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Four tips on leading distributed (or semi-distributed) teams

Cal Henderson
By Cal Henderson

Co-founder and chief technology officer, Slack

From our Obsession

How to Manage People

Advice, observations, and real-life examples.

As workplaces become increasingly distributed, leaders will need to take into account how the arrangement of teams will impact productivity and, more importantly, what it will do to long-term employee morale and well-being.

Some of us will soon be heading back to the office. At the same time, many more will remain at home, either because of ongoing lockdowns or because in the era of social-distancing, technology has allowed people to experiment with new, more flexible ways to get work done. We’ve gotten used to working from the kitchen table, and no one thinks it’s unusual to hold meetings on Zoom or to brainstorm using a Miro digital whiteboard.

By operating as if all employees are still working remotely, leaders can carry forward the most useful learnings, and maintain the best behaviors, from these times—even if part or all of the workforce has returned to the physical office.

Here are four tips to keep in mind:

1. Don’t repeat old patterns

Many of us were working on semi-distributed teams before Covid-19. At Slack, which has 16 offices in 10 countries, our employees were already regularly connecting with teammates around the world and across multiple time zones.

But, as was the case at many other companies, our transition to remote work shed light on an old problem: Employees want to feel a sense of cohesion and alignment, but this is harder when you all can’t work in the same location. (Our recent research confirms that remote knowledge workers feel an acute lack of connection when working remotely.)

The old default of everyone being co-located might be the best configuration for collaboration, but now we’ve seen that everyone being distributed can also work effectively. It’s the middle ground that’s most challenging. In my experience, the toughest scenario is when everyone on a team is in the same location—except for one or two people. This often leads to a sense of isolation for the remote folks and a higher potential for miscommunication, making it harder to accomplish things as a team. We saw this a lot in our early days at Slack, when our team was split between San Francisco and Vancouver, two cities on the same time zone.

When people start coming back to the offices, we will need to be aware of these old patterns. We will need to create a level playing field, with better processes, clearer expectations, and stronger cultural norms across distributed teams.

2. Build and maintain a sense of connection

Our research has shown that nearly half of newly remote workers report that their sense of belonging has suffered, compared with only 25% of experienced remote workers. No doubt the decreased sense of belonging is the result of a decreased sense of connection.

Technology can help fill the void, allowing teams to organize virtual social outings or moments of casual social interaction with easy-to-use apps like Donut, which schedules random virtual coffee meetings among coworkers.

But, there’s also a softer role that technology plays when it helps people to express themselves. When you think about work tools, you probably think mostly about raw productivity. This is always important, but at Slack we hear increasingly about the desire to communicate in more authentic and personal ways, and that this is what really fuels a sense of connectedness and purpose.

Emoji and reacji (emoji reactions that can be used to quickly respond to messages in Slack) are examples of this, along with GIFs that can bring succinctness and levity to communication in a way that text often can’t. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen our own reacji usage at Slack increase 1.8 times, as more work has shifted to remote.

In order to help our employees build and maintain connections, we also have leaned into our employee resource groups (ERGs). At Slack, ERGs are our community centers. We have groups for individuals who identify as LGBTQ, women, and people of color, among others. Creating space for these communities is core to Slack’s culture, and it will be important to continue these in ways that allow employees working remotely or in the office to participate equally.

This year, Out, our LGBTQ ERG, had to think creatively about how to celebrate Pride. Instead of gathering in the office, they set up virtual fireside chats and poetry readings with guest speakers, and hosted channel-based AMAs to get to know one another more deeply.

3. Support balance and flexibility

Beyond our connection challenges, many of us have found it harder to achieve a work-life balance when working at home. I personally love to listen to audiobooks on my morning and evening commutes, but without that time to myself I have been starting work earlier and finishing later—and listening to far fewer books.

To address this “work creep,” Slack released guidelines for employees around remote work and published a remote work resource center with webinars and guides to help teams during this transitional period. Our recommendations for managers include avoiding early morning, evening, or lunchtime meetings, setting their Slack status to “away” to indicate when they’re out of pocket, and not expecting employees to respond to messages after business hours.

When some of us ultimately return to the office, it will be important to continue to set healthy boundaries around when we’re available.

4. Provide clarity around goals and responsibilities

As a leader at Slack, making sure our teams have clarity is an important part of my role. As some of us settle into more permanent remote-work arrangements, this will become even more important. Our US research indicates that nearly a third of workers who feel committed to their team goals prefer working from home over the office, compared with 18% of those who feel disconnected from their team’s objectives.

So, think about how you can communicate with your employees. Consider using tools such as Disco, Standuply, or basic video calls to talk through goals, expectations, and roadblocks. At Slack, we’ve had success with the “asynchronous” video tool Loom. Loom lets you narrate short screen captures or video clips and share them in a channel for folks to play back and respond to in their own time. As well as creating variety, Loom can provide relief from back-to-back meetings and video conferencing fatigue.

Never underestimate seemingly simple tactics like identifying DRIs (directly responsible individuals) for your teams and/or major projects. DRIs can help move projects forward and reduce the amount of follow up required to get individual updates from teammates. (If you use Slack, you can list the appropriate DRI in the channel topic and pin the relevant org chart, so teammates know who they can go to for support or to get questions answered and decisions made.)

We will never again have a one-size-fits-all all approach to work life. Let’s embrace that. But let’s also use technology to maintain our tight bonds with each other.

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