Leading Dispersed Teams From Your Adirondack (Or Hammock. Or Kitchen Table, Whatever You Got.)

Cy Wise
January 30, 2023
Leading Dispersed Teams

Leading teams remotely is absolutely nothing new. Beyond the grand and sudden forced-experiment that has been the last couple years, pioneering teams from all over the world have been playing with this model in an effort to find something both sustainable and feasible (while also allowing themselves to work from anywhere.) The development team of Helsinki-based Futureplay (who got bought by Plarium in 2021, so they must have been doing something right) used to work from Thailand every winter to escape Finland’s dire cold and endless night. Free Lives game studio left South Africa to work on the beautiful island of Mauritius for three months and even made a reality show about it. Dropbox is fully remote, so is Spotify, Mozilla, Shopify, and Bandcamp. While most of us are all-in on the dream of remote, we obviously want to make sure that we are still able to lead our teams effectively. Those beachside mai-tais or cozy cabin hot chocolates will only taste like guilt and terror and if we aren’t feeling like we’re still present and able to guide our teams well. There are a couple major areas of remote leadership that can easily fall through the cracks or, even if best-intentioned, end up being self-defeating. So, it’s worth it to take a look at some of these aspects and see if we can come up with a better model.

Face Time

One of the very first things that dispersed teams can encounter of their leader is… their absence. It makes sense, leaders are often doing the glue work between investors and production, between partners, or colleagues. They are sourcing new opportunities, understanding the industry landscape, solving the external pressures on the team before they arrive, and almost none of these tasks involve a meeting with your own team. In a remote environment, it’s easy to disappear into emails, partner meetings, status updates, planning meetings in which to schedule the next meeting. In an effort to grease the wheels for your team, you end up never actually seeing your team. And this can have compounding negative effects. Being visible to your team helps align them on the vision of the company, its values, and its course of action. Being available to your team builds the sort of trust that makes team members feel that very particular flavor of safe that allows them to take interesting chances, and reach out to you as a resource when needed, or with a concern they might see from their own unique vantage point.

Asynch smartly

  • Move things to asynchronous mediums when and where it makes sense. Make sure that information isn’t lost in the temporal miasma that is the instant messaging DM feed. Move key updates to email or codify using any instant messaging tools and settings to make sure that key info doesn’t slide on by as you frantically try and close out all your notification badges.
  • Implement recurring reporting that can do the heavy lifting of those status meetings and general updates, while also providing a searchable record of progress and trend data you might need to source in the future. It’s not just for bureaucracies! Status meetings shouldn’t be where you put your limited available face time resources, rather there are more valuable spaces and places to put yourself face-first.

Synch smartlier

  • Give a lot of thought to where your direct interaction will be more valuable to your team. Instead of status meetings, implement weekly or semi-monthly 1-on-1s with your direct reports. Ask questions like, “Are your feeling blocked anywhere?”, “Are there resources you wish you had access that would help you with your work?”, or “Is there anything you’re excited to work on or explore this week?”, “Is there anything that I can help you with?” These are meatier questions that help you individually support your team members and understand where they are at, as opposed to status meetings which can easily become rote.
  • Another way you can show up to your team is swing in on their standups. If you do this, make sure that you make a consistent practice of it– an unexpected and unusual Founder or leader appearance can be very alarming. But if done with some regularity, it can be another really good way to be visible to team members who are not directly reporting to you. Another way to get this effect is to participate in implemented studio rituals like weekly coffee chats (I talk more about weekly coffee chats in this ‘onboarding in the void’ blog), and get paired up at random with another team member.
  • Holding office hours is another way to make yourself available to individual members of your team.  If you are using Zoom or Google Meets for this, you’ll need a place to post your Office link for team members to access. If you are using Tangle, just tell everyone to swing by your room if they want to chat with you. This becomes less effective as your team grows as folks feel less necessity to take your time if they have direct leads they can report to and trust to communicate with. But if instituted early and you communicate the invitation, it can be a vital resource to team members if they need it.

Comms Struggles

Communication is a huge issue among dispersed teams. When team members can’t passively absorb the tone, mood, and general conversations going on amongst each other, we end up in information silos that can have compound effects. And it’s WILD the information that can be helpful to individuals on their work. Overhearing bits of the marketing department’s plan can help development teams better align language and vision of the product. Overhearing bits of tech team’s conversations can help bring awareness to upcoming problems that may be looming in the roadmap months later. Obviously, we use Tangle to help curtail some of these challenges before they become problems, but to make sure everyone is receiving the same information, we also:

  • Use monthly company newsletters to help publicize the work and efforts teams are doing and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Have monthly Town Halls to share company-wide news, high-level direction changes or refinements, and to answer any questions that team members might have.
  • Consider making your newly implemented asynchronous reporting visible across departments, whether to the whole team or just among leads, to help facilitate this cross-team background knowledge.

Tangle room with avatars and video

Exponential Burnout

The very biggest killer of productivity is systemic stress and burnout. It destroys morale, harms the psychological safety of your team, makes butts-in-seat time less effective, and can affect employee retention. Dispersed teams combined with co-located work paradigms are much more likely to experience burnout, and to experience it more quickly. So it is absolutely crucial to make sure that your policies are aligned to reduce hitting burnout, and that this is an area where you never make compromises or concessions.

Make sure you have robust and clear vacation policies. Unlimited PTO is a fine model, but studies have shown that when companies have unlimited PTO policies with no further structures to support it, teams end up taking less time off. 15 days a year is the industry standard in tech sectors– if you have unlimited PTO, make sure you communicate minimum mandatory days off a year and maximum suggestions (team members feel more comfortable taking time off when they know the expected range), and follow up with individuals that have been working more than two months without requesting time off. Verbally communicate the need for rest frequently in your company wide comms, and celebrate when folks take time off. This also absolutely applies to leaders. Leaders set the tone on vacations– if the lead isn’t taking time off, then their direct reports won’t feel comfortable either. And when you do take time off, turn off Slack notifications, don’t check email, leave the laptop at home if at all possible. Not only do you need to rest your brain, you want to send the message to your team that they are encouraged to rest their brain too.

In addition to vacation policies, you can look at company-wide policies that make remote work more sustainable. 32-hour weeks/four day work weeks are becoming more and more popular with studios, and as their effectiveness becomes more widely understood, this will become a competitive edge to companies that offer it. You might also consider studio-wide closures surrounding the New Year and some time in the summer. It’s often easier for your brain to rest when you know that none of your team are back at their desks working. If possible, you might investigate hackathon or gamejam weeks, or dedicated brainstorm time that allow teams to shake up the daily work and think of things differently for some time.

Stay Remote and Resourceful

Running a remote company comes with a ridiculous amount of advantages, but with over-reliance on the systems and processes developed for co-located teams, we can end up hamstringing our teammates. Keeping an eye on ways to upend the expected to maximize the benefits of working remotely, optimizing for this method of work, can not only avoid problems but can help foster a team that is truly delighted in their work. Play with your model, experiment, get curious about what you might be able to change, and see what works for your team! If you’d like to see how we’re reimagining remote work, take a look at our latest video and sign up to request Early Access.


Cy Wise

By Cy Wise

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