Distributed teams are something special. The ordinary things that might work for teams that are co-located, do not work for distributed teams. When some of your coworkers are thousands of kilometers apart, walking by their desks is impossible, as well for a quick chat at the coffee machine to get to know each other. Or do your coworkers go to bed when you wake up? All things that might be taken for granted when you are working in one location but can be quite the challenge for distributed teams.
During my career as a Scrum Master, I have been in distributed teams that consisted of several nationalities. In this article, I will share the lessons I learned over the course of several years working with and in distributed teams.
First of all to answer the question, "what is a distributed team"? A distributed team is a team that is not in the same location but working together. This can be as simple as a team working in two locations in the same country. But as wide as a team spread over multiple countries, timezones, and languages. The communication will mostly be done online, and usually do not share a physical office together.
Like building a house, the basis or the foundation is important. A Dutch saying is "a good preparation is half the work", which certainly is so for working with distributed teams. Since it is impossible to have quality meetings and conversations without the proper software or hardware to do video calls. The next section will be about what software works best, and how you can make sure your meeting rooms or workspaces are as remote-friendly as possible.
When working together, you need a way to communicate. While e-mails have their purpose, when you are working in a distributed team, quick questions or team communication needs something better.
I worked with Slack for quite some years now. It makes it easy to communicate with team members or complete teams, get notifications from systems or any basic need you might have in communications.
My tips for using Slack are:
- Make sure your entire company is using Slack, it loses it's power if your team cannot ask questions to a stakeholder, or to another development team.
- Make rules about @channel or @here. Nothing is more annoying than leaving a meeting for an "important" issue, which turns out to be someone that is looking for a charger for their mobile phone.
- Be more informative then you normally are. It is hard to see what someone is working on when you cannot see their face or desk. Keeping your scrum board up to date is extra important. Nobody likes to do double work right?
Doing meetings or other calls can be tricky. There are several tools you can use to do video calls. I tried several during my career. Unfortunately, not all tools work flawlessly. The following three tools are my favorites:
Zoom is the tool that my team is using right now. It has good audio quality, ease of use, and can do cool virtual backgrounds. It offers recordings of your meetings, and the ability to use special meeting ids for physical rooms. You can just tell people, hey I am in room X, please join on zoom, and it will happen.
Whereby (Formerly known as appear.in) is my second favorite. It has a low threshold to join meetings since it runs in your browser. This makes it very easy for customers or people who do not interact with your distributed team daily, to join calls. The only downside is most advanced features are only available to paying customers.
Skype is my 3rd favorite. Most people know it. The downsides of Skype are that you need to have people as your contacts. In my experience of these 3 tools, Skype is the one I had the most issues with connectivity and video quality.
After you have your software in check, it is time to make sure your meeting rooms or personal workspaces are equipped to be suitable for video calls. There are two important aspects of getting quality from your video calls. The first one is hardware and the second is guidelines. Where the first one can be solved by getting equipment, the second one is some handy tips to make sure you get the most from them.
Good hardware is important, and a microphone can make a big difference. For people's workstations, I recommend getting a good headset with preferably a microphone. For meeting rooms, I recommend getting the Jabra Speak 510. This is a quality microphone that is well suited for meeting rooms.
With the first obvious hardware requirement out of the way, let's take a deeper look at what makes video calls less enjoyable. At number one is background noises. Make sure your meeting rooms are well isolated. I remember a time when a particular room with one of our distributed teams was so badly isolated, that you could follow the meeting in the next room. Of course, that is not contributing to the collaboration.
If your room is creating echo's you can remove that by putting up some plants, or go for the more expensive solution of sound blocking panels.
Another thing to keep in mind is are there any clocks in the room? Clocks are usually not noticeable by people who are physically in the same room, but microphones somehow have the tendency to amplify the sound. This also happens with honking cars or any background noise.
When your room or workstation is optimally equipped with the best hardware, it is time to talk about some guidelines for video calls, that will improve the quality even further.
- When you are not speaking, mute your microphone, this will cut off background noises even more.
- Accept that there will be some delays. People interrupting each other probably will not do it on purpose.
- If you cannot hear someone properly, speak up! In the long run, it will be much better to improve the quality of the sound, then to send a Slack message afterwards to ask what they meant.
