5+1 basic rules of managing distributed teams

Mate Varga is VP of Engineering at Patients Know Best. From his home in Hungary, he manages a diverse team of 30 individuals from across the UK, Spain, France and Hungary.

Man on a laptop in bright room

I have been working remotely for many years and spent most of this time growing and managing fully distributed teams. However, we are now in a situation where many people are forced to adopt remote working at short notice, so I would like to share some of the basic rules of managing remote teams efficiently.

We are new to this, and our intuitions are mostly wrong.

Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone.

I fully understand that you are a bit worried. Maybe it is going to be more difficult to keep people focused. That it’s going to be harder to organise meetings, and people will watch Netflix in a separate browser window. 

Distributed teams are not simply like normal teams minus the daily commute. Reality will be somewhat different from what you expect. Maybe very much so – therefore, do not be afraid to reconsider your opinions about management and leadership.

Rule 0: Remote first

If you are trying to adopt a mixed setup where some people work remotely and some work from an office, be aware that this is the most complicated (and risky) approach because the only way you can make it work well is if you level the playing field. People who can work together in person have to adopt all the rules and tools that remote workers have in order to not create information imbalance and asymmetry. 

Rule 1: Transparency and openness

Communication can be significantly harder in a distributed team if we don’t change our approach to disseminating information. I found that the following strategies are useful:

  • Transparency by default. Any non-public communication has to be justified. People should have access to everything except if that access causes direct harm to the business. This means that people can casually browse content inside the company, learning things that they didn’t even know existed.
  • All communication with non-zero business importance has to happen in a way that it is accessible and open to remote employees. Conference calls, chat, email groups (not simply direct emails) and wiki pages.
  • Infrastructure that enables remote workers is of critical priority. It needs to be low-friction and also personalised. It is very rare that you can work from the couch, have 6 screens or use a loud mechanical keyboard in an office — this is all possible at home.

Rule 2: Start looking for outcomes instead of proxy signals

Stay very focused on the real value your team provides.

We would like to think that we are focusing on getting work done, not on making people sit at their desks. Awkwardly though, a few weeks after our team starts working from home we begin to feel a bit unsafe and uncertain. This is a completely normal reaction: measuring something is sometimes easier if we measure some kind of “proxy” or “substitute” activity metric that is a good predictor of the actual important metric. For example, working hard and spending lots of time at a computer is well correlated with output. (There are various and obvious problems with this approach, but it’s still very widely used and sometimes undoubtedly useful.)

When people start working remotely, many proxy metrics we tend to use for monitoring employee performance become either unavailable or simply wrong. Good news: one of the best aspects of a distributed team is that due to the dramatically reduced presence of both signals and noise it becomes much easier to stop using proxies and simply pay attention to output — especially if you also observe Rule 5 (accept that people have different work schedules).

Encourage and help your team to create real business value instead of focusing on appearances.

Rule 3: be explicit

There are two kinds of communication that tend to happen informally and implicitly in an office setting that is difficult to compensate for in remote settings: speculation and feedback.

By speculation, I mean discussing random work-related ideas that are too vague to discuss in a formal setting. For example, chatting about where the company is heading next year; how annoying the new project management process is and how to fix it, etc. These conversations are not in anyone’s job description, but they are crucial to keep people engaged and to foster creative ideas. Enabling this kind of open conversation is one of the toughest nuts to crack in a new remote team. One of the main reasons behind the difficulty is that most people (especially management!) don’t even realise the importance of this but the negative consequences of not having these conversations can begin to manifest after a year or two.

Feedback is a way of letting people know what we think about them and their contribution and also learning what others think of our work. During an in-person meeting, people are constantly adjusting their communication and opinions based on subtle, often non-verbal feedback. This is much harder remotely — I think most of us already experienced the terrifying silence after saying something on a conference call –  does everyone agree? Or did I just say something really dumb?

To compensate for these spontaneous interactions, over-communicate. Always. It is much better to spell out something unnecessarily than not saying something that would have been necessary. Have chat rooms where people can throw in random ideas. Let people write and talk about things they are not good at. Do not let anyone mock others for sharing crazy ideas — this happens so often in person but sometimes looks odd in writing. Give feedback, everywhere, all the time. Err on the positive side.

Rule 4: Embrace asynchronous collaboration

Use communication channels appropriately.

Almost all of the communication in an office is synchronous. You say something and you get a response. Email is only used when dealing with bureaucracy, and when things can’t usually get done in person or over the phone. 

In a remote team, you start using email and chat, and suddenly stuff that used to take a few hours now takes a week. That is because people do not immediately change how they communicate; they only change the means of communication. And this fails spectacularly. 

Synchronous communication like a phone call is based on the assumption that “saying things” takes most of the time, waiting for the response takes almost no time. It is iterative: we communicate a bit, wait for feedback, then adjust our next message accordingly. So we can decrease the time wasted by allowing the other party to steer the conversation. When it comes to asynchronous communication the situation is completely different. You don’t know for certain when the other party is going to reply and he/ she doesn’t know when you are going to read the reply. Most of the time is spent waiting for the other side. Therefore you want to minimise the number of roundtrips, which means you need to give all the information other people need in order for you to receive a proper or adequate reply. Try playing a game: everyone is required to wait 30 seconds before giving a response. You will immediately see how much effort you will put into phrasing and making your sentences contain all information necessary for the other to reply.

Talk and write to others in a way that they can reply without asking for more information. Imagine what the person reading your email will do next, be aware of your audience.

Rule 5: Accept that people have different work schedules

There is plenty of smart, practical advice available on the internet about how to work efficiently from home. Much of this is about trying to make working from home to become like working from an office. Dress up, have a separate office, start at the same time every day, maintain a clear separation between work and private life, and so on. 

Advice like this might be helpful in many cases, but my experience shows that sometimes your best performers will have very unorthodox approaches to work and their own personal schedule. Remember: focus on outcomes. 9-5 was invented for factory workers during industrialisation, but it is not inherently the best approach for working in an office, let alone from home. A work from home day can look something like working from 4 am to 8 am, go for a run, have a long breakfast while reading news, start working again at 11 am, then play with the kids between 4 pm – 6 pm, then work a bit late evening. Commuting to the office makes it difficult to break a workday into multiple parts; synchronous communication means you strictly need to adapt your schedule to others. Using asynchronous collaboration over synchronous opens up a whole lot of options to your team so that people can schedule their work the way it suits them best and even be more productive at the same time.

Accept, encourage and value what people choose works best for them.

Finally, all the tools above are about good management. Remote-work forces their adoption, but I believe everyone would be better off with these approaches in an office too.

Thanks to Anna Fedor, Rob Whelan, Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, Gurpreet Sarai and Csaba Geiszt for reviewing this post.

One comment

  1. Great blog Mate – the distributed team concept will likely play a key role in re-defining the norms in the post-COVID19 era – as you highlighted, effective management of this concept is not a walk in the park – one needs to understand its drivers of success!

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