6 best practices for managing distributed teams

Written by 
David Young
September 27, 2023
A person working on a laptop outside of a traditional work setting
6 best practices for managing distributed teams
Written by 
David Young
September 27, 2023

These days, it seems like everyone’s talking about returning to the office, the best ways to run your remote team, or listing off the benefits of going hybrid. But they often don’t look at the bigger picture of distributed work. What do you know about distributed work?

Often more remote than hybrid, arguably more remote than even remote, distributed teams do away with the central office altogether and lean completely into technology to do their work. While it may not be a good fit for every company, the teams that do go distributed are often eager to tout the benefits, such as better candidates and improved retention.

Of course, as with any work model, distributed work still comes with both pros and cons. So let’s examine whether this model is right for you, then dive into some best practices.

What is a distributed team?

Distributed teams are groups of team members that aren’t bound by a specific physical office space and rely on technology to collaborate and thrive. Although team members can be located in the same place, they're typically spread across the country or even the world. 

While some team members may work in an office, other team members will be working remotely from their own homes or satellite offices rather than a shared space. Due to their geographic distance, they make heavy use of collaborative technology to remain cohesive and connected.

While they share many of the same characteristics, the most important distinction between remote, hybrid, and distributed workforces is that both remote and hybrid work styles are types of distributed teams.

Benefits of distributed teams

Already, about 16 percent of companies are now operating fully remote. They’ve discovered that doing away with the office altogether and going completely virtual offers advantages that other models can’t. Here are a few of the most notable:

  • Cost savings: Offices can be one of the biggest costs for most companies. There’s not only rent, but also maintenance, supplies, food, and the many other expenses associated with making it a place people want to work. By reducing these costs as much as possible, companies can save that money and reallocate it to other priorities (such as salaries).
  • Larger talent pool: Employees who are required to come into an office must live near enough to commute everyday. By definition, this limits the talent pool to just those who live within a few hundred miles at most. Distributed companies have no such boundaries, freeing them to find and hire the most qualified remote workers in the world.
  • Increased retention: While they may have the office perks, distributed teams more than make up for this with increased flexibility. They don’t have to worry about a commute, can practice a better work-life balance, and can step away from work much easier to take care of family and other personal affairs. The effect of all this is much higher retention rates among distributed employees.
  • Better productivity: Offices are distracting places. Employees are more likely to get pulled into more meetings and drawn into conversations that take them away from their work. But when the entire team is distributed and working from home, they can focus on what matters to them, whether that’s plugging away at a project or brainstorming remotely with other team members.

Challenges of managing distributed teams

Going entirely distributed may not be a good fit for every company. This work model can have its share of downsides, too. Getting to know these challenges will help you better prepare for them, or tell you that distributed work may not be right for you. 

  • Lack of team cohesion: Because they may only see each other briefly on video calls or on a chat screen, it can be much more difficult for distributed employees to get to know each other, form relationships, and cohere into close teams. This may make people feel isolated or disconnected from the job, especially if teams work in different time zones.
  • Collaboration issues: Working closely alongside other team members, coming up with new ideas, and having spontaneous interactions can all be a lot harder when everyone is remote. This may mean employees will miss out on some of the creativity that can come from in-person work.
  • Technology problems: Whether working on a shared doc or doing the daily check-in, distributed teams rely entirely on technology to work. Any connectivity issues or technical glitches can halt productivity. There’s also the added risk of security breaches if employees aren’t careful.
  • Risk of burnout: Distributed work offers increased flexibility, although this can also cut the other way. Without the boundaries of the office, employees may feel pressured to work outside normal hours, or even on the weekends. If this “always on” mentality is allowed to linger, it can quickly lead to burnout.

6 best practices for managing distributed teams

For those teams that are set up for it, distributed work can be a wonderful way to streamline costs, increase agility, and help employees focus on deep work. So whether you’re looking to tighten up your current operation or are just getting ready to take the plunge, the following are a few tips to keep in mind when running your distributed team.

1. Align on team goals and ways of working

Miscommunication is at the heart of most team management issues. Maybe expectations aren’t being properly set, or perhaps the team lacks a shared sense of purpose. While this can happen to any type of team — whether in-person, hybrid, or remote — it’s especially important to address when it comes to distributed teams since they often lack face-to-face methods of communicating and solving issues.

A good place to start is by building out a team charter that everyone can follow and, later, use as a reference. This charter can include as much or as little as you think is necessary to align your team and make work run more smoothly. 

For example, you may want to brainstorm some shared values or norms you can use to guide your team, define and clarify individual roles, or map out the metrics you’ll use to determine success. This can also be a good opportunity to build out a comprehensive communications plan so that everyone knows how to raise issues, address challenges, and resolve conflicts.

2. Build connection into the team culture 

Healthy, rewarding relationships are central to productive teams. While everyone certainly doesn’t need to be friends, no one wants to work in a place where people aren’t friendly. Instead, there should be a culture where people can easily connect and get to know each other. This will help foster cohesion, build trust between team members, and make it more likely for them to communicate effectively and collaborate on projects.

In the shared space of an office, these moments of connection tend to happen naturally. But distributed teams must be more intentional about building a culture of connection. Do your best to recreate those water-cooler moments in the office by giving your team plenty of opportunities to talk and relate with one another in meetings and over non-work activities. These could be as simple or as elaborate as you like. 

For instance, you could try kicking off team meetings with a few icebreakers, or encouraging employees to meet with and interview each other individually. If they’re open to it, you could even try organizing virtual clubs or happy hours for employees so that they can get to know each other outside their day-to-day responsibilities.

