How to Effectively Manage Geographically Dispersed Teams

At Quickskill, our team is dispersed between North America, Central America, and Asia and our clients are spread throughout the world. Keeping such a diverse team aligned and motivated is a challenge and over the years we’ve honed in on the most effective strategies to keep everyone feeling connecting to each other and our vision.

Here are our top five best practices for managing geographically dispersed teams.

1) Host Weekly Team Meetings

Hosting weekly team meetings is one of the best ways to keep dispersed teams aligned on goals, clear up confusion about the projects they’re working on, and brainstorm solutions to challenges they’re facing.

To have effective meetings with dispersed teams you need to set ground rules that prevent power dynamics from silencing some of the voices on your team.

According to Tsedal Neely, an Organizational Behavior professor at Harvard Business School, one of the biggest challenges that dispersed teams phase is biased perceptions of whose voices matter most.

Typically, individuals who are closest to the boss, to headquarters, and/or make up the largest group, are the most dominant and tend to overlook people who are regionally isolated and/or are non-native speakers of the team’s primary language.

To ensure that everyone on your team is treated equally, moderate your meetings to give everyone a chance to speak and step in if ideas from certain people are ignored. The more democratic you make your meetings the better.

2) Create a Robust Knowledge Management System

Since dispersed teams lack the networks of shared knowledge that exist within offices, you must create a robust knowledge management system so your employees have access to the information they need to be successful.

Regardless of what tool you use to host your system, it needs to be:

  • Easy to find answers. People won’t use the system if it’s difficult to find the information they need. Create a standardized organizational system so it’s easy to find answers.
  • Updated regularly. Best practices are constantly evolving and so should your knowledge management system. As your team discovers better ways of doing things, have them existing resources and add new ones.
  • Viewed as a problem-solving resource. Even if you have an amazing knowledge management system, your team may not use it because they don’t see its value. To change that, refer your team to relevant pages when they’re struggling with work.

To learn more about creating a knowledge management system, check out our article:

How to Create a Knowledge Management System that Boosts Productivity

3) Foster a Strong Company Culture

Fostering a strong culture is one of the most impactful things leaders can do for geographically dispersed teams. Here’s why:

In co-located teams, culture often flourishes organically since people can easily chat with colleagues, overhear news that spreads through the office, see what leaders and other teams are doing, etc. This creates a sense of connectedness and an abundance of shared knowledge that makes everyone feel like they’re part of a team.

Dispersed teams lack that ease of connectedness which leaves most individuals feeling detached from the rest of their company. To foster a strong culture you need to give your team lots of opportunities to get to know each other, stay up-to-date on what’s happening in your company, and have casual interactions with one another.

Here are some simple initiatives that will help you foster a strong culture with your dispersed teams:

  • Send out an internal monthly newsletter featuring all of the cool events happening in each of your offices, interesting things employees from various locations have done, stories about your company’s mission, etc. It’s an easy way to keep employees in the loop with all the things their teammates are doing.
  • Create a collaborator match program. This is similar to a buddy program. Give your team the ability to be paired with another person in the company who they can collaborate with. Pairing employees with vastly different professional backgrounds gives them new perspectives and the ability to use diverse skills to solve problems faster. 
  • Set up casual slack channels. Encourage virtual water cooler conversations by creating slack channels for the topics that co-located teams often discuss during breaks. Popular ones include sports, food/cooking, parenting and music. This will help your team build rapport.

Giving your dispersed team a variety of ways to get to know each other will foster a strong culture and encourage them to collaborate more frequently.

4) Have Regular 1:1’s

When you don’t work in the same office as your direct reports it’s difficult to tell if they’re struggling with their work, feel overworked, going through a difficult period in life or experiencing other challenges that prevent them from performing their best.

Having regular 1:1’s (weekly or every other week) is critical for you to stay in-tune with your dispersed team’s needs. Here are some tips to make your meetings productive:

  • Have a standing agenda. This prevents you from having awkward meetings where neither of you knows what to talk about. If you need to use the whole meeting to discuss a big project or other urgent issue, you can disregard the agenda.
  • Keep them informed about changes in your team, upcoming projects, and other news that affects their work. Dispersed employees often feel out of touch and will appreciate you keeping them in the loop.
  • Offer additional support if they appear to be struggling. Employees won’t always ask for help so you need to watch for warning signs such as missing deadlines, struggling to answer questions about what they’re working on, sounding tired etc. Show that you care by offering to help them work through their challenges.

In addition to following these tips, ask your employees how they want to use your 1:1’s. This will enable you to use the time to best support them.

Related: 1:1 Meeting Questions that Drive Employee Performance

5) Set Clear Project Visions 

One of the biggest challenges that geographically dispersed teams face is that most people understand their own responsibilities but they lack an understanding of how their work fits into the project as a whole and when/how they should collaborate their colleagues.

Here’s how to help your team understand how their work fits into the big picture:

  1. Host project kickoff meetings. In addition to explaining your project goals, this gives you an opportunity to introduce team members who haven’t worked together before, highlight each member of the team’s expertise and responsibilities, and get everyone excited to work on the project.
  2. Document all project info in a shared space. Since people will inevitably forget a lot of the information from your project kickoff meetings, it’s helpful to have all the project info, teammate responsibilities, and deadlines stored in a wiki page or project management tool for everyone to reference.
  3. Continuously remind your team of the project vision. Once people start working, they’ll often focus solely on their part of the project. Frequently reminding them of the vision helps them create more cohesive work and collaborate more with their colleagues.

To effectively manage a geographically dispersed team you need to continuously work to ensure every employee understands how they fit into the bigger picture, remains in the loop on changes that affect their work, and feels supported by their team.

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