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Leading Teams That Are Co-Located Vs Distributed

By Gideon de Swardt

Managing a team is a responsibility that requires leadership in addition to the typical management obligations. In light of the latest changes to working environments brought about by COVID-19, businesses are navigating operations as distributed teams as opposed to traditional co-located teams. This changes the way that managers respond to their teams as new ways of doing business are explored.

Overseeing a team that is co-located versus one that is distributed comes with varying challenges. One might automatically assume that a co-located team is more productive, given that they are always at work, visibly carrying out their roles. This is one of the most evident advantages of supervising a co-located team that will be focused on input-driven management.

Your team is already gaining your trust simply by being on-site and being on time for work. Because they are there in front of you, you make the assumption that they are reliable. Their presence is enough to give you that validation, and it creates a level of trust between you and the team. Even if they’re not being productive.

You can walk around the office and get a pulse of the environment. Managers have come to rely on this input to effectively manage and steer their teams. However, in today’s current environment, this is not always possible.

Where distributed teams are concerned, the immediate challenge is not being able to visibly see that everyone is present. The input is changing, and these practices cannot be directly applied to the distributed work environment. This is counterproductive to the power of distributed teams.

Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive, and it talks about what motivates people. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the money, incentives, or carrot and stick. While all of this helps, the real thing that drives teams to achieve and excel is broken down into three elements:

  • Purpose – to create something bigger than a pay cheque. What is the bigger goal that your team is trying to achieve? How are you affecting society with what you do?

  • Mastery – do people have the ability to improve at their jobs? To master their skills and grow in their roles?

  • Autonomy – do people have the freedom to control their environments in order to be effective?

Taking these elements into consideration, whether you are co-located or distributed, both working environments have different strengths. Co-location offers the space to create mastery and purpose, whereas distributed teams offer an opportunity for teams to explore their own autonomy.

Autonomy has great bearing on productivity. Here is a simple analogy that explains it a bit further. Think about the endless battle of the air conditioner in the co-located office space. Each team member wants the air con to be set at a specific temperature that matches their personal level of comfort. Trying to align the temperature to suit everyone can be difficult and is a cause for teams to have little control over their personal working environments and preferences. In a distributed team arrangement, each team member is responsible for creating their own working environment in order to be most effective.

Input Versus Output

If I’m an input-driven manager, I’m focusing on teams being in the office and on time, my team is socially conforming to the culture of the organization, but I cannot validate any value they have added to the organization.

Switch to output-driven, and I ask the teams how long they will need to deliver on something. What is required to meet the objective and deliver on the output autonomously? Upon delivery, the customer’s needs are served, the value the customer has received has increased, as a company, we are delivering, and as people, we are feeling that we have done something meaningful. It becomes a strong three-pronged relationship between customer, employee, and business, that is very powerful.

The difference between input and output can also be correlated to the differences between management and leadership.

Final Words

The journey for managers is changing from that word manager, which means taking information and making decisions on behalf of people, to a role that is more leadership-based. In leading people, you are giving them the opportunity to be more engaged, to have more of a say, to have more autonomy, to help them and guide them in developing their mastery, while also reiterating what their purpose is.

People are human. We are not machines. When we move from input-driven to output-driven, it forces us to look at how we, as managers, need to change in order to improve the way that we lead and guide our teams. If we treat people with trust and understanding we have an opportunity to explore deeper, more meaningful and collaborative relationships in the workplace.

Published by Gideon de Swardt

I have over 20 years of experience in the Financial Services industry in North America, Europe and Africa. My core values of integrity, quality and passion have enabled me to help build successful businesses.


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