How to Work with Distributed Teams

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Different Ways to Bring Collaborators Closer


Samuel Fry

 

Day to day I work with teams of designers, developers and business analysts to create websites, apps and other pieces of software. My role is to help these teams to work closely with each other, to communicate well and to agree on a common vision for what they are developing.

This can be a challenge with any team. Yet, it is even more challenging when the team is distributed across different locations. Right now, my team is based in the UK (where I am), in various countries in Europe and in India. So, if my role is to get them to work closely with each other – when they are geographically far apart – how do I do that?

Well, here are a few tips that I have for working with distributed teams…

 

Don’t Do It

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The first tip is simple: don’t do it. At least don’t do it if you don’t need to.

Now, I am a realist. I understand that there are situations where teams need to be distributed. It might be that it’s the only way for a project to pay for the variety of skills needed while adhering to their budget; or, a team in one location might be looking to slowly hand over to a team in another location. Yet I stand by the view that if you can avoid working in different locations then you will really benefit from it. In fact, the stats say that teams that are situated together typically deliver twice as much; so, it’s better to have a small co-located team of five than it is to have a distributed team of nine.

You should really think about whether you need to have a distributed team. If you can avoid it then so many communication issues will be avoided.

 

Simulate Co-location

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If you find that you need to have a distributed team, then the next best thing is to simulate the experience of being located together.

The worst thing that could happen is that your team operates in a way where there are just various handovers of work between people in different locations with no other interaction. It would be very difficult in that situation for any individual in the team to have a good understanding of what everyone is doing and why.

There is a difference when teams are located together, as they can see what other team members are working on and they have informal conversations that help them understand each other better. This is really important for building relationships. If you can find ways of replicating this then you will create better team relationships.

Can you find a way for all team members to see and speak to each other throughout the day? Can you create a video link that stays connected all day? Or, can you re-create the experience of going for a quick coffee with the team? If you can simulate these types of interactions, then the team will become closer and learn to trust each other better.

 

Come Together as a Team as Often as You Can

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You might not be able to be co-located the whole time, but that’s not to say that you can’t come together every now and then. If you can I would recommend having regular periods where you work together in the same location.

Doing this at the beginning of the project is ideal, as you can discuss the vision for the project and what everyone does and does not know at that point. But don’t think of meeting in person as a one-off activity – it should ideally be done on a regular basis throughout the time that you work together.

 

Invest in Tools and Environments

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There are a huge number of fantastic digital tools that can help you collaborate virtually. It would be hard to give a definitive list of the best ones to use, as my own preference of tools changes every six months. However, I suspect that it would be useful to list a few of these here.

These are some of my favourite digital tools to help with digital collaboration, at the time of writing this article:

Box, Google Drive and Dropbox

No one wants there to be lots of versions of the same file on various people’s computers. Instead, it’s useful to use one of these file repositories to store the ‘master’ version of a file. Each of these tools has ‘version management’ too, which means that you can make sure that all versions of a file are kept, in case someone accidently overwrites the correct one.

JIRA and Trello

Teams typically have a number of things on their ‘to do’ list. Tools like JIRA and Trello allow everyone to see how these tasks are progressing.

Gotomeeting

There are lots of video conferencing tools available, but often they are temperamental and often they stop working. Gotomeeting is one of the more reliable of these and includes features such as the ability to share screens and record meetings.

Slack

Of all the tools listed here, Slack is probably my favourite. Slack is essentially an instant messenger tool that works well on mobile and desktop devices. What makes it great is that it allows you to create channels for your team, your programme of work or just for fun groups or activities.

Mural

This tool allows you to share whiteboards and use post-it notes online. It’s a good way to run workshops between distributed teams.

 

Establish Standards and Agreements

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Different cultures have different expectations of how to work in a professional environment. Because of this, the final thing that I would suggest for teams that are distributed, is to run a session for everyone to agree how they want to work.

Some call this a ‘social contract’ and it can be created by running a workshop with everyone in the team. Together they create a list of what they want the team to be, what they expect from each other and – importantly – what they won’t accept. If you do choose to run a session like this, I would suggest that you make sure that those that are quiet definitely contribute to this session, so that they can add their points too.

 

 

samuel fry

Samuel Fry

Samuel is the Founder of Create Hub. He has a history of working with creative, innovative and entrepreneurial companies. He currently works as an Agile Project Manager at IBM, is a Trustee for the creative-business incubator Cockpit Arts and hosts the TECHnique podcast.

 

Author: Naomi Curston

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