Six Tactics to Use in Managing an Organization Across Borders

One of the biggest struggles in managing a team across geographic boundaries is staying in constant communication with your team members and with other people in your organization. As more and more teams become dispersed, it’s incredibly important to create processes to establish shared communication with your team.

In my current role, we have members spread across multiple different offices and continents and we are all traveling regularly. Therefore, it’s been necessary to establish some key principles for working well together.

Key Pieces of Inspiration

There are a few pieces I recommend listening to or reading in advance. I think that the learnings from both Automattic and Buffer are really instructive about running a distributed organization:

One thing that I do find extra challenging and different is that we have multiple offices, so in each, a unique culture develops. It’s not as simple as a staff that’s entirely distributed, so we are focusing on bringing people together across the various offices and cultures that exist.

 

Therefore, here are the six most important ideas I’ve found work for managing an organization across borders:

Have a shared communication tool that everyone uses

It’s critical that you use a tool that enables rapid communication between team members. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick, Slack, Hipchat, Google Hangouts, etc. What matters is how you use that tool. The tool must be a way for people to get in touch with one another and have regular and open communication. There should be room for regular team communication, sharing of critical documents, and other key information across the team.

Make sure you are in regular communication with team members. Have open forums where people can comment and contact one another. Leverage the tool as a way to stay in touch.

But also be careful – be clear with people when you are not available and don’t let the communication tool overwhelm your team or your daily life. Set limits for your team so they understand expectations (we aren’t doctors and we don’t need to be on call at all hours). 

Schedule recurring check in meetings with your team

Make the key members of your team get together at least fortnightly (every other week), but preferably, do it on a weekly basis to cover priorities, what the team is up to, and what key things are happening. It’s a key piece of connective tissue because it forces everyone on the team into a single meeting where sharing can happen and where everyone else can understand what the other members of the team are up to.

In those meetings, be sure to have a common and repeatable agenda that happens on a regular basis. Also, hold the meeting even if there’s not a lot to cover in a given week. Force the team to sit in a room and just have a conversation with one another about important happenings across the organization. Even if the conversation isn’t the most business critical, gaining the trust of each other pays dividends in multiple other ways

Here’s a framework I like to use for those meetings:

  • What are the key things the team needs to know from the prior week about the business or from the leadership team
  • What are the key metrics for the business indicating that we need to be focused on?
  • What’s releasing this week that we need to be ready for?
  • What are the action items from the previous meeting? How are they progressing?
  • What 1-2 things do we need to consider changing or improving as a team?
  • What else do we need to discuss

Make sure you have regular 1:1s with remote employees

It seems like a cliché, but without regular communication between you and direct reports, it’s hard to maintain a steady relationship and to be aware of what your direct report is doing and how they are feeling about work.

It’s really easy to forget to do this with your remote employees. And for them, it’s even more critical that the 1:1 be scheduled because you won’t be able to just grab them and chat as easily as you could with someone sitting near you in the office.

Make sure you have a regularly scheduled at least monthly check in with everyone on your team (but preferably weekly or fortnightly). And if you can’t make it for some reason, take the time to reschedule and commit to having the meeting on a regular basis.

I don’t like to have a structured format for every 1:1. Instead, I try to make it time for the employee to have a conversation about the topics that are important to them or what they are currently feeling at work.

It’s a good opportunity to talk about both the hard and soft things occurring in the office, to provide feedback and to get a sense for what’s working and what isn’t.

They shouldn’t just be status updates on what’s happening. There needs to be some discussion of how things are working, what the employee is feeling, and how things can be improved. Allow for the discussion to go where the employee wants to take it and to establish rapport with members of the team.

Use the phone or have a direct conversation – don’t just rely on work chat

Although I recommend above having a shared communication tool, it doesn’t replace the need to actually call someone, use hangouts/Skype, or something else to actually talk to other people and hear their voice.

Remember, a lot of context gets lost as we just write messages to each other. Although the actual percentage is in conflict, a large percentage of how we communicate happens non-verbally. However, this is all lost when you can’t see or hear the person on the other side of the conversation.

If you’re in a bad mood, you’re more likely to interpret someone’s message as angry or attacking when in fact none of that intent may have existed and if you could have heard or seen the person speak it, you would have immediately known they just wanted to provide feedback and figure out how to work better together.

It is also a lot harder to have empathy for the other person when they appear as an endless stream of text on the other side of the phone

So pick up the proverbial phone occasionally and have a live, face to face chat with your remote colleagues occasionally. It will serve to create a better relationship and establish that there is actually another person that you are talking to. Remember, this isn’t Facebook or a comment wall and trolling your colleagues isn’t going to actually solve your business’s problems.

Get decisions and action items off of email

I’m finding more and more that email as a means of communication does lack a lot. Endless message threads are hard to keep track of as well as action items.

Email matters as a core source of communication, but don’t rely on email as the single source of tracking the action items for your team or of communicating plans to your group. Make sure you are capturing those thoughts somewhere else for them to be permanently stored (a google document, Trello, etc).

If you are relying on email, then it’s very likely that you are missing something and it will be easier for work and other elements to fall through the cracks. Get your key action items and decisions off of email so there is a permanent place that people can go for a single source of truth.

Use a tool to track everything the team is working on and review it regularly

We use Trello as a primary tool across our team and as a way to make sure we stay in sync with one another on what we’re working on and what tasks we are all prioritizing. This is different from what our engineering team does, but the idea is that each team and teams working together should find what works best for them. The tool is only as good as the team that is using it.

Google docs is also incredibly important to stay synced on product priorities and other elements as a team. We track product backlogs here, prioritization for our teams.

Nothing works perfectly and I’m constantly experimenting and trying new ideas to improve how we work as a remote team. I’d love to hear other ideas and what has worked well for others.

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