Working on Dispersed Teams

Managers, How to Lead Your Dispersed Team

Since a dispersed team has a number of challenges, managing a dispersed team requires some unique tactics. I interviewed two highly respected Red Hat managers to explore good global leadership. Paul Frields is a software engineering manager who manages a global team and happens to works remotely himself. Deborah Curtis has led a variety of facilities groups, including the solitary office managers of Red Hat’s North American offices.

  1. Tell me about your dispersed group.

Paul - We are highly dispersed. I work remotely in the United States with an associate in Brisbane, the Netherlands, 3 in India, 2 in France, 3 in the Raleigh office, and the rest scattered across the US. The team is passionate, happy-go-lucky, and hard charging. They’re a “new and shiny” kind of team in that they are energized by new technologies.

Deborah - Managed North America’s office managers and at times receptionists and logistics employees. There are nuances to each office. We try to make an approach of letting everybody have their own personality, individuality, and work styles.

2. If I don’t see my manager in the channel, I walk over to his desk. How do you remain accessible to the team in the virtual environment?

Paul - Being constantly present on IRC, that’s the equivalent of an open door policy. In engineering, that’s the gold standard of communication. I hop into channels I know people are using and say good morning, just like I would walking by people’s desks. I try to tell a few jokes and stay out of their way. I ask, “Is there any way for me to help you” when they’re solving problems. Unless the answer is yes, I stay out of their way. Sometimes they want a quick answer. On the other hand, when someone wants to have a more in-depth conversation, I’ll say, “Great! Let’s hop on video chat real quick.” That is the exact analogy in the virtual world of having a door open.”

  1. How do you communicate with the team?

Deborah - We learned very early on that you have to have regular meetings. Monthly regional meetings with a set agenda. People get overwhelmed with email sometimes. It helps make sure information doesn’t get lost in the emails. Weekly or biweekly 1:1 (one-on-one) meetings happen with managers. New hires start with more frequency with weekly 1:1s. It helps prevent the “island” feeling.

Paul - Sometimes everyone needs the same information at the same time before the next team meeting, so the team email list is the best way to reach everyone. It puts a requirement on me as a manager to be able to write directly and concisely. Keep their attention. Don’t waste their time. Be affable, but also explain things when it’s needed. I try to predict questions they may have. Sometimes I’ll run a message by someone on the team to help me craft the message and head off some likely questions.

  1. How often do you touch base with individuals?

Paul - Don’t try to wait two weeks until your 1:1 to catch up on everything. If you do just that minimum, things are not going to go well. You can feel the loss of momentum when meeting with an employee after a busy month has gone by. Video chat is extremely helpful for individual conversations. When it comes to performance management and development, depending on the conversation, video chat can actually be a little more stressful. For myself, as a manager, I never like to give bad news or criticism. It’s not my favorite thing to do. I always tell people, I’m going to know when things are not getting done. If I can’t find you around when I need to, and things aren’t getting done, we are going to talk about it. Holding myself accountable to doing that face-to-face has made me grow as a manager and person. You have to take the good with the bad.

  1. How do you track work?

Deborah - I have to approach it with an open mind to let people work in the way that works for them. Some track work with Google Keep, some use Smartsheets or LibreOffice, some use other tools. They must link their resources back to a shared team resource. This allows us to highlight team accomplishments while holding the team accountable. Having those regular conversations, metrics, and relationships opens up dialogue for improvement on both ends. That helps people feel comfortable opening up.

  1. How do you hire the right candidate for a remote or distant position?

Paul - A substantial amount of open source credentials and achievement. There is rarely an open source project when all contributors are in the same place. They’re almost always dispersed. If someone has shown they can do good work as part of an open-sourced project, which is a key success indicator for working with our team. It shows they’re able to keep up with the pace of incoming information, they don’t necessarily need to be watched like a hawk to do what they do, and they’re passionate about what they do. Then it comes to their technical background and what their background is in thinking about solutions, looking at the behavioral model about how they approach problems.

  1. Do you have any advice for other dispersed team managers?

Paul - There is added pressure on the APAC time zone to reach out for help because there are fewer teammates online during their workday hours. Sometimes someone will try to shift their hours to permanently align with another time zone, maybe work noon until 9 pm. Life naturally shifts priorities and makes this impossible to sustain over time. You have to be tuned into this as a manager and be more proactive in reaching out to the people you don’t see every day. People also tend to overwork themselves compensating for not being seen in the office. A lot of them work longer hours and more frequently because they worry about being perceived as not achieving. As a manager, you have to look out for that to see burnout signs. You have to be really careful not to burn the candle at both ends.

Deborah - One manager really stands out for me. I knew I could always ask questions and he trusted my judgment with problems. We had a lot of freedom, and he was always there for us if we needed help. Freedom and trust are at the heart of Red Hat, and he embraced that. He was engaged enough to know what we could handle and what we couldn’t. It drove us to always want to do the right thing.

Get the right people in there to make the right judgment calls. Being really transparent and authentic with people has been the most impactful. People really appreciate that. I try to be available. One of the best managers I had said he was accessible via phone 24/7, so we felt able to reach out at any time.

Constant communication and accessibility are cornerstones for global managers. Whether your team is in different countries, separate offices, or all working from home, you have to hire people you can trust that work well together. The one thing we didn’t discuss here is how to foster camaraderie among your dispersed teammates. It’s both their job and yours to nurture the community. This is such a big topic that the next post in this series is dedicated to it entirely.

My other posts on this topic cover:

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Last updated: April 20, 2017