How to Manage Geographically Dispersed Teams

Finishing a late day at our London office, sitting in a pub as I write this, and finding an end to my day. Being based in the U.S., my day isn’t quite over. That’s because I’m responsible for managing a geographically dispersed team.

First, I check in at home. This is probably not much different than what others do. I helped my youngest child with homework (which embarrassingly was harder than most of what I managed during the day). And then I did a quick check-in with my 80-year-old recently widowed mother.

Secondly, I responded to U.S. emails that came in throughout the day. How I manage a geographically dispersed team doesn’t differ much between family and work. Holistically they feed together no matter which aspect I am managing.

After 30 years, I could share A LOT of stories, from a Thanksgiving turkey being shot outside of my window while on a European client call, to taking calls late in my evening with my Asian partners. (The late calls were usually during one of my kid’s evening sports activities where I had to catch myself to make sure I was muted while cheering, or in my case giving an official a hard time.)

I could tell you what time I start my day and when I usually end my days, but no pity here. Certainly, sharing my work hours won’t help in sharing best practices for managing a geographically dispersed team. Everyone works hard and long hours.

However, what I can share are successes for managing virtual teams (and in some cases even the family) across the globe. In a “nutshell” what I have found is communication, team unity, trust, and flexibility are vital to the success of managing remote teams.

Geographically Dispersed Teams Are Here to Stay

During the past few decades, globalization has been a growth strategy for many organizations. Market growth potential, lower-cost labor, and greater access to materials contributed to this attraction.

A 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), reported positive outcomes that resulted from the establishment of global teams — for example, knowledge sharing, increased business diversity, creativity, productivity, flexibility, and inclusivity. With those growing trends, leaders began to face a new task of managing geographically dispersed teams. Throw in a pandemic, and well now that has exponentially increased opportunities for companies to operate remotely and seek talent globally.

Organizations are no longer constrained to a headquarter location. And now they are taking advantage of hiring based on knowledge and not on location. While this expands opportunities for a more diverse talent pool, it adds a level of complexity to leadership.

Challenges of Managing Geographically Dispersed Teams

Managing across borders is much different than managing a co-located team. Daily impromptu face-to-face conversations that help to build relationships are non-existent. Remote teams operate across varying cultures, work schedules (with different workdays and holidays), and multiple time zones.

So, for many, virtual leadership can be daunting. How can a leader maximize team potential, build relationships, and create team unity? Whether your involvement with geographically dispersed teams was 20 years ago or today, there isn’t much defining “what” it is.

However, after 30 years of working with geographically dispersed teams and over 20 years managing them, I can share some of the “hows” that make them successful. The solution isn’t working a 20-hour day starting at 4 a.m. and ending at midnight. Even with the highest motivation and stamina, clearly, that is not a sustainable answer so let’s move away from the idea of not sleeping being a best practice.

Best Practice #1: Meet People’s Personal Needs

I don’t think anyone would argue that communication is critical in managing any team. But combine it with multiple geographies and cultures and the challenge emulsifies. We need to think about effective communication because communication is not one-sided, and it has multiple levels.

According to studies, 55% of communication is via body language with only 10% of communication being through words and 30–35% through tone. Being a successful leader is challenging enough. But how the heck can you effectively communicate when our face-to-face time is limited or on video when managing a team globally? It’s hard to observe body language cues when there are multiple people in little square boxes on a not-so-large screen.

But worse yet, how about the folks that simply don’t do video? Why can’t they turn on their video? Anyway, I digress.

In the end, video or not, in person or not, with communication you need to meet people’s personal needs. While we can miss body language cues in a virtual world, we still can meet the basic, personal communication needs that are so vital to effective communication.

Pause for a minute and think about what people need at a personal level. What do you want from communication? Most want to feel valued, heard, that they are involved in decisions, and that they, individually, are important.

Five Key Principles to Help You Manage Communication

As an example, when working with a globally dispersed team, communication isn’t concurrently always shared at the same time. As a leader, you need to consider how people will feel if they receive an important communication many hours or even a day later than others on their team. Always being the last to hear organizational updates and not being “in the know” doesn’t feel great.

Or if other countries’ holidays are consistently recognized, but an individual team member’s local holidays are overlooked, this can increase ill feelings and give a feeling of exclusion. A leader who is sensitized to these nuances increases the value that a team member feels, especially if they are managing a virtual team that is not co-located.

Additionally, geographical distance limits team members’ ability to form relationships and strengthen partnerships. Relationships naturally occur and develop when team members are present together in the same office. Lack of communication can understandably deepen into trust issues. And with remote work, individuals’ opportunities lessen to connect a global team.

