A helpful guide for distributed management and leadership

Woman at home working on laptop

7 mins, 4 secs read time

Whether you’re just getting used to a new work-from-home norm or are already well versed in the distributed lifestyle, being a good manager to those who aren’t physically around you can be a challenge.

I’ve been working remotely with Greenhouse for the last six years, with most of that time as a manager of distributed teams. While I absolutely love remote work and will advocate distributed teams to anyone who’ll listen, the benefits of remote work don’t come without challenges. And being a remote manager, or a manager of a distributed team, poses greater challenges still. None of these challenges are insurmountable, and I believe the benefits of distributed work outweigh the costs.

What does a Greenhouse distributed team look like?

At Greenhouse we consider a team to be distributed if they have at least one member who’s primary office is different from the rest of the team. That could be someone who works remotely, either from their home or a coworking space, or someone who works in a different office location. It could also be a fully distributed team, where none of the members are in the same office. Or it might be a partially distributed team, where one or more members occasionally work in a different location.

Considering how common it is for people to work from home on occasion, I’d bet that most teams fall in the partially distributed category. This is an important distinction to make, because these partially distributed teams are still distributed teams! They’ll run into the same problems as fully distributed teams, and they’ll benefit from the same best practices that fully distributed teams benefit from.

The challenges that come with it

While I’ve been a constant advocate for remote and distributed work, I’ve regularly had pushback from people who were worried that moving from a colocated team to a distributed team will cause problems. And you know what? They’re absolutely right – remote and distributed work is hard, and the transition to distributed teams can be disruptive.

Distributed teams add communication overhead that expose flaws in team processes. If a team relies on sitting close to each other to communicate effectively, they’re going to have problems going distributed. If a team has poor video conferencing capabilities, people dialing in to meetings are going to have a hard time contributing. If a team doesn’t have a culture of written communication, or good documentation, or a shared online repository for their work, they’re going to have problems going distributed.

A theory of mine is that many of the problems that distributed work exposes are also problems that occur once a team reaches a certain scale. A three-person team scaling to an eight-person team might encounter many of these communication-based scaling issues along the way, but a distributed team will encounter them sooner. My theory is that building a small team to be distributed-capable early on can help it scale better later on.

Whether that theory bears out is something I’ll need to test later. Regardless, it’s true that most of the problems with distributed teams stem from the communication overhead found in distributed teams. The best practices I’ve learned from working remotely as an individual contributor, being a remote manager, and managing fully and partially distributed teams, all deal with these communication issues directly.

Some helpful tips for managing remote teams

Treat your teams as distributed-first.
Is your team fully distributed? Is it partially distributed? Is it only distributed on Friday when half the team works from home? Well, guess what – your team is distributed, period. Treating your team as distributed-first means adopting the same working practices as a team that is fully distributed. Here is some advice for running distributed-first teams:

  • Use a chat app for team communication, instead of turning around to speak to the group
  • Use collaborative editing services for shared docs
  • Ensure that all meetings have a video conference set up automatically
  • Consider team members’ time zones when setting meetings
  • When you have remote members join meetings, consider having the meetings “fully remote,” where all members join from their desks or phone booths, to put everyone on an equal footing
  • Find a way to invite distributed folks to team bonding events over video conferences – two of my teams have regular “watercooler” meetings scheduled for Friday afternoons

These all make for more effective teams in general – for instance, using chat is less disruptive than interrupting people to ask a question, plus the question and answer are now part of a permanent, searchable record.

A great measure of success for distributed teams that I learned from Jason Webster, one of our Enterprise Account Managers (and a remote manager himself), is that he considers his team to be successful if they don’t even notice that he’s working remotely.

Be intentional about your communication.
When you’re a small team that all sit within arms reach of each other, you can afford to be a little lax about your communication. It’s easy to poll the group for today’s lunch location. It’s easy to see whether someone is at their desk and available to talk, or when they’ve gone to the kitchen. And more importantly, it’s easy to just talk to people, establish a rapport and build a relationship with them when you’re all in the same space for 40+ hours every week.

If you’re on a distributed team, you don’t have that luxury. Building a rapport with team members and earning their trust takes time, effort and frequent communication. If you don’t have in-person opportunities for regular communication, you have to seek it out intentionally. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to build this relationship with your team, and you can’t rely on hallway conversations to get to know them. Here are some ideas for being intentional about your team communication:

  • Schedule daily team stand-ups and don’t miss them
  • Schedule regular team meetings for work planning
  • Schedule frequent-enough 1:1s that you don’t start to feel like your teammate is a stranger
  • Schedule regular “watercooler” conversations or times for the team to all “meet” socially
  • If possible, make time for everyone to physically meet, either in an office or a central location

Formalize your team’s work practices.
This goes hand in hand with intentional communication. Distributed teams can’t rely on in-person communication to facilitate ad hoc work practices.

Have empathy for your coworkers.
This is really the golden rule of running distributed teams. We should strive to make all our team members feel like they belong – to do that, we have to be able to understand how they feel.

“We create belonging” is one of our core values at Greenhouse, and I really think it’s a great tenet to hold as a manager in general. When we treat our teams as distributed-first, are intentional about our communication and formalize our team’s work practice, we ensure that everyone on our team can contribute equally.

Should your whole team embrace the distributed life?

Another major consideration for managers is whether to allow a specific person to work remotely. While I do encourage everyone to support remote work and distributed teams, it’s also true that this work style doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s better to ask the hard questions first before you make a big change. Before I approve a local team member moving to another office, or working from home especially, I ask these questions:

  • Do I trust this person to work effectively while distributed?
  • Does this person have the right mindset to work from home?
  • Will they have a productive work environment?
  • Am I as a manager prepared to provide them all the support they’ll need?

Without the right mindset and the right support system, working from home can be a terrible experience. Personally, I need the right mix of family, friends and hobbies to keep me sane while working from home. For some extroverted people, no amount of support can replace the in-person contact they need to feel happy. Be sure you or your teammate is prepared for this change of scenery, and that you are prepared to fully support them as they make this change.

Whether we like it or not, remote work and distributed teams are here to stay. Distributed teams face challenges that colocated teams don’t have, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. As managers, we have the additional challenge of ensuring that our distributed teams are set up for success. These best practices have served me well as a remote team manager at Greenhouse, and I hope that you find them helpful as well.

Looking for more tips on successful distributed working practices? Discover how to include distributed employees in your company culture.

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Mike McClurg

Mike McClurg

is the Director of Technical Operations at Greenhouse, where he’s responsible for maintaining the company’s cloud infrastructure. Mike has been working remotely for over six years, both as a software engineer and as a manager. When he’s not working, he’s probably playing guitar, rowing or dressing up like a dinosaur or princess with his twin daughters.