Working on Dispersed Teams


Winnie is in Atlanta. Ivo’s in the Czech Republic. Alice is in Singapore, and I’m in a room with five other teammates in Raleigh.

This is normal for us. Dispersed teams are a way of life at Red Hat. We’re global, and we’re growing. To function as one company, our 90 offices have to work together. Then there’s the remote workforce.

It’s not just us. All fields, particularly IT, require global agility and collaboration. “Dispersed,” in this context, simply means part or all of a group is physically separate. Reorgs, budgets, acquisitions and family changes are just some of the reasons teammates might end up in different locations. Teams with a follow-the-sun support model span the globe. And then there are remote workers; we call them “remotees” at Red Hat. Software Engineering Manager Paul Frields emphasizes the value of our remotees, “Having a big remote component inside of Red Hat is part of what keeps the culture alive. If we were ever to reduce that remote footprint, I think Red Hat would become a very different company very quickly.” A once local team may stretch geographically due to family changes, new clients, professional partnerships, or candidate pools. One of my peers simply dreamt of living in the mountains of Colorado. His manager was on board, and they worked it out. Lastly, there are the people who just feel separate.

According to a Stanford University study, telecommuting is on the rise, “signaling that this is now a mainstream practice." My brother, a government contractor, is even allotted a couple of days each week to work from home (WFH). Forbes suggests that 1 in 3 hires will be remote from the start.

Why the rise? Telecommuting can increase productivity. For many software engineers, the home environment has fewer distractions. Another perk is that the corporate day is stretched as it crosses time zones. “People are working constantly, and there is always someone who can try to fix something. You have such short times to meet with the team that the meetings are more productive,” says Red Hatter Adela Arreola. Of course, there are challenges to collaborating with people you’ve never met in person. Overcoming time zones is an ongoing problem. At times, the lack of interruptions from working at home alone can be, well, lonely. Adapting to this work structure, so you can reap the benefits and avoid pitfalls, is critical to surviving in today’s global market.

How a Dispersed Team Works (Successfully)

To learn how the best dispersed teams work, I interviewed a dozen Red Hatters who lead or work on dispersed teams. I talked with managers and employees. Some were remote. Some were in an office but not always surrounded by peers. Others were hired as remotees. Some transitioned from office to home. One person actually moved from home to the office. Yet, there were commonalities across them all. Their successes, pain points, best practices, and anecdotes lay the framework for you to build a solid, effective team.

You need a good leader

Yes, this is always true, but the need for a strong manager runs more deeply with dispersed teams. The manager has to overcome the unique challenges of separation for everyone. They still have to motivate, engage, and develop individuals, but without actually meeting in person with the individual. The manager also must somehow unite a scattered team and develop camaraderie. They have to monitor work and people through virtual observation alone.

Community creates meaning

Everyone wants to feel accepted and like part of a team. A connected remotee has a reduced turnover risk. Remote manager Paul Frields elaborates, “Those relationships make you feel like you are part of something bigger and connect to your colleagues. “It makes you want to strive a little more when you feel you are needed by someone to help push the ball over the finish line.”

Trust is essential

The employees I interviewed emphasized that the best managers trust them to self-manage. Does that make you feel a bit uncomfortable? A manager can’t see that someone is actually at his or her desk as you can in the office. And it’s extra hard to tell if employees are actually working or spending the afternoon watching YouTube videos of kittens. The good news is that it’s not impossible. I’ve dedicated my whole next post in this series on how managers can effectively manage work and workers virtually.

Diversity improves results

Great-dispersed teams vary personally and professionally, and it makes them stronger. People love to learn about each other and celebrate their differences. After a fun fact teambuilding activity, Engineering manager Sean Huck noted, “One guy wears vintage ties every day and is a minstrel choral performer, another does martial arts, while a third practices Renaissance Faire sword fighting with her family.” It’s this knowledge that builds community. Professional diversity avoids “group think” and increases the collective strength of the group.

Sean, “Technically, I work with some really smart people (RHEL Cluster, OpenShift, Fuse and Fuse Tooling, Azure, etc.). My team is made up of really intelligent people who keep me on my toes all the time.” Anika Blacksmith, a sales manager in Farnborough emphasized the way personality profiles meet the different needs of her organization, “Some teammates love to seek out new business. Some like to focus on customer service. There are some who love to mentor and others who aren’t natural mentors. Everyone takes on different roles: partaking, cheering on, supporting...and we have different backgrounds.” The result is like a stained glass window when the individual colorful shapes of glass come together and tell one seamless story.

More to Come

There are so many simple ways that you can bring life and to your dispersed group, whether it’s a volunteer committee, short-term project team, or the day-to-day organization. You don’t even have to be a manager to make an impact. For that reason, only one post will be geared toward managers, and even much of that can be leveraged by anyone. In this series, I will cover:

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Last updated: February 26, 2024