3 critical tips for managing a global remote team

By Jeff Sullivan

To compete in global markets, you need global talent. By hiring remote workers, you can get access to top-shelf skills without paying top-shelf prices – a massive competitive advantage for any small business.

While hiring remote workers is a challenge in itself, the harder part is managing the team effectively. Cultural norms, communication standards, and work practices vary widely across regions.

What steps can you take to manage a global remote team better? How do you ensure that a project stays on track even if the team is spread across the world? I’ll answer these questions, and more below.

Adopt managerial practices that align with cultural expectations

As part of our expansion process, we decided to tap into a more global talent pool, especially when it comes to hiring developers.

An immediate problem we faced in this endeavor was the difference in managerial practices across cultures. While developers in some countries wanted managers who were more hands-on, others wanted them to take more of a distant, leadership role.

To cope with these different cultural expectations, we reviewed our managerial practices. Instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, we adopted an approach that considered the developer’s local culture and work practices – in consultation with the developer, of course.

This should be the first step in managing any global project. Instead of adopting your standard practices, you have to be willing to accept, understand, and adopt cultural differences in your management approach.

A few things you should consciously look out for are:

– Leadership approach: Leadership styles vary greatly across cultures. Some cultures appreciate a more collaborative approach to leadership, while others will prefer a more distant and forceful leader. Understand the cultural approach to leadership for all your remote team members and incorporate it into your management practices.

– Time: How people approach time is also variables across cultures. Some cultures consider deadlines to be a hard stop in the work process. Others might see it just as a guide. If the people on your team come from cultures where time is seen as a flexible concept, change your management approach accordingly. In our case, we offered some developers a “time-range” instead of a hard deadline.

– Responsibilities: In some cultures, speaking out and raising your hand to take on responsibilities is encouraged. In others, it is considered rude. As a manager in a multicultural team, you’ll have to understand each team member’s approach to responsibilities and change your expectations accordingly. In our organization, we encouraged people from non-participative cultures to speak up by inviting their opinion in remote meetings.

In-person meetings and retreats can go a long way

In the absence of a common culture (and sometimes, even language), a remote team can often lack cohesion. To combat this, we adopted a decidedly old-school, but effective approach – in-person activities, meetups, and most importantly, an annual team retreat.

Every year, we would gather our remote team of developers/designers and pack them off on a retreat. We turned this into a collaborative process. Each team member had a say in the choice of retreat location, the hotel, and activities. We also created a dedicated Slack channel for all discussions related to the retreat.

We discovered that discussions about the retreat would invite a lot of activity, even from team members who normally don’t participate in non-work conversations. Months before and after the retreat, the Slack channel would be filled with discussions on where to go and what to do there. For a remote team that didn’t get a chance to meet often, this retreat became a critical team building tool.

If you’re going to adopt this approach, here are a few things to keep in mind:

– Respect cultural beliefs: Any team building activity you undertake should take cognizance of cultural beliefs of each team member. Get individual team members to buy into any activity before recommending it to the rest of the group. Make sure team members don’t feel pressured into participating in any activity they are uncomfortable with.

– Focus on collaborative digital activities: If your team is remote, your team building should also include collaborative digital activities. Think of multiplayer games, digital treasure hunts, etc. Pick activities that reward teamwork instead of skill (such as team-based strategy games instead of action games).

– Encourage non-work collaboration: For a team to thrive, team members should have something in common that goes beyond their work responsibilities. Encourage team members to meet, converse, and collaborate on non-work activities. Create dedicated communication channels where people can exchange ideas and have conversations without the pressure of work.

– Turn the retreat into an annual event: The annual retreat was one of the most important events in our team calendar, something every team member looked forward to. Pick a location (by consensus) that is affordable yet exotic. This turns the retreat into a sort of reward – something the team can discuss, experience, and enjoy together.

Find solutions to time zone conflicts

If you’re managing a global, distributed team, one of your biggest problems will be dealing with time zone conflicts. The farther apart your team members are, the harder this challenge.

In our case, some of our developers were located more than nine hours away from the rest of the team. This meant that by the time the core team went home for the day, it would be the middle of the night for the others.

To deal with this problem, we adopted these solutions:

– Rotating meeting schedules: A fixed meeting schedule can often inconvenience team members located in different time zones. If you have early morning weekly meetings (by EST), a team member based in Australia will have to be up late at night to attend them. Fix this problem by changing meeting schedules regularly. Have one meeting early morning, another late afternoon, and one late evening so all project team members feel that their needs are being met.

– Automate messaging: To get around the problem of time zones, automate messaging as much as possible. For instance, instead of sending a deadline reminder manually, you can instruct your project management tool to send one automatically as per the task assignee’s local time zone. This can save you tons of micromanagement. Also, give your team members to check in and submit work via the project management tool.

– Be aware of local holidays: Lastly, keep track of any important local holidays for each team member. Add them to your calendar so you know when a team member’s productivity might be low (or they might need a day off).

Finally, listen to your team. Ask them what’s bothering them and what they would like to change.

As Melissa Daimler writes in Harvard Business Review, sometimes, the most effective leadership tool is just four words:

“What do you think?”


Jeff Sullivan is a PM practitioner at Workamajig, a creative project management tool. When he isn’t helping creative agencies grow faster, he can be found practicing his guitar.

Leave a Reply

The Self-Employment Survival Guide can help you succeed. Learn all about it here.

Self-Employment Survival Guide book cover