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So many of us are now being called upon to lead teams that are distributed across the country and the globe. And we must do so in a way that ensures inclusion, regardless of location, to get the best ideas, best collaboration, and best business results.

I experienced this first hand, working fully remotely for eight years while leading large teams that were responsible for more than $250 million in business and were mostly located three time zones away.

The rise of geographically distributed teams (also known as hybrid or virtual teams) is being driven by acquisitions and mergers, real estate cost savings, and talent acquisition, retention, and engagement needs. A very common team anatomy has now become: a majority group that is co-located together, with a minority group co-located in a different office or offices, plus a few fully remote members peppered in.

Also, due to the importance of inclusion and diversity, the topic of unconscious bias has been raised to the forefront within many companies. The NeuroLeadership Institute identified five unconscious biases that impact decision making. They call it the SEEDS model.

Have you ever felt out of sight and out of mind? Or have you found yourself forgetting to provide an important piece of info to a person on your team who is not in the same location as you? Well, that’s what the “D” in SEEDS stands for: Distance Bias—our brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on things and people that are closer to us than farther away. This Distance Bias can become a key factor in holding back distributed teams.

The first step to overcoming Distance Bias is awareness. Just recognizing that the Distance Bias exists, and being able to label it when it creeps in, will go a long way to reducing it.

virtual team meeting

Once your team is aware, here are some steps to mitigate Distance Bias, whether you are a people manager, team leader, or a member of a distributed team:

If you are a manager

  1. Be deliberate about forming relationships equally with your co-located and remote direct reports. For example, hold virtual coffee chats with your remote people to create a personal connection.
  2. Consider all your direct reports when assigning projects or promotions. Pick the best person for the job, not just the closest in proximity.
  3. If you have questions about a project or a business issue, go to the “right” person to get the answer instead of going to the closest person.
  4. Ensure there is budget for your remote direct reports to travel to be in person with you and their team on a regular cadence to enable relationship building.

If you are a team leader or team member

Enable virtual attendees to participate equally in team meetings.

  • Insist on using video conferencing software so everyone has a virtual seat at the table.
  • Proactively invite remote people into the discussion. Leverage virtual whiteboarding software so everyone can contribute to a brainstorming session.
  • Be aware of time zone differences and equally share the pain of early morning or late-night meetings.

Build team culture and relationships virtually.

  • Be overly communicative about your team’s roles, goals, and values.
  • All social activities should involve all sites and team members. I went as far as having virtual happy hours, virtual baby showers, and virtual holiday parties.
  • Jump start relationships by getting together in person when the team is initially forming.

For more advice on leading geographically distributed (virtual) teams, please check out my Virtual Work Insider website. I would love to hear any other tips you have for leading virtual teams in the comments section below.

Sacha Connor '00

Sacha Connor '00, Founder and Lead Consultant, Virtual Work Insider

Founder and Lead Consultant
Virtual Work Insider