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Managing and Leading Globally Distributed Teams


When I started managing globally distributed teams shortly after the 2008 economic crisis, I never would have predicted that it would become as commonplace as it is today. At that time, companies were moving fast to establish “development centers” all over the world in order to reduce cost. Today, businesses have offices in multiple geographies, not for cost cutting purposes, but to seek out different perspectives, make better decisions, and ultimately, build better products.

From a personal perspective, I have seen meaningful enhancements in the products and services my teams build as a result of being globally distributed. But, it also took a lot of learning. Today, I’m going to cover my biggest learnings from my 14-year tenure of leading globally distributed teams, separated into tips for managing and tips for leading.

The distinction between management and leadership is covered at length in many books, blogs, and podcasts, however, for the purpose of this article I will summarize. Management is focused on establishing the ecosystem we work in, with all of its processes and constraints. For example, establishing the rules of the road, making them clear, and ensuring people are abiding by them. Leadership, on the other hand, is more abstract and harder to define. It encompasses the skills of coaching, influencing others, and designing motivating environments. What follows is how I utilized both to work effectively with teams in different locations.

Tips for Managing Globally Distributed Teams

When offices and employees are dispersed, management becomes even more important.

When I started managing my first remote team, I was located in Denver, Colorado and my remote team was in Europe. My first instinct was to treat my remote team in the same way I managed my local team. I was positive that this approach would strengthen my team as a whole. I even went as far as to think that my remote team would swoon over my management style! While this approach worked in my favor in many ways (which I’ll get to later), it set me up for failure in others. Particularly in documentation, processes, and vision setting.

A theme you’ll see throughout these 3 learnings is that I made assumptions without first discussing with my team what would be most helpful. As you read through my learnings, keep this theme in mind and think of assumptions you may be making today with your teams that could be causing unnecessary breakdown.

First, documentation. At the time, documentation was out of fashion for the tech industry. Agile was quickly becoming the dominant project management style, which favored getting to a final product with minimal artifacts. This approach had been working fine for my local team, so I assumed it would work for my remote team as well. However, while my local team had the luxury of asking clarifying questions to their peers in the office, my team in Europe did not have that option. They were 8 hours ahead, leading them to frequently complete a full day of work with little to no information gleaned from sprint plannings.

This information gap resulted in most of our standups and check-ins focused on resolving confusion and syncing up on newly discovered information. This demoralized my remote team, and frustrated my local team. To that end, it’s paramount to ensure that your teams are all working from the same source of information and have access to the same resources.

Second, clear processes. When I began managing my remote team, I assumed that they had their own way of working that made them most effective. That led me to think, “who am I to get in the way of their established processes?”. As you can imagine, that led to inconsistent processes and a lack of definition. For example, some members of my local team felt the standup was optional if they updated me on what they were doing async. My remote team, on the other hand, treated the meeting very formally and prepared documented updates for it. Additionally, my local team had been formally trained on Agile and were very committed to delivering on the 2 week cadence. Meanwhile, my remote team had never had Agile training and were more focused on the project deliverable as a whole. We ended up with twice the meetings, and fell a quarter behind schedule. Eventually, we completely reset, and workshopped a new process together. That reset was crucial, and from that moment forward it was pivotal that I ensured it was followed by both my local and remote teams.

Third, conveying the “why”. It’s easy to assume that if they’re documented, that teams can just take tasks and work through them. The thing is, you can’t, and shouldn’t document everything to such a level that the work is robotic. There is always room for interpretation on anything a developer works on and things work out well, if they make the right decisions in those times of uncertainty. During times when your remote team needs to make a decision about something where there is lack of clarity, having a clear understanding of why the project exists in the first place can help them move forward. If they understand and empathize with the customer problem they can more easily make better decisions in those moments where things aren’t clear. It also helps with morale. If you haven’t established a compelling picture of the purpose of the project you will have a collection of people just trying to get tasks completed and the results will reflect a disjointed and uninspired product.

Tips for Leading Globally Distributed Teams

While you can manage your way through a lot of problems, you can’t successfully produce by focusing on managing alone. Some of my favorite leaders have said that when faced with challenges, you absolutely need leadership to guide you through. And one of the best ways to do that is through human connection. Here are a few discoveries I’ve had along the way that helped me to lead my globally distributed teams:

Visit remote offices. I can’t stress enough the importance of visiting your teams in person, no matter where they are located, particularly when you are announced as a new leader.On my first trip to a remote office, I made a point to experience the office as my teams did. For example, instead of taking a taxi to the office, I took public transportation because that was my team's primary mode of commuting. In that case, I found that my team’s primary mode of commuting wasn’t safe after dark. On another trip, I visited a remote office in the winter. During that time, the heat worked and people in the office were in a festive mood given the holiday season. When I returned in the summer, however, I found that the air conditioning didn’t work and they had frequent power outages. Putting myself in the shoes of my remote team members allowed me to better understand their priorities, pain points, and gain greater perspective. You can learn an invaluable amount about your team by visiting them in person.

Invite people to visit you. It’s important to remember that you aren’t the only person that could benefit from a broader perspective. Your remote team members can benefit greatly from coming to visit you and your local team to meet people face-to-face and get an understanding of your local office culture.

Establish local leaders. I use the word leader here explicitly. To be successful in leading remote teams, it is critical to establish a relationship with someone who is already seen as a leader in their office. Whether it be formal or informal, these leaders can have great influence, and can help your teams navigate change, or help you navigate cultural nuances. Making good connections with these people, as well as the formally established managers, can yield big results.

Pay attention to culture. When you find yourself with teams from different countries, it’s critical to dedicate time to understanding the culture of the teams you work with. While learning a different culture takes time, the effort to do so is always appreciated. Personally, I found this to be one of the most exciting parts of managing remote teams. For example, one finding I’ve gleaned is that there are cultural differences in what motivates people in their career. It’s not always monetary, and it requires you to dig deeper to understand what excites your team to come to work each day. Finally, be aware that there may be cultural friction between remote offices. The signs may be subtle, but it isn’t uncommon. As a leader, it is our role to observe and encourage our teams to communicate so we can work through any challenges together.

Keep in touch with what’s happening. To be an empathetic leader, you need to be aware of what is happening internally, and externally that may impact your employees. For example, civil unrest, severe weather, and infrastructure issues can all affect your teams and their sentiment when showing up to work. I’ve found that while people may be hesitant to mention these things to you, proactively connecting with your teams on how they may be impacted by an event breaks down barriers and allows you to better support them.

One of Etsy’s Guiding Principles is Embracing Differences, which means seeking out different perspectives to ultimately make better decisions and build better products. While there is so much to consider when working across geographies, I hope that you take these management and leadership learnings to connect, engage, and motivate your own globally distributed teams. It has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career, and has not only made me a better, more empathetic manager, but a better human as well.

Further reading