- Continuously keep evaluating the quality of the call. If you are not happy, try to change some things to see if it helps.
- If your connection cannot keep up, turning off the video can help stabilize.
One of the successful components of a performing distributed team is culture. The first part is to make sure remote culture and your company culture gets shared. The second part is working together when there are multiple nationalities inside your team.
When your distributed team consists of different cultures you need to take into account the cultural differences between your team members. Ignoring them will probably cause irritations or frustrations in the long run.
Things that might seem perfectly normal to me, someone from the Netherlands. Might be considered very rude or weird in a different culture. These are things you keep in mind constantly . The behaviour that one of your team mates might be having, might be perfectly normal in their culture.
The first step to making several cultures work in one team is to understand them. As being Dutch I am very direct, and we do not have a strict hierarchy in our company. I noticed some differences with some of our co-workers from Ukraine. They are much more hierarchy oriented, and usually had one "chief" in the team, which made all the decisions, if you were not that guy/girl, your opinion mattered less. On the Dutch side, we do not really care for this kind of hierarchy, if an intern has a good idea, we do it.
Another example is with some co-workers in India. In India, the communication style is almost the opposite of the Dutch one. Where Dutch is direct, the Indian communication style is indirect. This also requires some experience and reading before you get it. If someone asks me if a task can be done in time, and I don't think it is possible, I will just say no. As a direct Dutch guy, this is also how I expect people around me to act. Now flash forward to how one of our co-workers from India would react in a situation like this. A much more probably answer from an Indian co-worker would be: "I will give it a shot", or "I'll do my best". In this case, you need to read between the lines and notice you are not getting a "yes" answer, but an answer that is beating around the bush. It might be considered rude to say no to someone, and they probably feel that way about the Dutch direct culture.
How you don't want your communication to go.
As you can imagine working together is about identifying these kinds of differences and knowing they are there. If you don't know this is up to cultural differences, it is very easy to think "those guys are just not professional!!" but it is actually the opposite. This is how they work, they will probably think the same about you.
A pitfall to fall into is to get into a "us versus them" mindset. While you are still getting to know each other, and finding your working rhythms, I noticed that it is easy to get in the blaming mode. "If the people from location X could just do Y we would be so much faster!". This mindset is killing for your teamwork, try to address it when you see it happening.
If I could give one last tip on managing different cultures I would say: It takes time. Don't rush it, and expect you to work together perfectly in a few weeks. Building successful distributed teams takes time, but it will be more than worth it.
On this topic, I can recommend the book The culture map by Erin Meyer if you want to take a deeper look at cultures, how they differ, and what approaches are best to pick. It was a real eye-opener for me.
I always noticed that when a distributed team is together in one physical location, the pace increases significantly. All things that take extra time when you are remote, will be a lot easier face to face. For team members it can be time to finally meet that stakeholder in real life, and discuss their vision, do team building activities to be a closer team or have quicker discussions simply because you are face to face.
If you do not meet face to face and are purely connecting through Slack or video conferences, it is difficult to get to know each other. For all my teams in the past, I advised meeting at least twice per year face to face.
Especially when you are starting a new distributed team, the best way to kick-start your team is to do the kick-off in person. Do some team building activities, meet your stakeholders in person. Get all the things out of the way that are difficult to do through a video connection.
Teambuilding helps the growth process of the team
Whenever a distributed team is all present on location, a typical schedule consists of:
- Doing team building activities
- Talk to several stakeholders
- Visit and talk to your customers
- In our case; visit our production plant, get a better feeling of the business
- Discuss how the team is doing, and what direction we want to focus on
It is also very important to visit your distributed team members that are not in the same location as you are. Get a feeling for how their office is, what is their environment like, does their country have different rules you might take for granted? Getting a better picture of what their surroundings are like, will help you in better understanding them, which leads to better results.
My main takeaways on working in a distributed team are the following:
- Make sure you got the basics covered
- Spend time on understanding cultural differences
- Understand that it takes time to get a team up and running
- Schedule physical meetups from time to time, to kickstart working together.
With all the information mentioned in this article, I am fully positive you should be able to successfully start distributed teams. Let me know if you had any experiences with distributed teams, and how it went for you!
Interested in other things I learned? Check out The 4 lessons I learned as a starting Scrum master.