How to manage a distributed team

Working practices have changed, and your management style may need to shift with them

agile team illustration

The past year has resulted in huge changes in working practices in practically every industry, with many office-based jobs shifting to remote working to compensate for travel restrictions and other closures. Even as those restrictions begin to loosen and some of us are considering returning to the office, the situation for managers will remain very different from where it was at the beginning of 2020.

O2's recent "Creating a dynamic workforce" report defines a "dynamic workforce" as a collective that combines the principles of remote working and flexible working. In other words, a "dynamic worker" is one who has a say over where and when they work – for instance, they may prefer to work from home and on an asynchronous schedule differing from the traditional nine to five in order to balance their family responsibilities better.

Managing a distributed team – with some employees working remotely and others in the office – is a very different prospect to having your staff members in the same building from nine to five, or indeed having everyone based at home as may have been the case in the past year. The working models of the future are expecting to involve a mix of in-person and remote working, as well as team members working different hours – and all needing workflows to come together to deliver key outputs.

It will be up to businesses to define a sustainable model that works for them and their employees. With a focus on strong communication, the right technology and the fundamentals of good management, you can keep your dynamic workforce connected, productive and supported wherever and whenever your employees are operating.

Managing your team

While the mere fact that most of us were able to continue working through the various lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 and 2021 with minimal disruption has been nothing short of amazing, as time goes on we are beginning to understand the negative effects our new working models can have on team communication. Our interactions with our colleagues might be very transactional, with written messages, calls and video conferences often only initiated for strict, goal-orientated business purposes. The casual interactions that were an aspect of working in an office rarely happen organically for home workers. Thus the work of managing and maintaining a cohesive team is likely to require more strategy and organisation for managers today, and into a dynamic-working future, than ever before.

A clear approach to communication and catch-ups is a must to maintain a cohesive team. This could mean scheduling regular team meetings to keep everyone abreast of what is happening in your team and what is expected of everyone. If you have adopted a dynamic-working model, then a suitable space will be needed where those working in the office can attend safely but where remote workers are also able to hear and be heard. An awareness of digital etiquette can help here. Some people may prefer to pose questions in a chat tool rather than speak up in a noisy environment, or to use the hands-up tool to get attention, so it's important to make sure that everyone has access to a computer screen to make sure that these signals aren't missed.

These regular meetings are an important opportunity to set clear short- and long-term goals, so that your team knows what is expected of them and are able to get on with their work confidently from wherever they're based.

Regular one-to-one meetings with all of your team members can also help to ensure that no one feels overlooked, and to give the opportunity for employees to raise issues and ask questions outside of team catch-ups. Promoting a digital open-door policy will encourage workers to be confident and comfortable about getting in touch with you whenever they need information, advice or a second opinion. Without these open lines of communication, some remote workers may end up feeling isolated, which can harm both their wellbeing and productivity. It's vital that you trust your team to get on with their work independently, but you still need to check in with them regularly, while bearing in mind their preferences for communication. According to O2's report, 53% of employees prefer remote day-to-day catch-ups, while 21% still have a preference for holding these face-to-face. These proportions change depending on the type of meeting (for instance, the split for brainstorming and other creative meetings/workshops is a more even 35% remote and 36% face-to-face), and it's important to find out what different employees prefer, and to support them in those choices.

It's vital to ensure that communications aren't solely work- or goal-orientated – there is also the social side of work that is likely to have suffered over the past year. According to O2's report, 69% of workers identified as "Career Starters" (typically junior members of staff) said that they miss catching up with their colleagues, and new hires may need help building a rapport with colleagues they've never met in person. It's up to you to decide the best ways of fostering casual interaction between your team members – you may arrange regular virtual tea breaks, team quizzes or face-to-face catch-ups as restrictions continue to lift. Some employees may have family commitments or may not drink alcohol, so you may have to consider which events will suit everyone or offer a variety so that no one is left out. At the same time, it's important to remember that not everyone is sociable in the same way, and to not to force people to engage if they don't want to.

Most of these activities will only be possible if your business is operating the right technology to enable these clear and easy lines of communication. O2's report found that 45% of people still don't have access to video conferencing facilities. To make sure that your entire workforce is properly connected and can be managed effectively wherever they happen to be based, organisations need to prioritise the rollout of high-quality, flexible technology solutions – and to ensure that managers and staff are properly trained in their use.

Connectivity packages, cloud collaboration and video conferencing tools and mobile devices are necessary tools for enabling these new dynamic workforces, whether staff members are based at home or hotdesking in the office, or have asynchronous working hours. O2 Business can help you to build the technology ecosystem that will best serve the needs of your workforce and deploy it smoothly and effectively wherever they are and whenever they are working, with device-as-a-service offerings that ensure your workforce is equipped with the latest tech. These tools are more important than ever to enable collaboration and engagement so that people can deliver their best output, effectively and efficiently, whatever their working circumstances.

Assessment and understanding

These are the key considerations you must have in mind to effectively manage your dynamic workforce, but to personalise these processes to best suit a distributed team you need to understand the personalities and goals of individual employees and how best to manage and motivate them.

O2's report divides workers into three broad categories – "Office Cravers", "Mixers" and "Home Dwellers" – that will help you to understand what they want out of the new dynamic-working model and how best to manage and motivate them. "Office Cravers" are those who, for various reasons including collaboration and career development, would prefer to return to the office full time. "Home Dwellers", on the other hand, have found that remote working is much better suited to their lifestyle and personal needs and want to maintain it beyond the lifting of restrictions, while "Mixers" see the benefits of both sides and would prefer to have a flexible approach to their jobs that combines remote working with commuting into the office.

Understanding where your workers fall in these categories and why will make it much easier to manage them and keep them connected to the wider team, as well as planning learning and development (L&D), mentoring and other ways of supporting them and helping them to progress in their careers and meet their long-term goals.

This will also give you an insight into your team members' approach to work. The remote-working model imposed on us in 2020 has led many managers to reassess how they gauge the productivity of their employees. Parents and carers working from home may have had to take a more flexible approach to their working hours in order to fit in duties not tied to their job throughout the day. Others may have found that they work better in the morning or evening, and removed from the office have been able to manage their time in a way that helps them be more productive. There's no one-size-fits all approach, but with a clearer understanding of how they prefer to work, you will also be best positioned to identify the tools and technology, from file-sharing and collaboration solutions to productivity and organisation tools, that can help them make the most out of their working day, whatever that happens to look like. Working with your IT department, you should ensure that everyone has access to the same level of quality hardware and systems that will serve them properly wherever and whenever they choose to work – and if they decide to make alterations to their working patterns at any point.

Remote and asynchronous working may be the final nail in the coffin of presenteeism and the rigid nine-to-five working day, highlighting the need to focus on outcomes over process, and to support dynamic working practices that lead to better productivity and happier employees. We're no longer always there to offer in-person support to our staff, but with the right collaboration tools you may find that it's even easier to manage people, monitor their availability and provide support to your whole team.

By understanding your employees' needs, goals and strengths, you will be in a better position to help them be more productive and happy – and to create a more cohesive team that leverages the skills of individual members to best effect. With careful organisation and the right tools, these new dynamic-working practices can become an opportunity to manage better and more effectively than ever before.

Learn more about how O2 can help you manage your distributed team

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