Bridging the Geographical Gap: Working with Distributed Teams

  • Barron Wernick
  • November 24, 2015

Large and complex technical projects often times see the involvement of distributed teams and this can get challenging even for the most seasoned project manager. It has been my experience that distributed teams can result in team members not gelling well or working together. This then leads to poor deliveries, frustrated clients, detached team members, and stressed out project managers.

However, you can be proactive when faced with a project with distributed team members and put in place tactics and technologies early on that will encourage a feeling of connectedness amongst the team. By following through on the steps mentioned in this post those giant geographical gaps should start to shrink. After a few weeks and a strong commitment to a set of mutually agreed upon working rules, your global team members can start to feel more like office mates.

Distributed Team Scenarios

Think about a project team as including anyone that contributes to the project. In the examples listed below, this could be a combination of:

  • Project Managers
  • Developers/Programmers
  • Quality Assurance Engineers
  • Design & User Experience Engineers
  • Business Analyst or Solution Architects

Distributed teams can come in all shapes and sizes. If you are working on an internal project or at a company that sells products, your distributed team may just involve team members that work remotely rather than external clients. Over the past 10+ years it has become common place to work with people who telecommute.

On the agency side, the variety of distributed teams increases. Some agencies are 100% distributed while others only have a small set of contributors that are remote. Things get trickier when contributors from the client side are embedded within the agency delivery team or vice versa. Often times these folks are in a different state or even time zone. This results in a spider web network of people located at the agency, at the client, and working remotely on either the client side, agency side, or both.

Managing Distributed Teams

Project Charters & Working Agreements

To be successful at managing distributed teams you will need to set clear expectations and have working agreements put in place. A project charter is a good place to house this information or you can simply create a working agreement document that the entire team signs. Items to include in the working agreement are

  • Tools the team will use to communicate and when.
  • Hours during which everyone agrees to be online and available. This is especially important for people in different time zones.
  • Meetings that the team agrees to have to make sure the project stays on track. Retrospectives are highly recommended to be a part of this inventory.
  • The escalation path if an issue turns critical or a serious problem presents itself.
  • Roles and responsibilities of each team member. A RACI diagram may be useful here.

The working agreement should be a living document that is reviewed and adjusted periodically.

Governance Meetings

From a project management perspective you will also need governance outside of the working team. Determine who will be your main point of contact on the client side to review how the team is doing and discuss any personal issues. This could be a development manager if the team has a mix of developers from the client and agency side or, it could be a Director of Operations, Technology, Design, etc. Regardless of the role, you will want a direct line to the person who manages the remote people you work with. Set up a weekly meeting so that there is always an open channel and scheduled time to work through any issues. This person should be aware of the team agreement so that they can play by the same rules everyone else is. These meetings should also serve as an opportunity to level set on resource expectations:

  • Is the distributed team member on the client side also responsible for other projects?
  • What is their allocation to your project?
  • Are there other factors you need to consider that may not be apparent from project meetings or working agreements?

Individual performance is bound to come up at some point during the project. The weekly management governance meeting is the appropriate forum to discuss what is going on. Provide concrete examples, use empirical data when available, and base the conversations around known facts versus opinions. It is okay and even recommended to provide suggestions for a path forward but any action on a behavioral or performance issue should come directly from the individual’s direct manager.

Effective Communication Tools for Distributed Teams

Communication is essential to the success of any project, yet it’s one of the biggest challenges with distributed teams. Unless you have been a remote worker, you probably haven’t realized the ease of in-person communication with the team – being able to read their facial expressions, seeing their body language, or the awesomeness of sharing a pizza together. There is a feeling of connectedness and immediate response that’s tough to replicate when team members are scattered across locations and time zones.

However, there are a number of tools you can employ to bridge the gap with distributed teams. Think about the use case when considering communications tools, not all tools are appropriate for all situations. It may take a combination of technologies to get the results you need, which can be broken down into these three categories:

  1. Real-Time/Immediate Response Tools

    Example: Chat tools like Lync (Skype for Business), Slack, or some sort of direct messaging service
    Think of these as ways to simulate a hallway conversation, a quick impromptu group meeting, or walking over to someone’s desk. Slack allows for themed conversations, real time alerts, group chat as well as private messaging. The team needs to commit to using these types of tools and having them “on” during agreed upon work hours. These tools should be a loudspeaker to the team – “Hey, I need some help with this ticket, anyone free?”

  2. Collaboration Tools

    Example: Go To Meeting, Join Me, Google Hangout
    Think of these as the next step up from the tools and use cases mentioned above. They allow for screen sharing and often times open up a bridge line for VoIP or a phone call to supplement the conversation. Other collaborative tools to use within screen shares include shared documents (Google/One Drive), shared team boards (JIRA/Trello), and any other platform that allows for people to contribute and display information.

  3. Presentation & Planning Tools

    Example: Same tool set as above with the addition of video conferencing
    Take the planned collaboration tools one step further and bring in the use of video. There is value to being able to see people’s facial expressions as well as body language. Also, with video people are less likely to multitask and lose focus on what is being presented. It takes time for people to get used to it, so set the expectation ahead of time for when you are going to be using video. If you do this and get into a routine, people will start to feel comfortable and start seeing the benefits of virtual face time.

Co-Location & Putting a Face to a Name

Ultimately, there’s no equal to in person interactions when trying to improve how a distributed team functions. Co-location is the idea of bringing people from different geographical areas, different companies/agencies, or even different parts of a large office campus together in the same physical space for all or part of the project. If you have the budget, dedicated resources, and people who aren’t averse to travelling, this is the ultimate way to bring them together and gain efficiencies.

However, the reality is that enabling fulltime co-location isn’t an option for most projects. An alternative is onsite time. Two full days of in-person meetings and working together is still enough to make difference. The more time your team has together, the better. Below are some guidelines to help plan your project onsites:

  • 2 -3 days minimum
  • Day 1 for meet and greet, governance, review team agreements, etc.
  • Day 2 & 3 have the team sit together and simply work on the project in the same physical space
  • Keep a frequency of every 6 – 8 weeks
  • Don’t overload the agenda – for example, you may want to plan travel around a major planning session or site demo. This is fine, but make sure to have time dedicated for letting the team work together OR schedule a follow up onsite 2 – 3 weeks later specifically for co-location.

Making the Most of Your Distributed Team

Working with distributed teams can be challenging and if not addressed head-on can take away from the team’s productivity, direction, connectedness to work, and overall satisfaction with their job or workplace. By taking a multi-pronged approach you can enable distributed teams to be just as successful as traditional teams that work within the same space. Use working agreements along with a good set of tools. Set clear expectations and schedule governance meetings with the appropriate managers. When possible, collocate or schedule onsite workshops to ensure connectedness.

The above steps should set you on the right path to getting the most out of your national/global teams. Feel free to comment below on your experiences with distributed teams and tips for overcoming the challenges you faced with them.