How to Lead Distributed Teams

Diane Gayeski
Diane Gayeski
Published on 
12.9.2021

two colleagues collaborating over a screen

Hybrid teams require clarity and creativity about rules and tools: the policies and digital platforms that will support the work.  Leaders can minimize challenges and maximize satisfaction and performance by carefully designing the entire team journey recognizing important factors across different types of hybrid teams such as cross-functional teams, contract teams and coalition teams.

Today’s high performance teams are 4D: diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic. While higher satisfaction and performance can be unleashed, those same factors present challenges. Let’s look at some rules and tools that will help you lead effective hybrid teams. 

The different flavors of hybrid work

The first challenge in leading hybrid teams is clarity: developing some shared nomenclature and  agreement about the structure, leadership, responsibilities, and amount of flexibility permitted. This starts with terms that describe where employees are primarily located and work; here are some suggestions:

  1. Remote teams - permanently work from different locations and report into one manager virtually, although much of their work is performed from remote offices or facilities and in-person.  An example: managers for a national restaurant chain who supervise face to face employees in their respective restaurants but regularly collaborate with peers and their regional manager through virtual technologies
  2. Virtual-local  - primarily work outside the office (from home or on the road) but who are required to live within a reasonable commuting distance from the office for regular meetings
  3. Virtual-distant -  work entirely from remote locations and are not required to come to the office other than for exceptional circumstances, such as on-boarding to a new job
  4. Hybrid -flex - have a mix of in-person and virtual work - sometimes according to a planned schedule (working from home 2 days a week) or variable according to the needs and wishes of the employees and their managers

Another set of terms describes the kind of work that’s done by the team, the life span of the team, and where team members report or are employed. 

Functional or operational teams are sometimes called a department -  a group of employees with different responsibilities or levels of expertise who report to one manager.  An example is a customer support team whose members may work out of an office-based call center or from their homes with various levels of supervisors or content specialties within the team. 

A leadership team is permanently made up of top executives who meet to make strategic decisions and share critical information; an example is a senior leadership team of a college composed of the president and all of her vice-presidents in enrollment, marketing, development, academic affairs, and business operations. 

A cross-functional team is a group of employees from different departments brought together to execute a project which will disband when it’s completed.  Each member still reports to their own supervisor, but the team will be assigned a leader or project manager to coordinate its activities.  An example is a team assembled to re-design the HR pages on the company’s website made up of individuals from IT, HR, marketing communications, and a small group of representative users from different roles in the company.

A contract team is also a cross-functional team, but it includes outside contractors or freelancers; an example is a group of employees from HR, communications, facilities, a local hotel, and an outside event management company brought together to plan the 50th anniversary celebration party for the company. 

Finally, a coalition team is one that doesn’t have direct contractual or reporting structures but is brought together for some mutual purpose - generally something charitable or research-oriented.  An example is a team of university researchers, pharmaceutical executives, health department representatives, and hospital managers in a developing country that comes together to promote and provide free vaccines to underprivileged citizens. In teams like this, often the leadership is shared or rotated as its work proceeds through different phases.

Challenges, rules, and tools

Each of these permutations has specific challenges, and along with them, various policies or techniques (rules) and technology platforms (tools) that can help.

Life cycles of distributed teams

Even the best-managed teams will have their ups and downs - commonly known as the phases of “forming, norming, storming, and performing”.  In the forming phase, everybody is tentative -- perhaps hopeful. As the leader helps the group establish ground rules, they begin to "norm" or normalize.

The drama comes in the inevitable conflict that emerges - and it should not be ignored or feared - it’s the source of creativity. 

Handling the proverbial storm with care and respect allows everybody to be honest about how they’re feeling and ensures their continued engagement. Then the high-performance team emerges and becomes more than the sum of its individual contributors.