Distributed teams bring additional challenges to delivering successful outcomes in any project. Staying on top of these challenges can be easier if you are holding the right keys.
Sourcing expertise who are geographically distributed is sometimes essential to reach the right people for the job. The advent of technologies such as cloud based solutions that do not require onsite infrastructure, and the increasing popularity of flexible working arrangements has seen remote teams become more prevalent. Remote development has necessitated a paradigm shift in traditional team structures and management. It is necessary for remote teams to implement innovative solutions to overcome the temporal and special boundaries.
There are 3 key doors which remote teams must unlock to facilitate a ‘one-team’ approach to successfully achieving project outcomes.
Door #1: Communication & Collaboration
Communication is one of the most important aspects of team dynamics that is impacted when working with remote teams vs an on-site teams. 93% of communication is non-verbal of which 55% accounts for body language, gestures and facial cues. When working with remote team members, you lose the ability to read gestures and expressions that are vital to understanding context of why certain questions are asked or statements made or how your client or peers ‘feel’ about a situation.
Collaboration, although sometimes used synonymously with communication, places more emphasis on individuals working together, feeding off one another and making decisions together for a focused goal. The creative nature inherent in collaboration can be lost when working with remote teams as individuals miss the opportunity to ‘bump into’ each other or come together to whiteboard ideas, there is no “tap on the shoulder” for a quick question or clarification, no overheard conversations that could be contributed to and it is easy to forget to consult with remote team members when making decisions or raising concerns.
- Find the right technologies to facilitate the communication: There are many communication and collaboration platforms out there that can serve to be great tools in overcoming the above challenges. Go beyond your basic instant communicator and use tools such as Slack, HipChat or Glip, which can be used to house and easily organise conversations to help keep all team members in the loop irrespective of the topic and when discussions take place. Knowledge bases can be co-operatively maintained with tools like Confluence and Yammer so no concept, decision or issue is lost. Don’t underestimate the power of using video calling instead of just voice calls – visual communication makes giving news (good or bad) more credible and the additional human element does wonders in building trust.
- Instil communication habits within the team: It’s all good and well to get the right technology in place to help team collaboration, but it will be of no use if the team does not use the technology as intended, to its full potential or if it is not used at all. Habits need to be cultivated to ensure that people are using the tools appropriately and to the team’s advantage. For example, ensuring all minutes from meetings are posted in a timely manner for people to make comments, discouraging open ended and ambiguous questions/comments, and encouraging even casual conversations to be socialised with the team – “Can you put that on Yammer?” The goal of the tools is to provide a clear and searchable history of collaboration so all decisions and ideas can be leveraged – make sure this goal is achieved through habits.
Door #2: Project Visibility
It is important from a management and a collaboration perspective, that team members are aware of not only their own responsibilities, but the responsibilities of other team members. Having this level of visibility allows the team to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on the project manager knowing what work is expected, whether it impacts any other team member and if there are any dependencies on others in order for work to be completed. Having a team that is highly autonomous and less dependent on a single person is critical for successful delivery.
Project visibility also encompasses the feeling of ‘presence’ each team member creates. When working with distributed teams, remote individuals may not be available immediately for discussions that are outside organised meeting times. This could be due to working in different time zones, the frequency with which messages and emails are checked and even differences in break times (e.g. when people go out for coffee). Creating a presence combined with understanding and accommodating for each individual’s availability are essential aspects of project visibility.
- Facilitate regular meetings: You don’t have to be running your project in agile to realise the benefits of having a daily catch up. At a minimum, a daily meeting will allow people to verbally state what they are working on and any impact and dependency on others. This should be enough to keep people in check of others are doing and no work is being doubled up or blocked. If further planning meetings are required, then these should be encouraged.
- Have a visible project tracking mechanism: Using tools like Trello, Jira or ProofHub allow for a transparent and easy way of sharing plans, comments/feedback, task allocations and maintaining progress. The team can be aware of the status of the project anytime.
Door #3: Trust
Underpinning the first two doors and what is ultimately required to successfully work with a remote team is trust. Without trust within team members, it becomes increasingly difficult to collaborate and results in siloed work from individuals. Certain team members may take on less / more work depending on their motivation. Trust needs to be established between the manager and within the team.
- Transparency: This is about making sure that as much as possible is made visible to the team and nothing is hidden. Transparency provides the building blocks of generating trust. Letting other team members know that you are unable to complete a task or experiencing difficulties should be encouraged. Makes for fewer surprises and allows the team to play to their strengths.
- Encourage more communication: Coming back to communication habits, the team must have a culture of communicating with each other as often as possible. Without physically meeting someone, it adds that additional barrier to trust. The more communication there is, whether it be phone/video calls, instant communication etc. the more the team will be able to trust the individual.
- Team meetups / outings: Depending on the sparsity of your team, there may be the rare occasion where all team members are brought together. These occasions must be capitalised with a team event to build the relationship and trust within the team. Everyone should be encouraged to attend and get involved!