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Managing Globally Distributed Team

Remote
Cultural differences

17 May, 2021

Ezequiel Aguilar, Principal Product Manager at Red Hat, shares some of the top challenges faced by globally distributed teams and the steps to overcome them.

Problem

When I stepped in as the Product Manager, it was a huge jump in my career. Besides, it was a big organization, and there were different approaches to how everything was handled. My team was globally distributed. People were working from different parts of Europe, Asia, Australia, and the West Coast of the United States. I was bewildered with one question in my mind: how can I work with the whole team? As the Product Manager, I may not have been a direct manager of every team, but I knew that my outlook mattered. Not only do you need to be an advocate for the product, but you also convince others to follow the right direction.

As time went on, two challenges were plain to my sight:

  • Having to work with people around the globe.
  • Working in an environment with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and behaviors.

Working with team members from different backgrounds can be very rewarding, but at the same time, there were conflicts in working styles. At times, professional communications might be misinterpreted, or different languages and cultures can be challenging to understand. In addition, the different time zones made it more brutal than I thought. However, I had to be fair to everyone and needed a good plan to keep everyone in the loop, including me.

Actions taken

To begin with, I adjusted my work schedule. Whether it was waking up a little early or staying back till later, I had to ensure that my team members had all my time and attention that they needed. It may sound basic, but this was a great way to become the glue that would stick my team together. Even though it was a bit early at my end, it was worth it. That is how I developed a positive rapport with my team members from other sides of the world.

Also, my organization had some amazing flexibility for me. For instance, if I knew that I have to stay in till late, I could take some time off during the day and go for a walk, do some necessary shopping or run errands. In the end, the work was all done, and when I saw that everyone is relatively happy, not stressed, that is when I felt it was the best time I had invested.

I communicated with other senior executives at work. Since Senior-level Managers are the ones to connect the dots from top to bottom, they quickly dived into the root cause of the problem and ramped me up to a point. If there were a flaw in my logic, they would find it and pinpoint it to me. All I needed was advice that would help me focus on day-to-day tribulations and keep me guided on the right path.

I received some valuable advice that I still work with. As the manager, I needed to know how to manage, and there were critical steps to this process. Firstly, I had to understand the situation and back it up with facts. Moving forward, I had to communicate with a vision by being empathetic. How can one do that? Precisely, by listening actively to what the team members have to say and maintain accountability. It could also be making small conversations such as asking someone about their family or hobbies to make them feel comfortable.

I built in enough project timelines to ensure that everyone had adequate time to contribute from their part. In the case of working with people across many different time zones, it might be easy to move on with projects, especially if we were trying to move fast, but in the long run, it may create chaos and discord among team members. Creating a time and space for everyone to contribute and do their part is the key. We do not want anyone to feel left out or think that their opinions do not matter. We needed valuable insights from all the intelligent people we had in our team.

Lessons learned

  • Take advice from senior-level managers. They are much qualified, and chances are they will be speaking from experience. It might be an intimidating process, but it indeed is worth it.
  • Develop some soft skills, specifically strong listening skills. That will help you eliminate misunderstandings that can occur quickly. Soft skills are critical to job success.
  • Besides your technical knowledge, you need to start relying on the technical people in your team. They know their tools, and they understand that product development is not cheap. Hence, they will not waste your money and handle all things technical.

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