Managing Distributed Teams

Managing remote teams is challenging, but the rewards can be worth it

distributed-team1Managing a team is difficult enough, but add in remote employees and it makes the job much more difficult.  But such teams also have many benefits that can improve your productivity.  How do you deal with the challenges to ensure your project succeeds while maintaining your sanity?

Why Should I Use Distributed Teams?

We all work in a global market, and market pressures require us to constantly look for ways to increase productivity; that is, reduce costs while increasing output.  One of the ways this is accomplished is by using remote resources.

Remote teams have a number of benefits.  Individuals in other countries may be less expensive than domestic individuals, a remote individual may have a unique skill or ability, individuals may prefer to work remotely to better manage work/life balance, the business may want “follow the sun” development or operational capability, etc.  These benefits can lead to significantly increased productivity for the team.

The problem is that all of that productivity gain can be lost if the remote team is not managed correctly.

Challenges of the Remote Team

There are different types of distributed teams:

  • Remote teams located in the same area.
  • Remote teams with members located in the same or close timezones.
  • Remote teams with members located in diverse timezones.

Each of these types of teams have different challenges.

Regardless of distance, all distributed teams have to deal with these issues:

  • How should the work be divided to maximize productivity?
  • How does the team handle communication issues (language, communication medium, etc.)?
  • How do teams coordinate their work?

 Location Challenges

One major issue is for the team to develop a shared identity.  In co-located teams, this is relatively straightforward, since the team meets regularly (usually daily) or interacts on a regular basis with each other.  But for distributed teams, it is necessary to explicitly work to develop this shared identity.  When team members are located in the same area (either in adjacent buildings, or even up to about 25 miles away) it is possible to have team members meet on a regular basis, hopefully daily but at least weekly.  This regular “in-person” interaction allows team members to understand each other in a way that is only possible in person.

The use of higher-fidelity communications, such as videoconferencing, is vital … so that out-of-band communications, such as facial expressions or body language, can be seen.

In a distributed team where team members are located more than 25 miles miles away, but within a few timezones of each other, it is possible to still work relatively closely.  The use of higher-fidelity communications, such as videoconferencing, is vital in these cases so that out-of-band communications, such as facial expressions or body language, can be seen.  This additional level of communication is highly desirable.

In a distributed team where team members are located far from each other, such as a team in the U.S. and in India, the challenges are much larger.  Because team members are generally working at completely different times, meetings cannot be easily accommodated without one or the other set of team members having to work in early mornings or late evenings, which is not ideal.  Also, communication latencies can make videoconferencing much more problematic.  In this case, it may be necessary for one or more team members to travel to the other site occasionally in order to develop a personal relationship.  This personal relationship will make it easier to communicate; it is always easier to communicate if you know the person on the other side of the phone.

Dividing Work

When teams are distributed the goal is to reduce the need for coordination as much as possible.  With co-located teams, coordination is a matter of walking down the hall to the other team member’s office to coordinate work.  But for distributed teams, difficulty of coordination increases with the distance between the team members, primarily because communication (e.g., different timezones) becomes an issue.

It is generally best to have different team members work on different “components” that can be designed, compiled, and tested independently from each other.

Generally it is a mistake to try to have distributed teams try to work on the same software component.  The term “component” is a bit vague, but is generally a single service or compilable unit.  Because the teams are remote from each other, it is more difficult to coordinate work (such as testing, designing, etc.) on a shared component.  It is generally best to have different team members work on different “components” that can be designed, compiled, and tested independently from each other.  Team members collectively should define the interactions between these systems (e.g., REST APIs).

In extreme cases, such as teams in the U.S. and in India, it may be necessary for the teams to act largely independently.  For instance, if using the SCRUM Agile methodology for development, the teams in each locality should run their daily standups separately, and even have different sprint boards.  A single backlog can be shared, but tracking work should be done in the locality where it is performed.  This division allows each team to work quickly and easily.

Communication Challenges

As discussed earlier, communication in distributed teams is challenging.  One other common factor in this for teams located in separate countries is communication.  In some cases the team members may not speak a common language natively, so differences in idiom, accent, or pronunciation may introduce communication difficulties, sometimes profound difficulties.  Often teams communicate using phones or other audio-only mechanisms, which increases the challenge.

Communication challenges increase frustration of team members, and ultimately reduce employee engagement.

Communication challenges increase frustration of team members, and ultimately reduce employee engagement.  Team members become frustrated that they don’t fully understand the remote team members, misunderstandings increase, and difficulty deciphering meaning leads to unhappiness with having to work with the remote team members.  Ultimately, this leads to team members concluding the remote team members are personally less capable or more difficult to work with, regardless of how engaging the individuals might be.

As stated earlier, the answer to these issues is to both reduce the interdependence of the teams by dividing up work among the teams, reducing the amount of coordination necessary, and to utilize higher-fidelity communication methods (videoconferencing) where possible.

Managing Remote Teams

Management of the remote teams is another challenge to overcome.  For teams located in the same area, it is best to have regular check-ins with team members in-person, which allows for personal interaction and relationship building with team members.  For teams locate din the same or close timezones, real-time coordination should still be possible and is highly desirable.

However, for distant remote team members, communication and coordination are the main issues, as is responding to issues as they occur.  The way to handle this is to have a local surrogate, such as a technical lead, in each locale capable of coordinating the work.  Unfortunately, there is no real alternative to this.  It is very difficult to handle issues or coach team members who are located in distant locations in a timely manner.

Conclusion

Managing remote teams is challenging, but is definitely possible.  There are advantages to these distributed teams, such as the ability to develop or maintain systems around the clock, or gain experience that would be more difficult to get locally, or reduce office space costs.  But the team identity,  communication, management, and work division challenges must be considered and overcome in order to make these teams effective.

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