5 Reasons Why Distributed Teams Fail (And How to Fix it)

remote team management

Did you know that Automattic, the company that built WordPress, has a 100% distributed team? It has even closed its San Francisco office, as not enough employees were using it. In fact, even startups like BaseCamp, Zapier and Buffer run on fully distributed workforce.


However, there’s a flipside to this story. Not every distributed team produces amazing results. Companies like IBM, Yahoo and even Reddit have done away with remote work, finding it difficult to collaborate and coordinate efficiently.


What do we learn from this? Whether your distributed teams boost or hurt your productivity, really depends on how you manage them.


Here are 5 reasons why distributed teams fail, and what you can do about it.


1. Poor Communication

Communication gap is one of the most critical reasons why distributed teams can’t function efficiently. When we meet in-person, it allows us to correctly understand what’s being said. Non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone, body language enable us to interpret the message in the right context.


Since distributed teams have to work extensively with text-based communication such as emails and chats, it can lead to misunderstandings. Without non-verbal signals, you may even misinterpret the message. For example, if your boss replies ‘yes’ to your suggestion, does it mean he’s excited about it? Or does it mean he’s accepting it hesitantly?


Similarly, if you’ve made a joke in your email, your use of sarcasm may not be obvious from your message. So avoid using slangs, jargons and pop culture references in your emails, comments and discussions. Also, keep them short and to the point. If you feel you’ll need to compose a long message, it’s better to call the person or set up a video conference.

Make sure you ask for clarification whenever you don’t understand something. In our teams, we have a ‘never assume, always ask’ policy that allows to collaborate successfully across three continents. In fact, every communication should be clear about 3W’s – WHO does WHAT by WHEN.

When GE was facing challenges while communicating with its 90,000-strong global workforce, it came up with an innovative idea.

They created virtual classrooms that enabled employees to collaborate and achieve common goals using online quizzes and e-learning. To make things interesting, they even created virtual breakout rooms, interactive games, role-playing sessions and online polls, whereby employees were given feedback about their strengths & weaknesses, and provided tips to improve performance.


2. Picking the wrong communicate channel

Let’s say you’re meeting your client in 30 minutes, and you realize that there’s a mistake in the presentation that was prepared by your remote team. What will you do? Will you email them about it, or call them immediately? When you’re working with distributed teams, it’s essential to use the right communication channel. Otherwise, it can have disastrous consequences.


Create a simple guide that lists which channel to use for each type of communication and share it with your team. The key is to frame a simple set of rules that makes it easy for everyone to work together and communicate effectively. This will help set the right expectations, and help build trust.


Avoid using too many communication tools, and try to leverage your project management tool as much as possible. This will avoid unnecessary confusion.


A project management tool is a great place to gather all your project documents, track team activity and provides multiple methods of communication such as chats, voice, video, messages and discussions. You can communicate with your team in a variety of ways such as task comments for project-related messages, and discussions for non-project related conversations.


3. Lack of mutual understanding

We tend to assume that distributed teams are basically geographically separated individuals working on the same project and having access to the same facilities. However, it’s important to understand they’re also separated by many other factors such as time zone, culture, language and other barriers. This can lead to some interesting situations.


For example, if you schedule a meeting for Monday morning, it might still be Sunday night for your remote team mate. It might be a public holiday in your country, while your teammate might be waiting for your email approval.


So familiarize yourself with the local environment of your remote team members, including their style of working and cultural norms. Reach out to your HR team to understand the applicable standards and policies.


Use diversity to your advantage. For example, multi-national companies like SAP tap into their distributed workforce to create highly functional teams that provides unique perspectives and ideas on their projects.


4. Lack of accountability

Since distributed team members don’t see each other often, and don’t get to have accidental or incidental conversations, they don’t know what others are upto until the project is completed or a deliverable is made.


As a result, remote employees tend to develop a tunnel vision, where they’re focused about only their work and their relationship with the project manager. When conflicts arise, this makes it difficult to sort things out, and usually leads to a blame game.


5. Hiring the wrong people

Hiring a remote employee is quite different from hiring locally. In addition to qualifications and experience, your virtual team members need to have additional skills to work proficiently in a distributed team.


For example, a candidate might be great at face-to-face meetings, but can he use a virtual whiteboard to clearly communicate ideas to your clients?


While hiring remote employees, interact with them the same way as you would after you hire him. When you assign him a task to complete, add him(with limited-access role) to your team management software and track his progress. 

See how he communicates his progress and works with the rest of your team. Is he good at taking instructions? Does he ask questions? Is he able to adapt his style of working to fit the different time zones and locations? Can he do a great job in a distributed team environment? If not, then he may not be the right fit.


To build a successful distributed team, hire people who are good listeners, and who can communicate & collaborate well.


Wrapping it up

Just as there are many organizations with highly productive remote teams, there are also dysfunctional teams working out of the same office. The key is to use a good team management software that’s able to handle all the requirements of your distributed team, under one roof, so to speak. This will not only allow your team to manage its tasks but also collaborate better. However, ensure that you thoroughly explore the features of your team management tool. Many times, teams aren’t aware that their problem can be solved by a specific feature and continue to be unproductive. The above pitfalls will help you spot team management problems early on and take proactive steps, thereby building a high-performance distributed team that achieves great things together.


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