4 Important Tips for Building a Distributed Team

4 Important Tips for Building a Distributed Team

Last Saturday, we invited Chinedu Enekwe, Co-founder and Executive Director of TipHub Africa and Lajuanda M. Asemota, Director of Diversity and Inclusion of Singularity University for the February edition of #SFANLiveChat. The Live Chat comes ahead of SFAN’s Quantum Leap Career Fair 2017: Technology and the Future of Work in Africa and was held on the topic, Building a Distributed Team.

But, why a distributed team?

A distributed team is a team that’s connected to their purpose but maybe not their location. It’s no secret that great local talent is expensive and difficult to hire across a number of industries. Technology has made it possible for hiring managers to hire from a global talent pool.

We were very enthusiastic about chatting with Enekwe and Asemota because they have both built and led distributed teams at TipHub Africa and Singularity University respectively.

Here are 4 insightful lessons from the meeting:

1. Build trust and coordination through effective communication

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs once said that communication is both the biggest obstacle and the solution to developing trust within remote teams.

“To build trust in a distributed team you must be thorough, almost annoyingly consistent”, Chinedu says. “Learn habits and patterns that work with each team member”. But at the initial on-boarding stages, it’s important that you create a period of a face-to-face meeting or weekend retreats for folks to physically connect with team members.

Lajuanda observed that as the team leader, you need to do some occasional personal check-ins with everyone. You have to genuinely care about people for them to trust you and stay on track with the rest of the team. “Coordination comes from communication. So creating multiple channels for updates is the key.”

Organisations are no longer built on force, but on trust — Peter Drucker.

2. Maintain culture through value-driven autonomy

It is common knowledge why fixing the culture problem in a co-located team could be easier than in a distributed team: distance, under communication, and lack of collaboration. This need not be the case. “Organisational culture is intangible, so location doesn’t have to be the driving factor. Values do”, Lajuanda says. “In my companies, I start by reviewing team values. I keep the team engaged by regularly inspiring them to live those values.”

With a team that spans between Washington D.C and Lagos, Nigeria, apart from open communication, creating offline meetings are vital for Chinedu in encouraging sharing and team relationships. “If distance doesn’t permit, at least do quarterly virtual retreats”, he says.

woman in white tank top sitting on bed in front of laptop computer

3. Ensure that your team members are actually working

Achieving productivity is among the fears that hold managers from going remote. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was once in the news for scrapping Yahoo’s remote-work policy.

“At the heart of the question of productivity and teamwork, is creating accountability”, Chinedu explains. “Accountability isn’t complaining about one another, it’s about completing tasks. This links back to creating a culture of communication so work can be delegated and silos of silence don’t form. When a team member goes silent, I try to read it like a pulse to plan our next move”.

Through her work at Singularity University, SpeedUpAfrica, and her own experience design company, Lajuanda often manages a diverse team that implements several high-level, multi-faceted events and programs for hundreds of leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond. Achieving productivity requires great project management skills, she says, “I use Smartsheet, Trello or Asana, and automate reminders for the team to update the project tracker. I also combine one-on-ones with briefing sessions and team meetings”.

4. Leverage technology to keep the team engaged

Whereas a co-located team can afford a foosball table, inside jokes, shared experiences and a meeting room with whiteboards to develop its personality and enhance collaboration, remote team banks on different technology tools. But knowing what works for different teams is the key to this. All tools aren’t common in all regions.

“My favorites are Slack, Smartsheet, Google Apps, IFTTT, Zoom, and Timeanddate.com”. Slack is your virtual office because of the various channels it accommodates. Oh did I mention the GIFs and Memes!?

“My team lives and breathes daily chats on Whatsapp Group (love those check marks!)”, Chinedu says, “for meetings we use Google Hangouts without video when on the continent –it just works”.

In responding to the question of the best tool to track time and do payroll for distributed teams, by the team at Rise Africa Rise, Lajuanda noted that her team uses Zenefits. “I’ve also heard of small organizations using Gusto, Wave, Freshbooks. My advice: Get a full demo and use what works”. Understand that all tools might not work equally for every region, find out what works best for you.

Why could a distributed team fail?

Distributed teams fail due to lack of consistency and communication. In some cases, lack of maturity, Lajuanda explains. “Everyone has to understand the importance of doing what you say you will and supporting each other”.

In his book, Exponential Organisations, Salim Ismail outlines new organizational structures that leverage exponential technologies for a shifting global business mindset. This is very vital for a distributed team.

Before transitioning your team to remote or on-boarding new folks, have a “trial periods” to test things out, Chinedu cautions. “Every team isn’t built to be distributed. You have to figure that out quickly”.

In the final analyses, building a great distributed team requires that you go in with your eyes open. And to make it work you must, build trust and coordination through effective communication, maintain culture through value-driven autonomy, ensure everyone gets their stuff done, and leverage technology tools to create fun and collaboration in your team.


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