5 Tips for Leading a Geographically Dispersed Team

Years before the covid pandemic made virtual the norm, I led a successful geographically dispersed software development team. In this post, I’ll share 5 tips for creating an engaged, motivated and high performing team.

A friend and former colleague asked me for a favor this week. Would I meet a colleague of hers who is new to managing remote teams across different time zones to offer advice and support?

Of course I would.

I’m meeting with her in two days and will talk to her about my experience leading a globally dispersed software development team of 25 people, made up of product managers, developers, and testers, located across 2 locations in India and 4 in North America. Our team was known to be high performers and could be counted on to deliver on our software roadmap consistently year after year.

Challenges of a Dispersed Team

The goal of a leader is to create an engaged, motivated and high performing team that creates value for your organization. But what if your team is geographically dispersed, located across different time zones, with different local cultures, and without opportunity for regular face to face interactions? It makes your job harder, but not impossible, as long as you are willing to learn some new skills such as storytelling, effective written communication and virtual meeting facilitation.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Here are 5 things I focused on to successfully manage a geographically dispersed team:

1.) Relationships

One of the biggest challenges of managing a globally dispersed team is building and maintaining strong relationships with team members located in different time zones, countries, with different native languages and cultures.

The earlier and more you invest in building relationships with your team members, especially with your direct reports, the bigger this pays off. Think quality over quantity. If you can get quality face to face time with your team for just 1 week out of the year that may be enough to sustain the digital relationship. During your limited face-to-face interactions, your goal is to listen, not lead. Get to know your team. What motivates them, what do they enjoy doing, what are their long-term career goals, what skills do they want to learn?

Once you’ve established a face-to-face connection, follow up with virtual checkins through whatever medium works best for you: email, IM, text, video calls, phone calls. These could be monthly or quarterly, but outside of the typical working meetings, and the purpose is to continue to build relationship and trust.

2.) Clarity about purpose

To motivate your team to show up and work hard when their boss isn’t there in person, you need to give them a reason. People aren’t motivated to work because their boss is telling them to (even though a lot of bad managers got away with this in the past). Having a strong sense of purpose, on the other hand, does motivate people. People need to know their work matters.

As the team leader you will need to become a storyteller. You’ll have to explain why your company exists and why it matters, and then you need to explain how your team’s work supports the company’s mission. Use your own words and your own voice. If you don’t believe your work matters, your team won’t either.

Having a common purpose will allow your team to work independently towards a common goal.

3.) Clarity about performance expectations

In a globally dispersed team, it can be challenging to establish and communicate clear performance expectations. It’s important to be explicit about what is expected from team members in terms of deliverables, deadlines, and quality standards.

You can’t micromanage daily tasks, and you don't want to just give an annual goal and walk away. Find the magic cadence, somewhere between weekly, monthly and quarterly, and set performance goals. Write them down. Revisit them during your weekly 1:1s, then evaluate at the end of the period and see if you need to pivot, make them more aggressive, or ease up. Make sure to involve your direct reports and make it a two-way conversation so they feel empowered to take ownership.

4.) Make work visible

In an ideal world, we all get evaluated purely by the value we create for a company, measured in an objectively quantitative way. But most of us don’t live in this world, and the role of a team leader is often to make sure people know about the work your team is doing. As your team does the work, you as a leader should find creative ways to make their great work visible. This depends on your company context but some methods could include status reports, internal blogs, slack channels, presentations, demos, videos, screenshots.

5.) Go out of your way to recognize contributions

Recognizing and appreciating the efforts and contributions of team members is important in any team, but it can be especially important in a globally dispersed team where team members may not have as many opportunities to connect and interact with one another. Going out of your way to recognize team members for their hard work and contributions will help foster a positive and supportive team culture.

Managers should always provide a balance of positive and constructive feedback to all their team members, but in a remote setting it’s even more important to spend a little extra effort recognizing people’s efforts and achievements. Without the face-to-face attention, it’s easy for people to feel underappreciated, so you need to go out of your way to recognize all the small and large wins.

As with any new leadership role, it takes time to build trust so be patient, and feel free to experiment with different tactics to see what works best for your context.

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Adrienne

IT Executive, Engineer, Enterprise B2B SaaS. Interested in innovation, cloud, devops, agility. Passionate about making tech more inclusive.