Simply put, a distributed team is one that’s not physically co-located in the same office. It’s a term most often used to describe teams that are spread out across separate time zones, or even countries, but it can also apply on a much smaller scale.
Many organizations have employees or whole departments that work in different buildings within the same city. However, traveling across town every time you need to have a team meeting or a chat with a co-worker is unrealistic. Even those in relatively close proximity to one another often need to find innovative ways to connect when they can’t meet face-to-face.
Sound familiar? Then guess what — you have a distributed team that needs to be treated as such. Whether it’s a single remote employee or a large branch of your business, effectively managing a distributed workforce requires a few key considerations.
Clear communication is key to any team’s success. Specific communication is absolutely critical for a remote workforce.
When the option of simply shouting something down the hall or chatting over a coffee break no longer applies, it’s important to define and document a concrete communication strategy. A well-defined method for sharing information ensures all employees have a clear understanding of your goals, objectives and processes across your organization.
Here are a few common but effective strategies to improve your ability to communicate as a distributed team:
Together, these tools and strategies will enable your team to communicate more effectively across geographic locations, while accounting for asynchronous instances. If your team is spread across time zones, the ability to share ideas in non-real time will become an integral part of your day-to-day. Even if teammates are in the same city, becoming comfortable with working and communicating asynchronously will empower your workforce to move toward a more project/task-based approach to productivity.
When an employee is hired, they’re granted an inherent level of trust that they’ll be able to do the work they were hired to do. This applies whether they work remotely or on-site. Micromanaging is great way to ruin a working relationship and drive people away. It’s absolutely essential to trust your employees — on-site or otherwise.
Your distributed team should have a working agreement that everyone abides by. You may decide to work during “normal” office hours, ensuring that everyone is online, available and responsive between nine and five. This is a common approach — but working on a distributed team also allows you to offer a unique level of flexibility to your employees, helping them balance their work and personal lives. Deadlines or Service Level Agreements (SLAs) can help keep your team on track outside of regular hours.
This requires trust, as an employer. Just because you haven’t heard back within an hour of an email or an assignment doesn’t mean you should go into panic mode. If your team has agreed on 24-hour turn arounds, give them that time. Of course, employees need to honor this agreement as well. You just need to find what works for you as a team and make sure that agreement is respected by all parties involved.
Beyond protecting this bond of trust, working remotely presents a unique set of challenges, but there are some things you can do to reduce distractions and set yourself up for success:
Some may ask if a distributed team can be applied within an Agile framework. The real question should be, what in the Agile manifest prevents remote work? The answer is: nothing.
There are several tenets and values of Agile that center around people, none of which stipulate that those people must be co-located. What they do promote is open communication between people:
This sixth Agile tenet is often cited as a reason why remote work and Agile are not fully compatible. And while it’s difficult to argue against a face-to-face conversation being the most effective way to communicate, take a moment to re-read the statement. Now ask yourself, what does face-to-face really mean in 2019 and beyond?
When this tenet was written back in 2001, the first iPhone had yet to be released; the world of modern communication was only a futuristic vision. Since then, video communication and other collaborative tools have improved in leaps and bounds, making it almost as easy to talk to someone face-to-face from the beach as it is from your office. In another 10 years, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) will provide innovative new ways to communicate and collaborate from remote locations.
This Agile value aligns well with the ideas discussed so far in this blog. Tools will come and go — what matters is that the tools you decide to use enable rather than inhibit interactions and collaboration within an Agile framework.
Whether you’ve adopted Agile, or any other methodology, failure to commit will lead to failure in execution. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to make sure you have the systems in place to support your employees and reduce any friction that may occur throughout the process.
Building a distributed team can help your company attract and retain top talent, but it does come with its own requirements and challenges. Distributed teams can be extremely effective if they have the information and tools they need to get their work done. But remote employees can’t be considered an afterthought; they’re an equal part of your workforce.
By addressing these challenges head-on with an honest commitment to the process, you’ll be able to build a distributed work environment that benefits your employees, your stakeholders, your products and, ultimately, your customers.