With the current coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on businesses around the globe, a large and growing number of companies are looking to “go remote.” And while there’s been a concurrent surge in articles full of suggestions, recommendations, “10 best ways…” and “How To:” type content—we’re not seeing much dealing with the potential issues you may face and how to overcome them.
So while we’re pretty sure your team is capable of taking their laptops home and getting to work, we wanted to address some of those stumbling blocks and give our own set of suggestions and recommendations for how to get over/around them and get the best results possible out of your distributed team.
Just What Is a Distributed Team?
Perhaps a better question would be, “How is a distributed team different from a remote team?” Or a co-located team with remote members? Or a dispersed team? Or any of the other terms being bandied about right now. Well, there are similarities and differences to understand before these terms will make sense.
From a strictly technical standpoint, a remote team is a complete team that happens to work from a location other than the main office. So, if your organization is based in Houston, but has an office in London—the London team is remote. This can apply to individual team members as well. So if one member of the Houston office works from home in Atlanta, that person is remote.
Trouble can start to arise if that person/team is seen as somehow separate from the main team. They don’t get to participate in impromptu water cooler meetings and can feel like lesser members or like their contributions don’t count as much.
Co-located is a fancy way to say “in the same place.” So the piece of that team who works from the Houston office is co-located. This is the only office scenario anyone would have been familiar with until quite recently with the advancement of video conferencing technology and high-speed internet infrastructure making dispersed team members easier to bring into the fold.
Which brings us to our preferred term, “distributed team.” This conjures up an image of a single entity that just happens to be located in disparate locations. You may have several at HQ, a few in London, and some at co-working office spaces or even at their home office/kitchen table. It might even include team members from partner organizations like IT services companies or near-shoring operations who are lending a hand with a particular project.
The bottom line is that a distributed team may not meet face-to-face very often (if ever in today’s pandemic conditions), yet they are working closely as a team nonetheless.
Reasons for Utilizing Distributed Teams
The move to distributed teams began long before the coronavirus pandemic, and we see the new normal arising in the aftermath including even more dispersal. There are many reasons for a business or a team to go distributed, ranging from today’s pandemic lockdowns to more mundane cost-cutting measures. Here are a couple of the main reasons we see regularly:
Housing employees on-site is not an inexpensive proposition. One study found these costs to average nearly $2000/employee/year. This one is especially common for startups and smaller organizations, as going distributed is a great way to show investors that you’re focusing their money on developing the best product possible, rather than paying for gourmet coffee service at the office.
Lack of available staff in your home region
Depending on your location, this can be a showstopper. If you need a team of full-stack developers, yet can’t find any locally, then expanding your search to include neighboring countries may be the answer. You may also consider nearshoring, where you hire a pre-organized team located in a nearby country, within your time zone to limit communication issues.
Some projects require a specialized team that you may not have a regular need for. So why hire and train up a whole team, only to let them go in 6 months when the project wraps up? Outsourcing has been a fundamental business practice for years, with the newest version being nearshoring, as mentioned above. With a nearshore team, you get the specialization you need, without the hassle of onboarding, training, etc. And when the project is complete, they move on to the next one and you focus on supporting your awesome new product.
Attracting the best talent
A growing number of highly skilled workers are opting to work from home, whether for family reasons, cost of living, or just out of personal preference. These are the workers you need for your team, so making distributed working an option will help attract and, more importantly, retain these employees.
Distributed Team Hurdle #1: Trust
Modern project management methodologies often include a strong dose of face-to-face interaction (think Scrum, Agile, etc). Humans read intention and emotion on each other’s faces, as well as in body language. It’s said that as much as 80% of human communication is non-verbal. This is how we as a species establish trust with others. It’s also how we know when we’ve upset another person and need to smooth things over with an apology, for example.
So how to address this with a distributed team that may never be in the same room with each other?
Solution: Develop a team mission statement, with the entire team, of course. People, particularly of the millennial generation, work better together when they know that they share goals, a mission, and values. Then, provide them with the technology they need and an impetus to use it to connect and collaborate. An instant messaging tool like Slack provides the ability to chat, ad hoc, with teammates while a video conferencing solution like Zoom facilitates larger scheduled meetings. The rationale here can be as simple as encouraging the team to get to know each other as people, not just as designers, developers, etc.
