Distributed Team Leader

Now that distributed teams are finally adopted by the mainstream, productivity soars and work-life balance is better. Most developers, designers and writers are happy to be back in control of their own time. The open office is a bad memory.

For those creative workers that need to buckle down and get some focused work done, distributed teams are a natural fit. You discuss what you’re going to build with your colleagues and then build it at your own pace.

Other workers have a worse time adapting to the new reality. Especially middle management seems to have some trouble. How do you manage or coach when your team is remote? Where do you add value?

In my experience, the “remote” part is not the problem. Most middle managers are used to e-mails and conf calls. The real issue is the asynchronous nature of work and the planning that comes with it. For all its flaws, the office had one powerful design feature: all work was localised in time and space. People would be in a certain spot, at a given time. Not only would collaboration happen in that space-time bubble, it would have to happen there. There was no other time/place.

If you’re a project manager, agile coach or team lead, you’ve gotten used to localised collaboration. Work happens when you’re on site. Planning is easy since everyone is at their desk between 9h and 17h.

Creative work doesn’t behave like that. The rise of the distributed team is the rise of async creative workers. Most people who would leave the house a 6h30 to be in the office at 8h, will not sleep in. They will still be ready at 6h30. And most of them will work. It would be crazy to wait for 8h to start fixing that bug we left off with yesterday, right?

Work time and personal time gets blended. The writer who’s gotten a head start at 8, might take an extended lunch break. The tester might go to the gym in the afternoon. People feel more in control of their own time. That’s great for creative workers but poses a problem for managers.

Middle managers act as forces of synchronicity in a team. They organise the big meetings where everyone is supposed to be present at the same time and place. Planning an all-hand meeting used to be as simple as sending out a recurring meeting request. But that’s no longer the case.

Jim is not coming to the office today. Jenny is on-site but has booked Do-Not-Disturb time. Jacky has accepted the meeting request but declined 10 minutes prior because they were still working on something important.

Distributed teams have created a lot of empty meetings room and frustrated managers. A lot of smart people in supporting roles question their work and the value it brings to a distributed team. It’s not a great feeling to see a team buzzing and feeling like you’re not really contributing. I know. I’ve been there.

So how do you manage a distributed async team?

Break the synchronicity

Let go of the urge synchronize work. There is no need for that. A leader in a distributed team is in charge of feeding information. Instead of a daily status meeting, write a newsletter. Instead of the big Friday demo, make a video presentation. Share vital information in a way that people can consume at their own time.

There’s always work.

Make sure that the work is always visible. If people have to wait for the status meeting to know what to work on next, you’re doing something wrong. The aim is to get a self-organising team that knows what they are building. It’s a team leader’s job to make sure that is the case. Work on discussing and clarifying The Next Thing To Build and let your team build it the way they feel best.

Ditch the meeting

Meetings are the worst and our companies are addicted to them. Unfortunately, it’s the number one tool in the manager’s belt. Ditch ’em. One-on-ones are great. 3 people on Skype, awesome. More than that is wasteful. Distributed managers understand that people communicate without them having to organise a timeslot. If the design of a ticket isn’t clear, the developer should talk to the designer. There is no need for a clarification meeting.

Here’s a golden rule: if you call an all-hands meeting, you do it at least 2 weeks ahead and you buy wine/cake for everyone.

Be available

The stereotype of a middle manager is the guy who constantly interrupts you with status questions but disappears when you need him. Be the opposite of that. Be available for your team members, while guarding their flow. If they have a question, you’re first-line support.

Distributed teams are here to stay. Hoping we will go back to a world where knowledge work only happens at the office is futile. So, adapt.

If teams are struggling with their distributed nature, it’s because their leadership is struggling with it.

Async teams need better leadership. That’s your cue to step up.