Managing a distributed team

June 8, 2020

Working remotely is something that a lot of people have been forced to get used to during the last months. For someone that has been working remotely for the last ten years (and have continued to go to my private office through out the pandemic), it might seem like business as usual. But since my work is no longer focused on me producing design deliverables and instead primarily focuses on managing a team, it'd be unrealistic to think that the last months haven't affected my day-to-day work.

One of the things we like to focus on over at SuperFriendly is what we love to do. While all of us have our own areas where we are already professionals it doesn't necessarily mean that it's what we'd like to focus on in each project. During the last weeks, I've talked to my team about this as well as discussing it with Dan.

One area where I've been able to spot an overlap between 'what I would like to do' and 'where there is room for growth and improvement' is in managing people and helping them flourish. I've been educating students at Hyper Island on and off for the last 19 years, but because they are students, the process is a bit different. The similarity between the two experiences is that I get joy from seeing people flourish!

So I thought this might be a good time to share what I've learnt over the last months running a fully distributed team.

Managing teams

One of the things I realise now is I should have scheduled more 1-1's from the beginning. Regardless of how small your team is, there's a chance that there will be things that aren't shared in public. You as a manager should be able to catch these during more private conversations. I didn't really start scheduling these until we were closing in on the end - because you know... work. Had I scheduled these from the beginning, there's a chance that we would have avoided some misunderstandings that occurred.

Regular retrospectives, with a reasonable number of items in the “what’s not going well?” column. It shouldn’t look like sunshine and rainbows all the time. That would actually make me question whether difficult topics are being raised in retros. Healthy teams should be able to openly introspect and self-critique, because everyone understands that constructive feedback is in the service of continuous improvement.Habits of High-Functioning Teams

It can be difficult knowing the timing on when to speak up. These come at very different times for professionals than students. Striking a healthy balance between leading and pushing the team forward in a way that works for everyone on the team can sometimes be difficult.

As a manager you need to care personally about your employees while also challenging them. That's "radical candour". If you challenge someone but don't show that you care about them, that's "obnoxious aggression". Having a senior leader who behaves this way creates a culture of fear.
But it's also one of the mistakes we most fear making. Often when we realise we've been a jerk, we move in the wrong direction. We say we 'didn't really mean it' or 'it's no big deal' when, in fact, we did mean it and it is a big deal - and we end up in the worst place of all. The majority of mistakes are made when somebody is so worried about not hurting someone's feelings that they don't tell them something they would be better of knowing. This hapens all the time at work: mistakes that don't get corrected get repeated.
Kim Scott

Realising management is a two-way street

One of the most valuable insights I've had from teaching is that in order to reap all the benefits from it, you have to look at it as a two-way street. Regardless if it's with students, junior people on your team, or super seniors - there's always something that can expand your mind.

About a year ago, I was hiring to run a design team at IKEA. Being able to see their growth over time was inspirational, but it wasn't until I came across a post from Mathilde Collin that I was able to understand how high-functioning teams work.

Mathilde shares her entire process for conducting 1-1's, but there was one specific question that I've used in every 1-1 since then.

If you were me, what would you do differently?

It's so simple and I've yet to asked it without the other person getting seemingly caught off-guard. I like the question because it highlights how our work is a partnership. A 1-1 is not a meeting where one should instruct the other on things to improve at. It's a meeting that should focus on how the collaboration can improve and through that, how both people can grow. I'm not asking them to tell me what they think I'm doing wrong, I'm simply asking what they would do differently. There's no blame assigned in the answer.

What I enjoy when working with teams is that it's entirely different from me working solo (duh). My purpose is to help people be happier at work. It's why I wrote Mastering Freelance and it's why I enjoy leading teams rather than leading design.

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