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Equipping managers of distributed teams: Three lessons from Dropbox

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Time, planning and patience are the essential ingredients to managing a distributed team, says Dropbox's Laura Ryan.

16th Jun 2022
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Successfully managing a remote team is testing, even for the most experienced managers, and this is a skill that many leaders have had to focus on learning in recent times. While it enables greater flexibility for employees, this way of working often comes with its challenges. It takes time, patience and a lot of practice, but with the right processes and tools in place, it’s possible to have a productive and fully-engaged remote team.

The key is communication

Communicating successfully with your team back in the days of being able to stroll over and ask those quick questions or talk someone through a brief in person was an easy task. However, moving rapidly to the world of ‘you’re on mute’ or ‘my internet has dropped’ means communicating effectively becomes a little harder.

Communication is a critically important skill within this remote working world, especially when it comes to managing a global team - which many of us do here at Dropbox. Specifically, not being able to see non-verbal communication as easily over video is something we’re really aware of.

Employees should be encouraged to be open about how and when and how they work best, which can enable line managers to create happier working teams

However, we don’t let this stop us. Our awareness is constantly expanding in this area, and for us, it comes back to fostering a culture of acceptance and keeping communication and collaboration at the core of how we work. For me, it’s important to take the time to fully engage and actively listen to my employees when taking part in live meetings.

It’s key to switch off from the distracting technology we’ve been trying to implement and focus on authentic leadership in real time and proper human connection. 

In a world of flexible working, employees should be encouraged to be open about how and when and how they work best, which can enable line managers to create happier working teams. At Dropbox, we provide full flexibility by embracing the non-linear workday, and individual teams can set their own ‘core collaboration hours’.

These are 4-hour windows that are reserved for live meetings and collaborative working. There is, of course, flexibility in this and employees can structure their diaries based on their preferred work patterns, giving them true autonomy to design their days in a way that best suits their individual needs. Clearly communicating work preferences to the rest of the team is the key to making core collaboration hours work.

Even the playing field

Creating a more even playing field for all employees is a key benefit of virtual work. In our old offices, we would have had meeting rooms that catered to 20 or 30 people maximum. Now, virtually, we can have as many learners as suitable for the topic, so in a regional community learning webinar, 200-300 learners become achievable, with nobody missing out.

We’d encourage learning and development professionals to embrace this benefit, but also use it with caution. It’s important to understand when smaller groups or one-to-ones are necessary, or even when it’s more suitable for those involved to meet in person. 

We recognise that we are all still navigating this shift together, that we all have gaps, and are learning to develop our remote working skill sets

To ensure employees' needs and goals are being met when managing distributed teams, leaders will need to stay closer to their people than ever before. The goal is always to support your people in reaching their goals, and virtually, this requires a proactive connection to stay close to their needs, while understanding what opportunities are available for their growth. 

For example, we hold quarterly check-ins dedicated to ensuring each Dropboxers’ personal growth plan is in line with their own aspirations. These are career focused conversations, in which Dropboxers discuss their growth towards their own goals with their manager and share what’s going well in addition to what extra support would help. Managers can then champion their team’s development and align on skills to focus on.

To support managers in this, we have held a series of workshops and training sessions on how to best manage people within a remote work environment, including advice around the level of support, trust and guidance needed in this new way of work.

Maintain a learning mindset 

We recognise that we are all still navigating this shift together, that we all have gaps, and are learning to develop our remote working skill sets. With this in mind, we have also launched workshops tailored to all levels across the business, right down to our most junior employees, who have received tailored training, advice, and learning and development sessions that are specifically relevant to where they are in their career and the new remote environment that they are working in.

It’s important leaders go into this with an adaptive, and empathetic mindset, and understand that they might not get this 100% right straight away. 

Ultimately, flexibility is key

While remotely managing distributed teams can be a challenge, it can also be wholly rewarding, especially when businesses are also able to provide flexibility and autonomy for their employees. 

As long as we keep that at the heart of what we do, and continue to implement a learning mindset, we can adapt and iterate as we go

Ultimately, the most important thing is to make sure you’re not painting every employee with the same brush. Be open to learning how each individual works best, and always keep the lines of communication open.

At Dropbox, we encourage and celebrate human skills such as humility, vulnerability, and empathy, and in turn, people feel that they have the safety and support to try and fail, and to speak up when they need to. As long as we keep that at the heart of what we do, and continue to implement a learning mindset, we can adapt and iterate as we go. 

Interested in this topic? Read L&D uprooted: How to transition to best practice virtual and hybrid learning.

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