Don’t make these rookie errors when leading a dispersed team

Being liberated from an office has significant benefits, but if you get it wrong, you could undermine the benefits you hoped for.

The modern workforce is flexible, it’s remote, and the challenges for leadership teams have evolved.

However, it doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome. Each industry, organisation and team will have its unique challenges, but there are a few which you will commonly discover.


Some adopt the ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach, but some managers  go the opposite end of the scale and micromanage. Without seeing team members in a physical office, you may feel the need to know exactly what’s happening at all times to feel like things are getting done and to have a sense of control.

Unfortunately, checking in continually will only frustrate your team and can create an undesirable Workplace Experience. Set boundaries and discuss standards, values and principles to guide the work of the team. By setting expectations and defining desired outcomes and outputs, everyone knows that is expected of them and the wider team, and it allows you to check in with them less.

For emerging work, where expectations can’t be known, establish an agreed process to iterate the work ahead of time, so that it is expected by your team and doesn’t catch them by surprise.

Don’t be technophobic

It’s no longer okay to be a technophobe. Technology allows dispersed teams to communicate with ease, share information and understand the status of projects and team performance.

If you as a leader don’t model effective use of technology, you can’t expect information to flow easily throughout the team and you’re potentially making team members work twice as hard to be connected with you and to stay informed. So it’s vital you spend the time getting to grips with technology and identifying and using the right platform or tool to suit the type of work you engage in. 

Loading up email with too much communication

The role of email in your team should be limited. Email is great for data sharing or keeping a record of verbal exchanges, but it doesn’t facilitate complex, sophisticated, subtle or nuanced communication. So remember that phone calls are more effective than email (or text), and face-to-face communication is more effective than a phone call. Demote email. It should come last in your set of communication tools.

I wish that all distributed teams would write this on their foreheads so that they see it every morning when they look in the mirror. How much confusion, inefficiency and misunderstanding could be avoided.

Failing to hire for remote work-ability

Until the early 2010s, leadership teams could easily be forgiven for not knowing what to look for when hiring their remote workers. Nowadays remote work is so prevalent that we have to rise to the challenge and understand that working in a distributed team requires a particular set of characteristics to optimize workplace potential.

Choose individuals with the right qualities for this situation, so that communication will be effective and results will keep flowing in. Key attributes should be:

    • Self-motivated– It’s essential to select team members who have above-average self-motivation and like to work independently, rather than those who need constant encouragement and attention to get the job done.
    • Great communicators– There may be limited contact, so employees should have strong communication skills and be effective users of videoconferencing, apps and all your tech platforms.
    • Results-driven– You want workers who like to set and achieve objectives. They should be comfortable with being assessed against key performance indicators (KPIs).
    • Open and honest– You can’t watch over your remote team members, so you have to rely on them to come to you with problems, suggestions, and other feedback. This is why it helps if you choose workers who are willing to be open and straightforward and have the skills to do so professionally

Not making time to connect

We all work better when we feel like we are part of something larger. Connecting with each other cultivates a feeling of community for your team. Develop a strategy to pull each of the team members into the group and then cement that feeling of community by acknowledging the team’s efforts and celebrating its successes.

Make a point of being accessible to the team, and allow one-on-one time for each of your employees. Be considerate of their obligations, work commitments, and especially the time zones they work in. Set meetings and calls as thoughtfully as your own schedule allows and include group meetings regularly as a way of touching base and offering encouragement.

Jumping quickly to negative conclusions

Even the best of teams have conflicts, but unhealthy conflict can arise more quickly in remote teams from simple oversights and poor communication. Virtual team leaders must be especially proactive in following up and achieving resolution. The challenge here is to learn a set of skills that managers and teams have sometimes avoided – the art of raising issues in a respectful, professional way. Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson makes a lot of this skill for effective teaming.

Trust to be trusted

Leaders need to work to develop a feeling of trust between themselves and their team and between team members. Building trust in virtual teams involves three types of trust: trusted intentions, trusted competence and trusted reliability. You want to know if your team members mean well, if they cando a good job and if they willdo it. Your team wants to know this of you, and good work depends on it.

The curious thing about trust is that people who don’t trust others are less likely to be trusted. And the opposite is true, if you trust others they will be much more likely to trust you. If you wait for your team members to demonstrate that they are trustworthy before you trust them, you’ve already lost them.

Put in the effort, learn the new rules of engagement for working with distributed teams and you’ll start out on exactly the right footing. 

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