Team-building takes on a new importance with distributed teams, especially in the early days when you’re working extra hard on that getting-to-know-you phase. Provide a water cooler Slack channel, so folks can chat about non-work topics. Arrange after-work pizza parties (where you have pizza delivered to everyone’s location at the same time and they bring their own beverages).
Hurdle #2: Scheduling Conflicts
Working as a cohesive unit when members can literally be anywhere on the planet presents unique problems. Particularly around scheduling meetings, calls, or brainstorming sessions. While there isn’t one solid plan of action here, there are some things you can do to support your team’s efforts at working together whenever possible.
Solution: Technology to the rescue once again. Tools like Google Calendar, Slack, Trello, and Zoom allow everyone on the team access to each other no matter when or where they are. One suggestion here is to establish a set of global “office hours” to avoid people inadvertently waking up a coworker at 3:00 in the morning because they forgot they were on another continent.
This is another area where nearshoring presents some added value potential. By moving the part of your team on the other side of the world into your time zone, you eliminate these sorts of issues, as they’ll be working the same times you are. While this won’t work with existing employees located over there, when it comes time to hire an outsourced team for a discrete project, nearshoring becomes an intriguing option.
Hurdle #3: Motivation
One of the biggest concerns we hear voiced when it comes to having teams working from home is the fear that they’ll just sit on the couch eating chips and watching movies all day. And while we understand the concern, the reality is these sorts of slackers will out themselves quite quickly, allowing you to remove them from the team. The majority of the workforce will likely be MORE productive than they were when co-located, per recent research.
That doesn’t mean everyone will be hunkered down and focused on the project a full 8 hours/day. And that’s good. Humans need breaks in order to be as focused as possible when they are working. That’s where those water cooler chat rooms come in handy to help people blow off steam so they can get back to it with renewed focus and energy.
Solution: At first, you may want to employ a remote time-tracking app. While this will indeed show you metrics on the hours people are spending working, it won’t show you how productive they’re being during those hours. For that, consider moving to a production-based model. That way, you can judge their work on the output created rather than the hours they spent doing it.
It’s also a best practice to enforce those “office hours” for the whole team, including yourself. Without this guidance, your top producers will never stop working, and the rest of the team will suffer burnout right along with them. You can back this up by scheduling regular meetings: daily standups, weekly updates, and monthly/quarterly full briefings are a great place to start.
Hurdle #4: Isolation
Humans need human contact. This is a function of our biology and how our brains work, so it’s not something that can be discounted. We touched on this above, so this is just a restatement to drive home how important it is to provide outlets for your team to get together.
Solution: This will vary by your specific situation. If you have several people in close proximity, consider covering the cost of a co-working membership so they can get out once in a while, to meet in person and to interact with other folks not affiliated with your team. All contact helps (once it’s safe to make contact again, that is). Making this sort of benefit available to the whole team can show them that you take their wellbeing seriously and want them to have the best work situation possible. This goes especially for anyone who might not have access to the best wifi or other amenities.
Hurdle #5: Communication
We know, this has been a thread running through each of the other four items on our list. That’s just how important it is to not only provide the tools necessary for your team to be in touch, but for you to enforce proper use of those tools.
One additional aspect of communication we feel is key is that of cultural differences. If your team consists of natives of the country they’re located in, you’re likely to have folks from all walks of life, and a variety of cultural backgrounds. Establishing a default language is the first obvious step to smooth things out, but having an understanding of each culture can bring to light other considerations. Work/life separation, appropriate behavior while at work, and more all need to be taken into consideration.
Solution: Foster a work environment that’s open and inquisitive. Make it OK for coworkers to talk about their backgrounds as they see fit to help everyone understand where each other is coming from. Providing the sorts of tools we’ve already discussed is crucial here, as it will enable not only these sorts of meetings but also makes general work discussions much smoother. Tools like Trello, Slack, and Jira all make project management, chatting, meetings, and general collaboration closer to frictionless for your distributed team.
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