Last week I was working with an entrepreneur friend, who is building his product with a distributed
team. His group includes people on both coasts of the United States as well as a two person
team in western Europe. Throughout the course of our discussion it became clear that many of the
challenges he is facing are the same challenges that a co-located workforce might face. However,
in a distributed environment, the tools and techniques to tackle these challenges are very different.
Here are three common challenges that co-located and distributed teams face along with some
best practices for managing them with distributed teams.
Getting on the same page:
In a co-located office, it’s a challenge for new employees to get up to speed with how
work gets done. It takes time to understand how decisions are made and how underlying office
dynamics work. One way that companies shorten the time it takes to get through the learning
curve is by establishing routines and regular meetings to communicate the customs of a business.
New employees can see the way others interact in both simple (such as what time the workday
starts) as well as complex ways (like jargon or person to person dynamics).
For new employees on a distributed team, communicating how works get done can be a even bigger challenge. Absent the opportunity to observe others interacting at the water cooler or the podium, distributed teams must create and maintain a set of ground rules to help new employees integrate as well as to ensure that work gets down. The daily meeting is an important way to not only bring new employees up to speed but also to ensure that work is moving at the desired pace. These meetings should be quick but also allow the team to communicate what they are working on and what, if anything is blocking them from accomplishing their work today. Unfortunately, the daily meeting or “standup” in the Agile vernacular can be constrained by time zones. For this reason, I recommend keeping your team within 8 time zones at a maximum and ideally within 6 time zones to enable a daily, real time communication. If you have people living in time zones that are more than 8 hours apart, it will be very challenging to maintain real time, daily communication.
Another important practice is to include agendas before meetings and circulating meeting
notes following a meeting. And while it’s very important for co-located teams, the value gets
magnified for distributed teams. This practice has the dual value of documenting decisions for
those who cannot attend a meeting due to time zones as well as providing a clear set of action items for the
team. Lastly, well organized meetings can reinforce the value of real time communication for
larger groups of people who may be predisposed to think that meetings are not a good use of time.
Other routines to consider formalizing are expectations around availability for direct
communication, technologies used to communicate (Skype, GoToMeeting, JoinMe etc..) and what
to do if you can’t make a meeting. In an office, most people understand what time they need
to be available (during work hours) and how to communicate. For distributed teams, these
routines are not so clear. Making the right set of decisions about these routines can make
a huge difference, for all employees, not just new ones.
Speaking the same language
One of the common criticisms of distributed teams is that communication doesn’t work in a
distributed setting. However, there are many co-located teams that might claim the same thing.
And while there are clear challenges to communicating with a distributed team, there are several
tactics that can be taken to manage the tyranny of distance.
One of the biggest challenges with communicating in a distributed setting is that it’s harder
to develop the social context for the team. With co-located teams, there are many opportunities
to get to know one another better. Lunches, after work drinks and general office conversation
go a long way to establishing trust amongst the team. In a distributed setting, you have to
work a little harder to establish the social context.
The most effective way to create the trust and social context for distributed teams is simply
to get the team’s together once a year. While this may be expensive, the investment in bringing
a team to the same location for even 1-2 days will likely pay multiple dividends over time.
This co-location can be for kick-off sprints, critical problem solving or just a social
get together. By investing in time together for the team, you will go a long way to establishing
the social context that enables strong team communication.
Staying on track
Ultimately, the success of a team is tied to the clear articulation of values and the ability of the team to
live out those values. Just as in a co-located environment, distributed teams benefit from
a company’s ability to define and reinforce the values of that company. Some tactics to do
this include regular reviews that discuss performance in the language of a company’s values
and sharing examples of how other employees are living out those values. The consistent communication
of the traits, behaviors and experiences a company values is the best way to maintain a
In the end, both co-located and distributed teams must share ground rules, communication and values to be successful. After all, a company is really just a group of people working to build something together. Making thoughtful decisions about how you approach the topics of ground rules, communication
and company values are the first steps towards building a successful team, regardless of how they are organized geographically.
Thinking of building something with a distributed team or want to discuss how to make your distributed team better? Drop us a line.