How to unlock the superpowers of distributed teams to outperform their in-office counterparts

You too can inspire your distributed teams to greatness.

Five colleagues on a video call

While many teams have been forced to adopt a distributed or remote work model as a result of the pandemic, other companies, like Oyster, have adopted a distributed model by design. And while the prospect of creating a diverse team with no central headquarters and the freedom and flexibility to be a truly global company is certainly an advantage, it’s not without its challenges, especially when it comes to performance.

In fact, more than half of leaders believe that the performance of remote workers is lower than that of office workers, according to 2020 research done by Harvard Business Review.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Distributed teams are well poised to outperform their in-office counterparts. Their leaders simply have to unlock their team’s superpowers. 

The superpowers of distributed teams

Compared to teams that work on premise (or in an office setting), there are four key team processes that distributed teams can do even better. Let’s look at each in detail.

Superpower 1: Equal participation

Equal participation is one of the best predictors of good team decisions

In an office setting where discussions are had around a meeting room table, participation can be limited. An expressive extrovert may dominate a face-to-face meeting and others may be less inclined to speak up.

Asynchronous communications modes, which are a staple in distributed teams, level the communications playing field and drive more equal participation. In the distributed team, who “speaks up” and who “gets heard” is less about who has a loud voice or the power in the room, and it’s more about the ideas themselves. In an async discussion, everyone’s ideas have equal air time creating space for introverts to express themselves. 

Even status has much less impact on async communications. In a regular face-to-face meeting, there are all sorts of non-verbal signals about who should speak when based on authority. These are much less evident in the distributed setting. With more equal participation in meetings and important discussions, your team will benefit from additional ideas, enabling better decision-making.

Superpower 2: Less groupthink 

Another strong predictor of good team decisions is the process of exploring many ideas before committing to one

When a team is face-to-face, there’s only one conversation happening at a time. At some point, several people begin to comment on a particular idea, and it begins to dominate the discussion. Before long, that idea has support, and other good ideas get lost or are not voiced at all. Rather than venturing into new topics or giving support to new ideas the team goes with the one everyone else seems to be supporting. 

This is what we call groupthink—piling onto an idea because the group supports it, rather than exploring other ideas or getting a sense of how other people may actually feel.

On the contrary, with async collaboration, you can have many conversations at the same time without losing any of them. All ideas can be shared and discussed and this process takes those good ideas and turns them into good decision-making.

Superpower 3: Better conflict resolution

Address difficult conversations more objectively and less emotionally.

You know all those non-verbal cues that we love so much in face-to-face communication? Well, sometimes they actually get in the way. 

In professor Martha Maznevski’s research on virtual team performance she discovered that in a time before Zoom meetings, the highest-performing team never once addressed conflict in person. Instead, they chose to discuss problems over the phone. Sounds strange, right? Well upon further exploration, it’s not nearly as counterintuitive as it seems.

In difficult conversations, we often get emotional or work ourselves up as we are about to say what we need to say. When the other person sees this emotion, it can make them anxious. The cycle builds, and we may end up saying or hearing things that aren’t intended. 

Ironically, in virtual meetings where we are not in the same place, we are less emotionally triggered. We don’t have to worry about nervous sweating, we can pause for a breath before we respond to the other person, and overall we snap less. 

Trust is so important here. Without trust, virtual conflict resolution can certainly spiral into misunderstanding and blame. When the team is solid, this way of communicating becomes a huge driver of over performance.

Superpower 4: Better leadership development

Good distributed teams develop the leadership capabilities of their team members better than in office teams.

Managing a distributed team presents more challenges than leading an office-based team because there is simply more to oversee. You not only have to manage the work itself but also how the work gets done. Leaders of distributed teams have to spend more time and effort building trust and culture. 

As a result, high-performance distributed teams share more leadership. In order to share more leadership, we need to provide both clear and strategic direction and active coaching. This alone exposes team members to more of the larger picture, and provides feedback and advice about their inputs. It’s a great way to develop your next generation of leaders.

Final thoughts

While building and managing a distributed team can present new challenges, with the right approach leaders can unlock potential and outperform in-office teams. But the first step is understanding where the obstacles lie and being intentional about not only recognizing them but actively working to overcome them. With a concerted effort, you too can inspire your distributed teams to greatness.

Want to see Tony’s full talk on Leading Distributed Teams? Check out his presentation from Running Remote.

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop and take care of a thriving global workforce. It lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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