Navigating a Return to Office: Strategies for Leaders Looking to Thrive and Manage Distributed Teams Effectively

As companies are announcing new workplace approaches from remote to hybrid to office-centric hybrid, it’s a crucial time for business leaders to evaluate whether they’re managing distributed teams effectively.

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After more than a year of remote work, a return to office is finally in sight for many of us. As companies begin to look past simply opening their doors, many are now announcing the model – whether remote, hybrid or office-centric hybrid – that will guide their transition into the next phase of work. 

However companies decide to carry out their return to office plans, it’s a crucial time for business leaders to evaluate whether they’re managing distributed teams effectively. Leading with resilience and adopting clear communication methods can help to reduce some of the challenges teams have encountered over the past year, such as burnout, to help them thrive moving forward. Last year alone, 71% of workers experienced burnout, making it imperative for leaders and managers of globally distributed teams to cultivate a work environment that inspires employees, gives them space to share their frustrations and challenges, and empowers them to do their best work, no matter where they’re located.

As a global leader and manager, this past year has changed the way I think about how I manage and lead my teams, and how I remain mindful of my own time and energy. It is no secret that managing a global team requires leaders to adapt to many different situations, time zones and cultures. After eighteen months of remote work, here are the five strategies I use to remain effective and lead with intention and empathy. 

Cultivate Connections and Collaboration Norms

To create meaningful connections between you and your teams, it is important for them to feel that you understand them and what’s going on in their region. Be mindful of the current news cycle to better understand what your teams are facing every day and how it can affect their work. I personally make sure to read a few headlines from each country I have team members in before connecting with them – this has helped me lead with more insight and empathy. 

As a leader, it’s critical to understand that communication styles are not the same from country to country. I work with people across four different continents, each of whom have dramatically different communication norms. Early in my management career, I realized the importance of choosing my words carefully, especially when I give feedback. Some teammates might prefer more direct conversations, while others may not ask for help when they need it, as it isn’t part of their communication norms. In some countries, texting or calling someone on their cell is seen as being invasive, and other teams will be happy to have a direct line of communication with their manager. In Europe, for example, there are laws that forbid employers from calling their employees after hours or on their personal phones, while in the USA there are no such rules. Make sure to factor in cultural norms before reaching out to ensure you are reaching your teammates in ways that work for them. Be self-aware as a manager, and adapt the way you communicate and give feedback to better support your team and empower them to grow. 

Understand that English is not everybody’s first language

Global employees typically report in English, but it does not mean that it’s easy for them. Some might have difficulty understanding if you use workplace jargon or acronyms, speak too fast in a meeting, or draft very long emails or messages. Aim to communicate with brevity and clarity when you connect with team members to provide them with a clear picture. Keep communication succinct, straightforward and to the point, as this reduces confusion for everyone (including your native English-speaking teammates). Especially when meeting remotely, be mindful of each team member’s “digital body language” to adapt communications – some team members might be more comfortable using video chats, while others will want to use audio-only. Be flexible. 

Additionally, if you know individuals in a specific country prefer direct exchanges, or, on the contrary, are more comfortable with formal conversations, be sure to adjust your communications accordingly. 

Keep everyone in the loop

When working across satellite offices and in conflicting time zones, it can easily feel like people are missing out on conversations that happen when they’re online or in the office. Make sure to always provide your team with notes and circulate action items (including who is responsible for what and by when) after every meeting so they have the context and information to do their best work. Going further, I find it useful to send a weekly update to all the team members to summarize our week as a team, and also provide company updates on all sides, from new wins and learnings, to recent public announcements that they might have missed. 

Be mindful of meeting overload

Connecting all together at the same time allows conversations to flow – but with teams distributed across the world, meetings can be challenging to organize and attend. To be mindful of everyone’s time, I organize as few meetings as possible. I stick to having weekly meetings with my direct reports and a bi-weekly meeting with the whole team so we can all come together to collaborate and use our time well. For anything that doesn’t require a face-to-face interaction, we use Asana to communicate on program deliverables and deadlines, ensuring we’re all marching to the same beat. 

Scheduling can be a challenge as well. To avoid favoring one team over another, we switch each week: one week we have the meeting at 9 am Pacific to accommodate the EMEA teams, the week after the meeting is at 4 pm Pacific to accommodate the APAC team. However, this means half the team misses out on participating live on any given week. To counteract this, we record the live meeting and share it with the folks who can’t make it so they can be aware of the conversations that took place. 

Put your own oxygen mask first

As a leader, you want to be helpful to every team member, and while it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be available for everyone at all times, it can lead to sacrificing your own personal and work life balance. I quickly realized that if you don’t prioritize your own well-being, you won’t be helpful to your team and won’t bring the level of clarity and energy they need from you.

Delegating is the main secret when it comes to managing global distributed teams. When we start a new project, I attend the first few meetings to set expectations and define clear goals, and then encourage trusted team members to take ownership of the project. I then ask for status updates asynchronously and connect with team members as one-offs if they need additional support. Trust in your team and put the right people in place to get the job done. 

Managing a distributed team can be challenging, but also incredibly satisfying and rewarding. As we move forward into this new world of work, investing in strategies to help your global team work together effectively will be critical for them to thrive and achieve their goals. These tips are good starting points. 

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