Working as a developer in a software consulting firm for many years, I have been working with distributed teams for a while now. When we use the term ‘distributed team’ it means that the team comprises of members who fall under one or more of the following categories:
- colleagues from your own organisation and/or the client organisation
- folks working in the same or a different time zone
- folks from the same ethnicity/country or a different one
- members having similar or different experience in the given domain/technology
Given all these different categories or parameters for distributed teams, there are a few pointers that I have gathered over time, which can be very useful for an efficient and comfortable working relationship between team members, eventually resulting in great outcomes. All these points are also very useful in the current times where the pandemic has forced teams to work remotely.
When there are a bunch of different teams working together it very important to be sensitive about time. The agenda of every meeting must be fixed and one cannot afford to waste time on irrelevant details. To point discussions, time checks and focusing on action items is the key. Even if the action item is ‘have another meeting specifically to discuss topic X’, it’s ok. Recently, one useful action which helped us was to assign one member as the ‘time cop’. The time cop would warn everyone, if we were spending too much time discussing a topic without reaching conclusions.
Managing time zones
Along with time, managing time zones (in case of geographically distributed teams) it of utmost importance. And honouring and being sensitive about each others working hours based on the time zones is even more important. I stress this so much because this is one of the things that helps to keep the team healthy and motivated. A simple statement and related action like — ‘Hey, that seems to be too late for you folks, maybe we can wake up a bit early to accommodate this meeting’ — can go a long way.
Regular meetings, stand-ups and catchups
Rather than ad-hoc meetings, it helps to set up recurring calendar invites for meetings falling under the agile ritual like stand-ups, retrospectives, sprint planning meetings etc, or any other similar meetings in your setup. This ensures that everyone is aware and ready for these regular catchups. Some teams also have recurring time set up every day for tech huddles/discussions. These are a replacement for discussions that happen just by gathering around someone’s desk in a physical office.
A written communication in any form is a way to keep the team in sync w.r.t to minutes of meetings, decisions taken during meetings, action items and owners identified etc. Regular end of day update emails mentioning the tasks being worked on and their status helps the other team members plan their day. Emails and documentation in a common place (like wiki pages or confluence) detailing out certain discussions is also very helpful for reference.
In addition to detailed written communication mentioned above, an informal active messaging channel is a great source to share small updates, post queries and share quick info bytes. This is a more informal channel where teammates can communicate freely using emoticons, gifs to keep conversations light. Any organisation approved channel like google hangouts, slack, Microsoft Teams etc. should work for this.
As we saw in the beginning of the post, one of the characteristics of distributed teams is having team members who have different experience in the given domain/technology. There also will be members who are fairly new to the industry. In this case, mentoring and guiding is an important part of day-to-day work so that the team is enabled to create a great product and reach their goals successfully.
Any effective conversation is a combination of spoken words as well as expressions and body language. So in a distributed or remote setting, it is very important to turn on your cameras during video calls, at least a few times every few days. From my personal experience, it helps the speaker react to listeners better and definitely helps in a building better rapport and connect within the team.
This point is specifically relevant for teams which have recently been working remotely due to the pandemic. Teams should always keep room for some fun times to keep each others’ morale high. Celebrating birthdays, work anniversaries, farewells and coffee breaks with games are times when the team can let their hair down and enjoy with each other.
Support and empathise
Last but not the least, each one of us thrives in a supportive environment whether personal or professional. Understanding each others’ constraints and working around them lets your team members know that you care about their well being and support them in performing their best. Having said that, each individual also must let their team members know of their constraints and reach out for help if necessary. Your team cannot help you otherwise and it will create wrong perceptions. For example, I have blocked 1–2 pm as a recurring lunch hour in my calendar. My team understands that this time is fixed because I need to eat, feed my kids and clean up before starting work again.
The above 9 points are probably only a few things which lead to the success of a distributed team. And some of these are are also very helpful in a co-sourced team. Try it out and let me know in comments !! Are there some other useful tips you have? Let me know those too. Thanks for reading !