Remote work is having a powerful impact in the workplace. Within the next 12 months, the number of professionals who work remotely some or all of the time will settle around 48%. Like many professionals, you probably already have experience working outside of the office—but that doesn’t automatically mean the experience was a good one.
What does it take to support or lead a distributed team to do great work?
Leading any team successfully draws on core management skills. With a distributed workforce, many actions need to be done boldly and with purpose. That means doubling down on the fundamentals of good management, even as you try to figure out which principles serve your remote team members and where you should try something new.
In this article, we’ll review 10 best practices for distributed teams:
- Use remote work as the default setting
- Leverage the uniqueness of your distributed team
- Prioritize clear and consistent communication
- Invest in suitable communication tools and collaboration tools
- Cultivate a strong team culture
- Set clear remote work expectations
- Hold each other accountable
- Encourage work-life balance among team members
- Provide continuous learning and development opportunities
- Make data and tech security a priority
By learning from these well-tested strategies, you can customize solutions to fit your team’s needs rather than start from scratch.
1. Use remote work as the default
Whether your entire team is fully distributed or follows a hybrid workplace model, using a “remote-first” lens can help you create the most robust practices.
Remote-first organizations design processes, culture, and infrastructure with remote as the default setting—even if they have office space and in-office teams. When you optimize for remote work, you can put foundational practices in place that give your team the flexible work to adapt to any circumstances.
2. Leverage the uniqueness of your distributed team
Some of the greatest challenges faced by distributed teams can also be their greatest strengths. For example:
- Learning to work effectively across different time zones can enable you to run 24/7 operations
- Addressing communication difficulties can create better options for everyone
- Embracing cultural diversity can lead to powerful perspectives and insights
Until you find solutions that work well for your team, however, be patient! Gaps can be amplified when your team doesn’t share office space, and logistical issues can add complications to your day-to-day work. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll hit bumps in the road.
Time zone differences
Working across multiple time zones often requires a different approach to work. You may find that:
- Getting your team together for a meeting, at a time that’s convenient for everyone, can be difficult, if not impossible
- Deadlines may need to be adjusted to suit different work schedules in different locations
- Different countries have varying holidays and productivity rhythms, which can add complexity to logistics
Leaning into asynchronous communication—collaboration and information sharing that doesn’t need to happen in real time—can address some of these concerns. But you’ll likely need to tailor a solution to fit the specific needs of your team, assuring that no individuals are consistently disadvantaged.
Differences in vocabulary, expression, and understanding—even among people who speak the same language—can lead to miscommunication and conflict.
Making video calls a normal part of your communication strategy can help offset this; non-verbal cues and tone of voice influence how people receive and respond to information. However, it’s also important to recognize that some cues can differ between cultures. For example, some gestures that may be seen as positive in one country may be seen as offensive in another.
Working for IBM in the 1960s, social psychologist Geert Hofstede conducted employee surveys in more than 70 national subsidiaries around the world. This global research formed Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory, a model with six dimensions that can help quantify values that are broadly reflected in different cultures.
What does this mean for you as a manager? Time zone and language differences are obvious. But different countries may also have different priorities, values, and expectations—and these may not be as easy to identify. Established cultural norms can influence how workers make decisions, communicate, or respond to authority.
By exploring baseline cultural expectations, you can be better prepared for potential situations across multicultural teams.
Working across different locations can lead to a lack of consistency in working conditions. While it’s important to ensure everyone has the resources they need to do the work, you also need to consider external factors. These might include:
- Varying internet speeds and connectivity
- Interruptions—from brownouts, family members, construction, or other distractions
- Local emergencies, such as flooding, tornadoes, or wildfires
While your organization as a whole should have a business continuity plan (BCP) in place, creating an action plan to help guide your team through more localized disruptions can give your team clarity and help them stay on track.
Our top tip? Assume the best
Whether your team is new to remote work or you’re new to your role as a leader, there are bound to be bumps along the way. Assuming good intent by all participants and approaching challenges with empathy, flexibility, and curiosity can be valuable as your team learns to navigate the way forward.
3. Prioritize clear and consistent communication
Effective communication is a cornerstone for any team—and on a virtual team, the need for both understanding and regular chances to connect is even greater.
When a team works in one location, informal interactions are part of the normal pace of work. If you have a question, you drop by someone’s desk or step out for a working lunch. A distributed team relies much more heavily on purposeful and structured virtual interactions.
