The 2021 Guide To Managing A Globally Distributed Team
If you look at many of the recent unicorns in the tech industry, you’ll notice one thing in common. They all have globally distributed teams. Stripe, Mural, Canva, and Gitlab all have teams working remotely or from their offices around the globe.
Their industry or mission doesn’t matter; they found success while working through multiple time zones and cultures. As venture capital investment shows no signs of cooling down, the number of billion-dollar globally distributed startups will continue to grow.
But what are the strategies that have gotten these companies where they are today? Certainly, they must have struggled at first before finding a rhythm for their distributed operations. We dive into that in the sections below.
What is a globally distributed team?
A globally distributed team or a geographically dispersed team is a group of employees who work together at the same company but not physically from the same place or country. They can work together at the same time, in sprints or separately, to complete projects.
Many startups are gravitating towards the distributed model because they can quickly hire top international talent while saving on renting real estate around the globe.
The quick injection of knowledgeable people allows them to develop their products more rapidly and expand into various international markets.
They can also experience faster learning and skill development than co-located teams.
The reality is that companies can save a great deal by hiring developers in other countries rather than paying San Francisco wages.
As companies scale from their first couple of employees, they will find several similar growing pains.
How to manage globally distributed teams successfully
One of the biggest struggles for companies switching to remote or a distributed setup is managing their team as if they were still in the office.
They will ping their workers at all hours of the day, not write anything down during meetings, and try to keep a 9-5 workday. To manage a globally distributed team successfully, you have to change your tech stack and mindset on how work is assigned and completed.
Here are some of the core elements in managing and setting up a distributed team.
For your globally distributed team to collaborate remotely, you need a couple of fundamental software programs and then build out your tool stack from there. The tools you decide to include after setting up a foundation will depend on your industry and product.
- Communication tools are the first to include. This is somewhat obvious because how can you work across the globe if you can’t talk to each other? You will need a video conferencing tool. The best on the market right now is Zoom, but there are cheaper alternatives. You will also need a messaging app where the market is split between Slack and Microsoft Teams.
- Documentation and storage software should be the next item on your list. You need a place to keep all your company archives, files, and notes. Essential elements of this will be your company values, processes for each department, and remote work policy. The Google suite works well for this, but more modern solutions include Notion and Coda.
- Project management software is the next piece you want to focus on. Things will get messy without some way to manage all of your team’s tasks and set deadlines. There are tons of options on the market, and your primary deciding factors should be usability and price. Popular options include Asana, Trello, Monday, and Jira.
- Payroll software is one that most people new to remote will forget about. These tools help hire and pay employees regardless of their location. Some popular options in this billion-dollar market are Deel and Remote Teams.
- Collaboration software includes all tools that allow employees to work together remotely. Depending on your industry and product, you may use Gitlab or GitHub for development. Mural or Mitel will be your best options for design, while you may need a robust CRM like Salesforce or Copper for sales. You have to do your due diligence and decide which processes need a collaboration tool and how many needs can be covered.
One of the most helpful strategies for hybrid organizations is to go digital or remote-first. This means predisposing all processes as if everyone was remote.
Digital-first practices will help level the playing field for everyone, especially remote workers. It will also help you keep up the momentum of the project. Combine live, local sessions to build organically and get team work done fast. Yet capture your ideas digitally so that when the team separates, they can keep iterating without loss of context.
Additionally, being digital makes ideas shareable, and that will provide the necessary transparency and openness that fosters serendipitous connections.
To avoid stressed and burned-out employees, you need to have communication guidelines for your globally distributed employees. This prevents conflicts with timezones, miscommunications and lets everyone work at their most productive hours.
Most importantly, it helps set the right expectations for when your workforce can return to offices and how their team leader will measure their performances.
- Create an internal communication guideline document. Here is where you establish the rules for when and where communication should take place. For example, where should conversations about projects take place? What about general discussions, in which Slack channel?
- Establish a meeting cadence. This should be one of your top priorities to avoid too many meetings or too few. A sweet spot for many distributed teams is once or twice a week to get everyone on the same page with cameras on.
- Set times for formal and informal conversations. Informal conversations are just as important as your standups to create connections across the global team and build camaraderie. For example, you could schedule 15 minutes per week with a colleague just to have a coffee and catch up on each other’s lives.
- Have team members block off their calendars to avoid interruptions. Nobody likes getting pinged while they are in the middle of an important task. Encourage your employees to set blocks of time where they don’t want to be bothered and can truly focus.
- Set regular feedback sessions. These 1:1s can occur at the end of every month or every two weeks depending on the employees’ projects. The idea is not to put pressure on these sessions or as a performance review. You should use them as a moment to get aligned on progress, figure out any blockers and offer any help.
In Stripe’s guide to engineering by Raylene Yung she says:
I spent significant time in 1–1s and reviews, giving behind-the-scenes feedback (often critical), support (org projects can feel thankless, especially when done on top of “day jobs”), and recognition (celebrate org ships like product ones!). For new forums, I attended almost every meeting for months or even years, to spot improvements and signal their value — if other people’s time is required, they better be valuable enough for my time too.
