It’s natural to feel challenged in leading your first distributed team. Whether you are a product owner or ScrumMaster accustomed to embedding with a single Scrum team—or an agile coach experienced in working with several agile teams—for starters, you may worry that things are very different because you cannot see the people during team meetings. Even if you can see people (by video), you may be concerned about connection. But people are still people. They will find ways to connect and collaborate if you set the example.

What is different in a distributed team environment is how you apply your leadership skills. Often, I find that I need to amplify what I would normally do in a co-located team setting to provide those examples.

Establish a vision

As in any leadership role, you need to ensure that the team has a vision of where its going. In a self-organizing agile team, you are co-creating the vision with the team. If you are a product owner, you are co-creating a vision of the product. If you are a ScrumMaster or agile coach, you are helping the team create a vision of how they optimally work together.

It’s important that you then become the champion of that vision for your team and organization. Help them set the vision—and then over-communicate it in meetings, email, internal websites (or wikis) and in online chat. Keep repeating the vision until you hear others start to echo that vision.  

Address concerns about change

When I was brought in to lead an agile transformation for one distributed organization, my one-on-one discussions with team members often echoed a concern about “what I was going to change.” After assuring them I was not there to disrupt their work, we talked about what things in their work life would benefit from a change.

The conversations revealed many small things. So the vision became “creating small change experiments” that the team itself controlled. The team members recognized our conversations when we talked about this vision more broadly in meetings, email and online chat—and they felt that they owned part of it.

Behave consistently with the vision

Next, it’s important to exhibit the behavior you want to see in the vision you have set with the team, especially if it’s co-created. For instance, in the “experiments” vision, we talked about how anyone could set up their own experiment and even help each other with these experiments. I started with an experimental open meeting where anyone from any of the teams could come bring questions and topics. This helped staff talk through some of their concerns, as well as talk with members of other teams. They usually did not look for these opportunities in their distributed organization, as they were focused on their own team’s work. However, this open meeting kicked off many collaborative experiments that helped people better understand how agile would work in their distributed environment.

Allow time for connection

Also, for online meetings, a leader needs to balance how s/he interacts with others. When the meeting starts, you may need to be the first to speak to break the silence of the opening. I find this more common with fully distributed teams.

Even better, greetings or casual conversation a few minutes before the start of the meeting helps reconnect people and gets them ready to work together as a group. Let them know you will be in the meeting a little early for this opportunity to connect. Otherwise, they feel disconnected in the meeting and may become distracted. Multi-tasking often creeps in when people feel disconnected from others in the meeting.

If you do add this extra “connection time,” make sure team members know it’s optional and that you clearly state when the actual meeting starts (maybe with “Let’s get started”) and when it ends (using something like “That wraps up this meeting”). This allows those distributed team members who need connection time to take advantage of that time before and after and others who have some hard deadlines to disengage when the meeting is done.

Get comfortable with silence

When it comes to decision-making, this is where the online leader may need to amplify something they are unaccustomed to using: silence. When posed with a key decision, be the last to speak to break the silence in coming to a decision. Instead, let the team wrestle with the decision, even if there is uncomfortable silence.

Working online tends to attract the introverted. This does not mean they will never speak up, but it does mean they need some time to think about their response. If you always jump in to drive the team to a decision, they will rely on you to do that and they will never build up their own “decision muscle.”

Then, when things become difficult or if you are scaling up multiple teams (as an agile coach or a product owner), you will be stretched thin as leader as you are asked to be in all the team meetings to help make decisions. This can become unsustainable when you add teams across multiple time zones. So, get comfortable with silence and letting the online team make decisions as soon and as often as possible about their work.

Set the rules of the road

One of the best ways to help the team build “decision muscle” is to set their own working agreements. These are not just about how they conduct meetings, but how they work together day to day, how they communicate using various tools (email, chat or other online tools) and how they alert each other to collaboration opportunities or things that may be blocking the teams goals. If you are seen as a leader of the team, resist the temptation to just “set the rules.” These kind of policies can be easily missed or forgotten.

A better approach is to have the team discuss what working agreements they feel are necessary based on their current arrangement as a distributed team, their personal work preferences, the team’s goals around the work and the resources provided. While you don’t want to set the rules, you may need to provide some examples of a few ground rules that could be helpful to the team. Better yet, apply the “rule of three” and provide three examples of a working agreement that could be useful.

One example is email. If the team wants to avoid long email threads, you might provide the following three possible solutions:

  1. If email replies go back and forth more than twice between two individuals on an email thread, they should immediately stop the email and get on the phone or (better) a video chat to discuss the issue. This usually occurs when people are misunderstanding each other and it’s better to go to a higher form of communication to resolve the issue.
  2. No email over four sentences. Some groups use this to ensure important information is not lost in email. If more information needs to be conveyed, it should be captured in a more easy-to-reference manner like an online document repository or wiki.
  3. No email. While this sounds extreme, some teams will use online chat for the day-to-day conversations and other information is stored in more-easy-to-reference places as mentioned in the prior point. It also means that if you are not in chat, you cannot be reached and you are either in a meeting or offline. This has many benefits when working across time zones.

In this example, you would ask the team to either pick one of these options or come up with another and experiment with it for a few weeks to see what helps them address the problems with long emails.

Keep an ear out for concerns

Another leadership skill that I find I need to amplify online is listening. As you start to grow your organization—working with one online team to multiple teams to multiple work groups,–you need to find ways to always listen to the concerns of those working for you. Sometimes, this is through one-to-one conversations, or listening to how people are responding in meetings, or how they work with each other online through email, chat and other communication tools.

This can seem overwhelming if you have multiple tools for your distributed agile teams to coordinate and communicate, but if you can build up your own dashboard of “team communications” and then discuss trends you are seeing in the communications with trusted staff, you can get a better sense of online teams that are being effective or drifting into trouble.

With a vision in place that is communicated well and frequently, and by exhibiting the behaviors you want to see in your online teams—being the first to speak to bring the teams together, the last to speak when making decisions and always listening to the themes raised in the team communications—you can help lead your teams toward that vision of success online as a distributed agile team.

A previous version was published on March 22, 2017 by Mark Kilby.