Top 3 performance challenges of distributed teams and how to overcome them

We share what we've learned so far.

Woman at a desk looking at papers in front of her laptop.

There’s no doubt that distributed teams have a plethora of advantages—you can hire the best talent wherever they live, provide better coverage to global customers, creating a diverse and flexible workforce and fewer overheads, not to mention the social and environmental impact. 

But with those advantages also come some challenges. In fact, leading a distributed team can be more difficult than face-to-face management. This is especially true if you were thrust into doing so for the very first time due to COVID-19, without any real training or support. 

When I started Oyster in 2020, one month prior to the pandemic, I had the task of leading a fully distributed team and bringing them to new levels of performance. I did so with the help of my former professor and virtual team performance researcher Martha Maznevski and learned both the challenges of managing distributed teams and how best to overcome them. 

Addressing these challenges is critical to achieve equal performance to in-office teams. And because they are harder in a distributed environment, we leaders have to deliberately take action, or the chances of overperformance are null. 

In the interest of helping other leaders get the best out of their distributed teams, I thought I’d share my lessons learned along the way. 

The challenge: Building trust and relationships

Why is building trust and relationships more difficult in a distributed team? Because people are more dispersed geographically, they will have more divergent views of what trust is and the meaning or significance of relationships. That will lead to conflicts in the team. In an office, people have more opportunities to reconcile these differences. In virtual teams, these differences go unmoderated and unmitigated. 

In addition, a lack of in-person interaction means you miss out on unplanned social interactions in the hallway or around the coffee machine. As well, a lack of emotional signalling that comes with real-life body language is missing from distributed teams.

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review has shown that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are working. This mistrust can lead managers to develop unreasonable expectations that team members be available at all times causing job stress. This can also lead to micromanagement which has been known to reduce employee motivation further impairing productivity.

How to overcome it

If you want to build trust and relationships within your teams, you’ll need to know what’s going on inside your organization and be able to adapt and resynchronize to make sure both the structure and the people stay together.  

  1. Set up frequent and recurrent synchronous one-to-one check-ins. Rather than checking in on the status of projects, check-in on the person. I always let my people know that these meetings don’t require any preparation, and it’s really about me being present for them as their manager. I set myself a goal to learn about how the person thinks, how they see the world, and I try to give them insight into my world too. Being open and relating to your teammates as people often leads to a closer more trusted relationship.

  2. Detect and address conflicts early and often. Be deliberate in solving conflicts. If you have an issue with any of your team members, set an “issue unblocking” discussion with the goal to share and listen to the other person’s point of view. Put in the time to address issues before they land in a group discussion so the other person is not taken off-guard. They will certainly appreciate it.

The challenge: Building a strong culture

Creating a culture is a lot more difficult to do virtually than it is in an office. For one, basic rituals like getting coffee with co-workers, especially when everyone starts their day at the same time is just not something that happens too often in a distributed team. When people work in an office, there is this overlap between personal and work identity that makes it easier for business leaders to build a strong culture, or a shared set of norms and habits of a team. 

How to overcome it

There are many culture defining values that are required for the success of any high performing organization such as trust, transparency, integrity, or customer centricity. 

However, leaders need to add yet another essential value to allow a distributed team to perform as well as an in-office team and that value is “Measure output rather than input.” 

A results-driven culture becomes the foundation of performance in a distributed team. At Oyster, we tell people it does not matter how many hours you put in to do your job, what matters is getting the job done. 

The challenge: Getting stuff done

Getting stuff done is a critical part of any organization’s success. But because distributed teams are more dispersed, sometimes working across numerous time zones, there can be communication and collaboration challenges. When projects require brainstorming or cross-functional collaboration, this can be even more complex. 

Knowledge sharing can also present a challenge. In an office setting, if you require something from a colleague, you can walk across the office or tap your neighbor on the shoulder and ask for help. In a distributed team, you can’t do that, which means projects can be delayed and people can feel stuck more often.

How to overcome it

As a leader, empowering your people to be effective should be a top priority. One way to do that in a distributed environment is to adopt an asynchronous mode of communication and collaboration. This simply means that messages can be sent and responded to in each person’s due time. Of course, tools play an important part in this. 

At Oyster, we use a variety of tools to facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Our default tool for async communication is Slack but certain meetings, such as our full team all-hands, or decision and issue resolution meetings, require Zoom so we can be virtually face-to-face. We use other tools like Loom for low formality idea sharing and for projects or documentation we leverage Google Docs for more disposable tasks and Notion for permanent documentation. 

Finally, it’s not enough to simply set up the processes and tools. As leaders, we need to be the role model for the rest of our organization. Our team spends a lot of time thinking about how we work together and being an example to our teammates. We want to be the best distributed team in the world, and that starts at the top.

Final thoughts

It’s understandable that leaders are concerned about the performance of their distributed team. Whether your team is distributed by necessity or by design, it’s understandable that leaders are concerned about their team’s performance. Trust, culture, and getting stuff done are the foundations of high performance and by their very nature are more complicated in a distributed environment, but they’re not impossible challenges to overcome. So long as you are deliberate and intentional in your approach to building trust, culture, and efficiency in your organization, you can achieve the same level of performance as those in an in-office setting. 

In the next article, I’ll show you how to unlock the superpowers of distributed team members so you can not only match performance with traditional models of working but blow them out of the water.

Want to see Tony’s full talk on Leading Distributed Teams? Check out his presentation from Running Remote.

About Oyster

Oyster is a distributed HR platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. It lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches or the expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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