One of the most prominent arguments against forming globally distributed teams is how you engage people from so many different cultures and backgrounds. How can you create a company culture while remote?
Well, it starts with every employee living by a companies values. These are set to inspire and guide interactions within your organization. As a manager or an HR rep, you just have to be a bit creative to foster these interactions and team building virtually.
- Make sure there are spaces for people to connect. Having regular meetings and channels to talk about work is excellent, but people also have lives outside their jobs. Creating spaces to talk about shared interests, such as slack channels or groups that meet once a week to discuss sports, is great for making friends.
- Include team activities at least once a month. Your creativity comes in because you have to choose activities everyone will enjoy. These can be anything from virtual scavenger hunts to video games, depending on age ranges and interests. You also want to have a list of virtual recognition ideas to appreciate your remote team.
- Poll your employees before making big decisions. To create a culture that lives up to your company values, your employees should be part of decisions that will affect them. If you are thinking about having a company retreat somewhere, hold a vote on a couple of options. If you want to open up an office at one location, ask each remote employee if they prefer a hybrid setup or staying full remote.
- Offer training. A new study by IBM found only 38% of remote workers believed that their organization was helping staff learn new skills. You can increase retention rates and attract more talent for people looking to grow their careers by offering an in-house training program.
Canva, for example, created the Culture Book. Their Co-founder and CPO, Cameron Adams, explains how it helps new starters know the company values and how each team member strives to live them daily.
The Culture Book highlights how we strive to live by our values and paves the way for new employees to feel at home within our organization straight away, so they’re ready to take on the world with us.
Hiring and onboarding
One of the biggest factors in employee retention is if they had a solid onboarding experience or not. Feelings of isolation are common in remote teams, and your company should feel like a place people want to be during the day.
Not somewhere that people dread logging into.
To create a welcoming atmosphere, you first need to have a standard hiring and onboarding process.
- When hiring remote international employees, make sure to include base pay and time zone in the announcement. This helps set the right expectations for applicants and avoids being flooded by tons of people who don’t fit the description.
- Have a hiring process and onboarding process documented. There should be specific stages and interview rounds for each new hire. Once they accept an offer, there should be at least a schedule for their first month. Some organizations go as far as three months for their virtual onboarding programs.
- Make sure new employees meet everyone. Yes, everyone. They should have 1:1s with each team member for their first week and slowly meet people from other departments. Assigning a virtual buddy is also an excellent way to improve introductions.
- Give them an easy task to start. Although many people want to hit the ground running, there are many more nuances to remote processes and systems that can be overwhelming at first glance. An easy way to get someone ramped up is with a simple task that introduces them to how things work at your company.
Here is an example of a simple remote onboarding process that we modeled off our own:
- Email the contract and any other legal documents
- Update the company handbook and send over software permissions
- Familiarize them with their teams through creating a schedule and itinerary for their first couple of days.
- Send an Equipment Request.To ensure that your remote employee has the tools available to work efficiently, you should send a quick survey to understand their current workstation.
- Make an Onboarding plan. In this plan, you and the remote worker should set 30, 60, and 90-day goals for what they will complete/learn in their first three months of work.
- Schedule a one-on-one.
- Make sure they’re comfortable and schedule check-ins at the end of each month.
Equipment Management software is quickly becoming an essential part of all globally distributed teams. The challenge is to get high-quality devices anywhere globally and manage them through each employee’s tenure.
Luckily, there are solutions like GroWrk that can deliver laptops and other equipment for setting up a remote workspace to over 150 countries.
- Distributed companies need a system to manage their current inventory while also purchasing secure devices for their new team members.
- IT maintenance is significantly more important because remote workers are more at risk for cyber-attacks and phishing emails.
- The average price of a laptop varies significantly depending on the geographical location. Companies need a service that can guarantee a price and shipping regardless of where an employee lives.
- Many companies offer a WFH stipend so that remote workers can work safely and comfortably without breaking the bank. But they have no coordinated way to execute it.
A great example is a US-based remote engineer hiring platform that used GroWrk to get their laptops, devices, and home office equipment to team members in Mexico and Colombia.
In 2020, the company decided to close its offices in the two countries and allow all its engineers to work remotely. They needed to get the devices to each worker and provide them with the correct ergonomic home office equipment. In 72 hours, GroWrk tapped into their global supply chain network to offer a solution that set up the delivery of all the equipment to multiple cities.
By using the GroWk platform, the engineering company could have a dashboard of all their inventory and track each item through its sending and receiving process. In the end, the company saved over 300 hours in logistics planning and had built up a remote infrastructure to keep their company growing.
From this guide, you should know some of the tactics that billon dollar companies with globally distributed teams use to scale. The main thing to take away is balancing creating a company culture while respecting the cultures of all your employees.
Documentation, trust, and empowerment will take you a long way in this endeavor.
Grow remote with GroWrk. We provide and manage laptops, devices, other equipment and services to remote teams in over 150 countries.