Creating opportunities for your team to communicate with each other:
- Builds trust and a stronger sense of being part of the team
- Keeps everyone aligned on priorities and progress, especially in a dynamic work environment
- Facilitates team collaboration and accountability through check-ins and updates
- Improves engagement and transparency by helping team members feel involved, informed, and appreciated
To improve remote team communication, soliciting feedback and regularly reviewing your approach can help. For example, your team may benefit from adjustments to:
- Meeting size and frequency. A weekly team check-in can be a great opportunity to provide updates. Biweekly one-on-ones can be a valuable part of the feedback loop. On some teams, that may be too much—on others, too little. Trial and error will help you find the right cadence.
- How you share and distribute documents and information. Clarity comes from having one always current source of truth, such as an intranet or shared folder.
- Taking time to understand your team. Through team surveys, feedback, and even personality tests, you can gain a better understanding of what your team wants, what’s missing, and how you can accommodate each person’s unique style.
Inevitably, your team will have misunderstandings, conflicts, and gaps. Prioritizing communication is the most direct route to help resolve situations as they come up.
4. Invest in suitable communication tools and collaboration tools
Clarity and good intentions will only get your team so far if they don’t have a reliable stack of tech tools to support their work. In order to stay connected and communicate, manage work, and collaborate effectively, a distributed team needs services and apps that are functional, secure, and available from everywhere.
There are many different ways to share information and ideas: one-to-one or one-to-many, written or spoken, public or private. Teams naturally use all of these strategies to one degree or another in the course of their day-to-day operations—but they don’t always do so with purpose.
That’s particularly true when it comes to one of the most important strategies for distributed teams: synchronous versus asynchronous communication, understanding which interactions should happen in real time and which are fine with a delayed response.
For example, a sensitive conversation or business-critical meeting will likely be best done live. But delivering a project update or catching up on a regular team meeting can often be done asynchronously, through a recording or messaging system such as Slack.
You can build an arsenal of productivity tools to support your virtual team. This might include:
- Video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams.
- Instant messaging applications, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Chat, and Skype.
- Project management tools, such as Asana, Hive, monday.com, and Trello.
- Document sharing platforms, such as Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox.
5. Cultivate a strong team culture
The challenge with team culture is that it always exists, but leaders and participants aren’t always aware of or in control of it.
Every team has a unique set of characteristics shaped by the values, beliefs, and behaviors held by its members. Culture influences not just how your team interacts and approaches their work, but also their relationships with other teams and even your customers.
Take stock of your team’s existing culture by considering how your team reflects different priorities, such as:
- Mission, vision, and goals. As the leader, you likely have a firm understanding of the directives that drive the day-to-day work of your team—do the members of your team have the same clarity?
- Values and beliefs. As with the mission, vision, and goals, you’re likely very familiar with the principles that are meant to guide the work your team does. How do they show up in your team’s activities? How do you model these behaviors in your leadership style?
- Collaboration. How often do the members of your team work together? How often do they connect, whether for work-related reasons or not?
- Psychological safety. Are the members of your team comfortable sharing feedback and ideas, as well as questions or concerns?
- Accountability. Do team members have a clear understanding of performance expectations as well as the responsibilities they have to each other? How do team members hold each other accountable?
- Recognition and feedback. How are team members publicly or privately recognized for their contributions and achievements? How often do they receive praise and constructive feedback from you or other team members?
Team culture ebbs and flows, which means it’s constantly evolving—and easy to nudge in new directions. Building a positive workplace culture may involve:
- Solidifying your mission and values—for your team or the company as a whole
- Rethinking how your team members demonstrate those values
- Changing how you support diversity, equity, and inclusion within your team
- Encouraging honest and open communication
- Finding new ways to celebrate successes
- Encouraging healthier work-life balance
- Making an effort to encourage social connections within your team
- Fostering an environment for learning and development
Virtual team-building activities can do double duty, giving team members a chance to have fun together while underscoring some of the values you want to infuse to create a more vibrant and connected team.
6. Set clear remote work expectations
Working remotely takes a high degree of self-management and autonomy. You can help your team build the right skills, such as time management strategies and tips to stay healthy and productive. However, as a leader, one of the most important things you can do is to clearly define what’s expected of each team member.
With a distributed team, clarity has to be paramount—whether you’re thinking about communication, project management, or guidelines for your team. Those expectations might include:
- Work hours and availability
- Communication protocols
- Performance measurements
- Data security and confidentiality
- Status updates and reporting
- Behavioral norms and team etiquette
- Handling of challenges and disagreements
Defined expectations and predictability feed into a culture of trust and accountability that’s essential for a distributed team.
7. Hold each other accountable
Accountability starts with clear expectations and achievable goals; it means taking ownership of your actions, decisions, and results. And yes, each individual is personally accountable. But accountability in the workplace is a team sport.