In some cases, meeting in-office or scheduling physical get-togethers at a co-working space with in-person meetings can be a great way to build company culture and foster connection. Meeting in a physical location once in a while can help teams get that important on-site interaction without working together in an office building full-time. It can be a big investment, but it pays off with valuable time for team-building.

3. Change why and how your team holds meetings

Unnecessary meetings have become one of the worst culprits of waste, with nearly three out of four of them keeping people from more important work. While this should be enough for everyone to reimagine their meetings, it’s especially important for distributed teams. Time zone challenges, varying work hours, and Zoom fatigue all make it vital to change not only how you hold meetings, but why you need to meet in the first place.

Related: Should you have a meeting?

For example, you should resist the knee-jerk reaction to schedule a meeting whenever a problem arises or an item needs to be checked off a to-do list. Instead, take advantage of the many collaboration tools your distributed team has at its disposal and ask yourself whether you can get your work done asynchronously. This will give vital time back to your team members, as well as allow them to properly prioritize their work. 

If the meeting does need to happen in real-time, make clear that the intent is to collaborate. Provide everyone with the necessary documents ahead of time, consider a warm-up to get the conversation flowing, then focus on solving the problem or doing the work through a mix of collaboration and connection. The goal should be to transform your meetings from simple to-do lists to positive working sessions where team members can continue to form relationships.

4. Consolidate tools so teams know where work happens

Distributed work is made possible by a range of collaboration tools: video conferencing tools and team communication apps and online storage, as well as programs for collaborative visual work, such as digital whiteboards or graphic design apps, and perhaps even specialized tools for managing data. Whatever the case, these tools can quickly add up. Left unchecked, they may create a fractured communication environment, increase administrative work, and start making everything more confusing.

As much as possible, you should avoid this by consolidating and streamlining the tools your team works with. Begin by agreeing on which tools make the most sense for your team. If everyone prefers a video call tool like Zoom, or would rather use Slack for team messaging over email, get that down in writing so that there’s no ambiguity about what to use. Make a whole list of preferred tools that virtual team members can reference, then include this in your employee onboarding process so new hires can get up to speed as quickly as possible.

Alternatively, if no strong preferences exist, look for suites of software that come bundled with everything you need in one place. You won’t have to look far. Many of the big tech companies offer similar options, like Microsoft Teams or Google Workspace. These have the added benefit of offering added security features and services so that you can be sure you aren’t inadvertently sharing sensitive data.

5. Create opportunities for giving and receiving regular feedback

The problem of isolation in distributed companies means more than just fewer chances to socialize and get close with your coworkers. It also means there might not be a method for receiving regular and consistent feedback. While team members might be able to focus on their work much more, they may not have an easy way to see their manager’s or coworkers’ reactions to it. They might not be comfortable asking for it, either. This makes it important to build in opportunities for both giving and receiving feedback.

There are many ways to do this. If team members have a regular project cadence, then you might make a point of holding one-on-one feedback sessions after each one has been completed. Or you may want to schedule regular check-ins, either individually or with the larger team, in order to get more general feedback. You could also encourage team members to offer each other real-time feedback through chat and communication platforms so that people can get some peer recognition, as well as an idea for how they are doing.

For team feedback on manager or company performance, consider putting together a space where employees can submit their opinions and suggestions anonymously. Using a feedback grid can make it easier for people to express themselves more openly. 

You can also send out regular surveys to take the pulse on how different aspects of the team are working or whether there are areas for improvement. This way, you can see, at a glance, what’s working and not working alongside employee questions and ideas.

6. Build a habit of knowledge sharing

One of the largest draws of the office over the distributed workplace may be the chance for spontaneity. In casual conversations while crossing the hallway or grabbing a coffee, you may be able to make a connection or learn a valuable piece of information you otherwise wouldn't know. Siloed away in their own separate workspaces, this can be much harder for distributed teams. But by actively encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing, you’ll be able to make up a lot of this ground.

Start by staying on the lookout for team members who may have valuable knowledge to share. Is someone a writing expert? Is another person a guru with Photoshop? Whatever it is, encourage them to share their expertise with the wider team. You could make this easy by setting up a dedicated Slack channel, for instance, or using a template for sharing ideas and projects where teams can place questions and answers. 

If you still aren’t seeing results, consider incentivizing employees with rewards. You could offer anything from free meals to bonus time off for holding a knowledge-sharing session with everyone. The benefits of breaking down silos will be well worth it.

It's time to unlock distributed teamwork

The distributed and remote work model has been gaining traction for a few years now among the most forward-thinking companies for good reason. For organizations with the right mindset, it offers a range of benefits — from huge cost savings to increased flexibility to happier remote employees — that other ways of working can’t match. But overcoming some of the challenges of distributed work and achieving this mindset might seem daunting to some. It’s time to put these fears to rest.

Achieving distributed team success is attainable for anyone willing to think more purposefully and mindfully about how their team communicates, collaborates, and connects across different locations. 

Instead of simply trying to transfer the office to the virtual workspace, you’ll have to look closer at how you can ensure alignment, reconsider what meaningful meetings look like, and come up with easy ways to share knowledge and feedback. In short, you’ll have to continually make sure your distributed team stays engaged and invested in your day-to-day work.

Fortunately, Mural has your back. Designed to streamline collaboration and built for synchronous and asynchronous work alike, we give you both a blank page or a library of pre-made templates for your team to express themselves, create, and connect. 

Get started with the free, forever plan with Mural to create a workspace and start collaborating with your team. For tips and templates that help you unlock teamwork, check out Mural’s templates for better collaboration in distributed teams.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.