. Working Backwards

Take a look at your visions and ideas from a completely different perspective. Shift your standard working practice and visualize in reverse the steps needed to complete a project. Start with identifying current challenges in your company or team and defining the desired outcomes. 

Take notes of all the steps you would need to take to make your idea a reality. Envision how much time and team effort would be required to bring the project to life. After completing the exercise, take a look at your insights and decide if the project is still worth doing. 

4. Monthly Planner

See what you must accomplish during the month by putting all work items on a virtual calendar. Track your meetings, deadlines, and to-do tasks with a birds-eye view of the entire month. Use the template to monitor the tasks of individuals or the whole team.

Adjust the month to your needs by dividing it into weeks, days, or even times of the day. Keep the calendar simple by writing down one task on one digital sticky note. Make the process easier by color-coding the stickies according to their owners or projects. 

5. Stakeholders Analysis

Analyze exactly who your stakeholders are, what they need, and how you can keep them in a loop. Consider how valuable their feedback is when working on a project and how interested they are in seeing the final product. Check how they can help your projects evolve and what the best communication channels are.

Conduct the proper analysis at an early stage of your work to set right and clear expectations from both you and the stakeholders. Such an approach might also prevent miscommunication and ensure everyone is familiar with the objectives.

6. Wheel Of Questions

Start your work with a fun exercise that can also be treated as a team-building activity. Encourage everyone to spin a wheel and see which question will be drawn for them. Take turns one after another or at random until you’re ready to start the meeting. 

Summing up

Ok, so there you have it! In the article, we’ve outlined the most prevalent challenges distributed teams have to deal with nowadays and presented spot-on solutions on how to prevent them. Using them might help your team’s well-being, productivity, and morale!

We’ve also listed out the best practices to try out by the dispersed teams to ensure everyone stays on the same page and no unexpected obstacles will delay product delivery. 

To make sure everything is right on track, consider using online collaboration tools that can help you with communication amongst the team, storing important internal and external materials, or visualizing your tasks on virtual templates provided by Whiteboards.

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