Expectations, accountability, and trust are all part of the same equation:
- Expectations are set when a team member makes a commitment to deliver results within a defined scope and parameters.
- Accountability flows between that person and the rest of the team—to celebrate their success or, if they fall short, to be responsible for any follow-on effects.
- Trust is the confidence team members have in each other, based on their capabilities, intentions, and ability to consistently meet expectations.
Accountability isn’t about perfection, inflexibility, or micromanaging—projects change, life happens, business priorities shift. However, if an expectation can’t be met, it’s important to revise it in a timely manner. That takes honest communication and a degree of transparency.
Make accountability a habit for your team by regularly bringing it up and giving the team more visibility into current projects. For example, consider:
- Using a shared project management system to put assignments and deadlines in writing
- Encouraging accountability partnerships to help each other reach SMART performance goals or get input into current projects
- Checking in with team members on a regular basis to see how things are going and to ensure they have the support they need
8. Encourage work-life balance among team members
Without the clear structure and physical boundaries that come from commuting to and working in an office, remote employees face challenges blending personal and professional responsibilities. But the potential for better work-life balance is what draws so many people to remote work. When given the option to work flexibly, 87 percent of employees will take it.
Finding equilibrium starts at the top. If you don’t model effective work-life balance, or if you set expectations that don’t allow room for flexibility, your team may struggle. By showing the habits you use to work from home effectively, you’ll help your team establish their own routines and feed into the team culture you want to cultivate.
As a leader, you can share and encourage various techniques to improve work-life balance for your team. These include scheduling personal time, periodically unplugging, defining personal priorities, and establishing good ergonomics at home.
9. Provide continuous learning and development opportunities
Investing in employee development can help any worker perform at their best and keep their skills sharp, but it can be an especially important link with a distributed team. Remote work challenges team members to:
- Flex existing skills in new ways, such as how they approach communication, collaboration, and self-motivation
- Be purposeful about gaining new skills, since opportunities for informal learning are more limited
- Maintain digital literacy and track new technologies that may impact remote work
You can also use learning and development programs to help distributed team members connect with each other as well as colleagues in other departments and external industry experts.
However, a commitment to virtual training is just the first step. To design effective learning opportunities for your remote team members, consider:
- Talking with team members about their challenges with remote work so you can prioritize skills that can quickly have a meaningful impact.
- Combining team brainstorming with a skills assessment to help identify areas of strength as well as areas for improvement.
- Leveraging blended learning experiences—which combine independent learning with face-to-face interactions—so your team can gain new skills together.
- Finding the right learning platforms to facilitate remote learning, so workers who do virtual training are not at a disadvantage to those who do it in person.
As you move forward with training opportunities, check in with team members and provide feedback on their improvements. With regular engagement, you can help your team process and apply what they’ve learned and encourage them to keep going.
10. Make data and device security a priority
Cybersecurity is a shared responsibility that can be harder to maintain—especially if you have a newly distributed team.
First and foremost, using personal devices and wifi networks to access internal data can create new data security risks. But hackers are also using smarter tactics, and it can be harder to address those risks if you don’t have easy access to an IT team.
How can your organization maintain security without hindering your team’s ability to get things done? A number of remote work security best practices can help keep your company’s data safe. For example:
- Train and educate your team members so they can recognize vulnerability points and take steps to plug security holes in their home networks and minimize risks.
- Define security protocols with remote workers in mind, such as using a VPN and two-factor authentication, explaining how to encrypt their hard drives, and asking them to set devices to automatically lock.
- Ensure the company’s internal network is proactively monitored for suspicious-looking activity, using a tool such as a network intrusion detection system (NIDS).
Moving to remote work may require changing or updating your company’s security strategy. However, by putting the right protections in place, data security doesn’t need to be an area of concern.
Seize the benefits of distributed teams with Upwork
When you lead a distributed team, distance is always top of mind—and it does have its challenges. Remote work impacts how your team communicates, connects with each other, and gets things done.
But remote work can also give your team a powerful advantage. You can leverage top talent from around the world, expand your organization’s capacity to do great work, and give each of your team members the flexibility they need to take care of themselves and their families.
Review your remote work practices regularly, soliciting feedback from the team and monitoring performance and results so you can spot any new challenges before they get too big.
If you need assistance optimizing your strategy, Upwork can help. Engage cybersecurity and data protection experts or employee learning and development professionals to ensure your team has the support it needs to work safely and effectively. Tap into Upwork’s global talent marketplace to find the skilled professionals your company can’t find locally.
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