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The Secret to Managing Distributed Teams

Managing a distributed team to success is going to take more than Zoom happy hours.

Yvon Chouinard had it right.

Yvon Chouinard, the pioneering alpinist, founder of Patagonia, and a personal hero, has said that the “worst managers try to manage behind a desk,” and that “the only way to manage is to walk around and talk to people.”

His philosophy has worked out well, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Good managers are proactive listeners and coaches — they strive to understand and respond with action, working for their entire team’s success. Walking around and seeing your team at work is the easiest, most intuitive way to pick up on dynamics, obstacles, and momentum.

But it’s a lot harder to actively manage a distributed team, and for almost 80% of knowledge work companies in the US, distributed work is here to stay. For good reason, too — individual productivity is higher and the resulting flexibility between work and life works out better for everyone.

Nuance gets lost.

Besides a couple of Slack messages and weekly Zoom calls, it’s tough to understand how your people are working and pick up on the challenges they’re facing.

So while important metrics like individual productivity are doing better than ever, others — including collaborative productivity, stress, and burnout — are beginning to suffer. And it’s on the manager to stay on top of it. How?

It all revolves around the central idea of making the implicit explicit

The rise of distributed work presents an opportunity to not only close the management gap but actually make managing better.

It all revolves around the central idea of making the implicit explicit. When you’re practicing management by walking around, you’re picking up and processing a lot of subtle, implicit cues. Some good managers know how to read into certain behaviors, but then again, a lot of managers don’t. It gets even worse on weekly Zoom calls, where you’re decreasing the sample size and stripping away context. So how do we make the implicit explicit?

The answer isn’t a surprise: it’s transparency.

The more workers are able to share about challenges, progress, feedback, and ideas, the easier it’s going to be to manage and work together.

In a perfect world, managers wouldn’t have to process behavioral nuances because that information would already be right in front of them. It’d be entirely proactive — you’d be able to get a feel for obstacles, stress or conflicts before they became an issue. And you’d know exactly when a worker might need a 1-on-1 or a team would need a standup meeting.

Distributed work is actively forcing management to change, and it’s up to us to make sure it’s for the better and that everyone wins.

Helm builds scalable team and talent management tools for teams to effectively work together, adapt to change, and reach their goals. Check us out to see how we fit into your team!



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Kai McKinney

Kai McKinney


I’m obsessed with taking things apart, creating new ideas, and figuring out how teams work. Also, my love for good music knows no bounds.