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Leading over distance: Working with a decentralized team

By October 13, 2019February 25th, 2020Digitalization, Leadership, New Work

While so much stays the same forever, one thing that has changed within the past decades is the way we work together. The development of digital transformation, the digitalization of things, has established new ways of working, using emails, calls, and videoconferences for communicating. The way we share and exchange information has shifted and accelerated.

Now, working globally sometimes means, that your team members may sit hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away. Though based in Berlin, our team members also spread across several countries enrooted in different cities, making us proud to say that together we speak over 12 languages – well: so far, so good. But how do we work well together, despite the distance separating us?

Let’s have a closer look at what is different in a decentralized team:

  1. First of all, the overall contact is severely reduced. Because you are no longer sitting closeby, there is no general chatter going on anymore.
  2. Then, there is no space for spontaneous meetings – quite literally, where would you even? Most commonly, there is no dedicated office space for decentralized teams. But also, gathering spontaneously is difficult when journeys take hours or days.
  3. Communication happens solely through digital devices, meaning the closest you get to face to face conversations is looking at a screen that shows a face, hopefully not too pixelated at best.
  4. There is only limited sharing of informal information, since there is no kitchen to make coffee in, no watercooler to stand at, and no smoking together. Do you randomly message someone about your niece’s seventh birthday party over slack? Exactly.
  5. Taken all that together, harmonizing in a decentralized team is a real challenge, since the foundation for human socializing itself is lessened so much.

But, how do we work well together, anyways?

How do we keep up with each other? How do we tackle challenges having our forces synced? How is it possible to function harmonically as a team outdaring any distance between us?

The answer is as difficult to realize as simple it sounds: check your communicative competences.

So, here are five suggestions on how to work well together anyways:

  • Foster team spirit – Agree on a vision you have for your team and the project you are working on, provide a sense of purpose, and make building trust a priority.
  • Create routines such as recurring chatting times, virtual stand up meetings, jour fixes, AMAs (Ask Me Anything), team calls, etc. – For that choose tools that help organizing your team such as Slack, Trello, etc. Whatever works best for your team and project.
  • Agree on turnaround times and value a team members contribution – Though everyone may have different working hours due to different time zones, lifestyles, and responsibilities, be clear on what has to be done when and by who. And when it has been done: show appreciation!
  • Talking about responsibilities: Decide who is responsible for what. Having reduced contact also requires precise task sharing. Make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do and understands their importance in the process.
  • Standardize things that can be standardized making processes simple and leaving no room for unwanted surprises (and making more room for the wanted surprises ;)).

And, for us:

  • Meet regularly, whatever regularly means for you. For us, it is twice a year that we get together, get some analogue quality time as a team, and discuss how to move forward as a union. A much looked forward to highlight we draw from every time (PS: Make sure kids are welcome and provide babysitters on site, or have grandparents fly in so your team members can travel for a couple days ;)).

Image by Anatol Kowalewski

How do you lead over distance?