The importance of an increased focus on communication is vital in building and managing remote team members. There are five Key Principles that can help you in managing your communications:

  1. Maintain or enhance self-esteem.
  2. Listen and respond with empathy.
  3. Ask for help and encourage involvement.
  4. Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust).
  5. Provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership).

Good communication will help to build trust with the team. Consider your own personal experiences of when someone enhanced your self-esteem or empathized with you. They may have not experienced what you were sharing, but they listened to you. They “empathized” with you, being careful not to sympathize.

No one wants to feel pity from a leader or have someone feel sorry for them. For example, it might be a statement like, “I understand your frustration” or, “I can appreciate that would be difficult.” This shows compassion, but not sympathy.

Best Practice #2: Build Team Unity

Uniting around a common purpose is vital for any team (or family). Without unity, performance will lapse. And globally dispersed teams have an increased opportunity for feelings of isolation and limiting focus on individual activity or objectives.

Yes, unity is much easier created when team members are located in the same office, where they have daily opportunities to answer questions quickly in a “just in time” approach. For a global leader, it can be challenging to observe morale or conflict between remote team members.

Critical to a team’s success are internal team dynamics. This includes things like building a sense of a shared purpose, productive collaboration, and a growth mindset. Damaged team dynamics can lead to a disconnect among the team and distrust, which ultimately affects overall performance.

When managing geographically dispersed teams, you must pay special attention to the team dynamics and the unification of the team around a shared purpose. Utilizing the five key communication principles I spoke to above opens a dialogue in both one-to-one discussions and within team discussions.

Again, the feeling of actually being listened to, and when someone empathizes with you, you think, “Wow, they get me.” It facilitates a more open dialogue for a discussion to be able to move to asking for help, encouraging involvement, and sharing thoughts, feelings, and rationale.

Tips for Bringing Teams Together

There are also some simple basics that help in bringing the team together. For example, adapting remote meetings to local time zones. Whether one-to-one or team meetings, you need to ensure there is a compromise and meetings aren’t always at the convenience of the majority or the leader’s standard business hours.

My globally distributed team holds an agile “stand-up” three times a week and the time is positioned to work across countries. Working across multiple continents can be tricky, but there are loads of meeting planner sites that help to facilitate the ease of scheduling for multiple time zones.

Additionally, in building the team dynamics, allow for team members to have a few minutes of dialogue before starting the meeting agenda. Take a few minutes to ask about meaningful areas where there might be a commonality to share. While it is important to stay on track, it’s also important to connect, smile, and have a laugh. For example, in some articles I’ve read researching this topic, one suggested for the leader to join a few minutes late to allow the team some time to “shoot the breeze.”

In our “stand-ups,” as we move through each of the global virtual team members’ updates, my last question for everyone is, “Any blocks?” As their leader, it is my job to help remove any barriers that limit their effectiveness to do their job. And, as part of our team culture, we collaborate to help resolve anything standing in the way.

This has significantly increased team performance and productivity by having issues addressed via knowledge sharing and the experiences of others. The ideas generated through this process have improved teamwork on this virtual team. The team has also become much more agile in quickly addressing any blocks.

Upskilling Leaders Is Key

In this new world, whatever and however it is defined, the reality is it has changed and will continue to evolve. The “old” way of leading is just that — old.

Globalization, hybrid working, and remote working are all new ways of working. Leaders will need to understand the nuances of managing geographically dispersed teams successfully. They also need to learn how to adapt to create team cohesion and success.

Communication is foundational to successfully managing a globally dispersed team. It is also a springboard to building team unity and trust among the team.

But flexibility and patience should not be forgotten. This is a third best practice I’m throwing in based on doing this for 30 years. Flexibility is when I take a call during their hours versus having them take one during mine. And patience from both parties in dealing with technology hiccups remains crucial.

Finally, ensuring globally dispersed teams are managed successfully is in the hands of companies. They need to give their leaders the right skills and development to lead across dispersed teams in an ever-changing world.

To learn more about managing geographically dispersed teams, download our Ultimate Guide to Virtual Leadership.

Lorraine Blackburn is director of DDI’s licensee partners and European sales, marketing, and project management operations. In this role, she and her teams partner with elite organizations to align their talent strengths with their business strategies to create a sustainable and diverse pipeline of leaders for the future. In addition, she manages DDI’s internal global operations, which includes translation and licensee partner relationships. DDI’s licensee partners represent DDI solutions in Japan, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, Chile, and Korea. Lorraine spends her spare time at the beach, watching GNCC races, or working on her Ph.D.

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DDI is a global leadership company that helps organizations transform the way they hire, promote and develop leaders at every level. www.ddiworld.com

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DDI is a global leadership company that helps organizations transform the way they hire, promote and develop leaders at every level. www.ddiworld.com

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