Physical Distance In Management Matters

Management of geographically distributed teams can be sometimes pretty tough. In fact, one doesn’t need to sit on the opposite sides of the world to be distant from the team. Even sitting at the other side of the floor can have a huge impact on the way how you work with your team and what sort of impact you may have.

Simply put, distance matters. The quality and number of relationships is directly tight to the physical distance of you and the team, and to frequency and means of communication. The boss who sits on the floor in the middle of the team and interacts on daily basis is more likely to be able to influence than someone who sits remote and interacts once a week over the phone.

Why distance matters?

There are five key areas of management that are directly influenced by distance. Yes, I’m sure you can come up with many more but I feel that these are important both from short-term enabling of the team as well as from long-term sustainability perspective.

  • Speed – if your business requires a quick response times, you have customers distributed all around the world and teams that are composed of people sitting on different continents you are inevitably faced with slower response times. Even a simple exchange of emails will drag for days. The trick is to utilize the technology at hand (phones, video conferencing, instant messages, etc.) and what is more important always pick the right one for the particular occasion. Just check this article 7 Reasons To Pick Up The Phone.
  • Culture – how do you ensure that your team lives and breathes the same values? If you work with people from different countries and cultures it is not an easy undertaking. In fact you will struggle to build a strong culture even when everyone sit in the same office. When you work with remote team the local culture will be always more prominent than the fuzzy corporate one, unless you give it the attention it deserves. The solution here is to constantly bring the company culture into any developmental conversation and every decision you make while being aware of the potential clashes coming from the local culture of that particular team.
  • Morale – how do you ensure that your remote team is motivated? Pretty much the same way the local ones. You need to create an environment that is conductive to self-motivating teams. The way to do this is to have a constant and never ending feedback loop between you and the team. Keeping your finger on the pulse of the remote team is way more difficult than seeing it in your own office since you are not part of the discussions around the remote water cooler. What about creating a virtual one?
  • Growth – how do you develop and grow your remote team? And I’m not talking about the numbers (even though hiring remotely also have its drawbacks) but rather about providing feedback, teaching, coaching and mentoring your remote team. Figuring out what they need and then helping them to achieve the developmental objectives is one of the most difficult aspects. I would even say that unless you have a team of mature adults who understand that their development is in their hands there is no realistic way you can develop them in a fast and consistent manner.
  • Influence – how do you influence the remote team? What if something doesn’t go as expected? How do you provide the necessary course corrections? From my experience with managing remote teams and being managed remotely I would claim that there is nothing the remote manager (even if direct boss) can do if the team decides that it is not the best idea. Influencing a team in remote location is even more difficult than influencing a team of people who don’t report to you but still sit in the same office. To be able to successfully influence behavior of others you need to be able to work with them, the people around them, understand and be able to change the environment, and influence the informal social circles. Not easy sitting at the opposite side of the globe.

Another cubicle

So what are the lessons learned for managing teams in the same location? Start with the space. You need to build the office in such a way that you are close to the people you are supposed to manage. You should always fight for having the team that needs to work closely together and sitting together. If your team consists of people from different functions or departments then you should ensure they either sit together or at least facilitate lots of formal and informal opportunities for these people to meet, build rapport, build trust, and communicate and work towards the same goal.

And you need to be part of the team. Sitting in a cozy corner office will be the same as sitting in another city. Your approachability will diminish and even my favorite Management By Walking Around Reinvented may not always provide you and the team with what they need.

Another city

Another dimension of complexity. You really cannot sit with the team in the same office, you cannot walk around every day, but you can be in constant communication. Let’s be happy for technology. I know of teams that dial a phone (or open a skype connection) in the morning and have the constant ability to hear what’s going on not just at the table next to them but at the table hundreds of miles away.

This may be a stretch and not always practical but you should strive to get as close to it as possible. Even a team chat where you regularly exchange instant messages is a good start. Hopefully you are also able to frequently travel to the other city to have face to face discussions with the team and to provide developmental feedback and course corrections to remind everyone the common goals and shared values of the team.

Another continent

This is the ultimate test. The added complexity is called time zones. You may have team distributed in so many locations that there is zero overlap of these. The only advice I can give you here is: don’t. When building your teams make sure that you have at least couple of hours a day of overlap when everyone is in the office and can communicate, solve issues, and set directions. I used to manage a virtual team of about fifty people from more than twenty companies distributed over Americas, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Australia and there was no realistic way for us to meet, no way to have informal discussion around water cooler, no way to have regular 1on1 discussions. The only thing that worked and worked very well was weekly follow-up conferences at rotating times (so every week someone else was inconvenienced to wake up at 2am for the call).

This worked for single reason. All the people in the team were senior professionals who didn’t need any direction to do their job and I was not responsible for their professional development. I wasn’t managing them, I was managing the process. I strongly believe that if you are asked to manage remote team you need a strong local manager or leader who will do your bidding on-site. You can provide directions and vision but it will be she who will provide the actual management and leadership resource for the team. What are the attributes and characteristics of this individual is a topic for another time.

The message you should take away is that “you cannot manage people remotely”. As I wrote in You Manage Things, You Lead People you shouldn’t try to manage people even locally but with distance the complexity increases geometrically. And if you have team in the same building where you sit, remember that being at different floor or in the corner office may be almost the same as sitting in another city.


What is the impact of physical distance on your organization? How do you ensure you are mentally close to the team when in fact you are physically far?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Leadership

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1 reply


  1. The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 3 | The Geeky Leader

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