More and more companies decide to establish distributed teams. This is more of a requirement of our times. It seems like tomorrow’s business will be more virtual and distributed.

By distributed team we mean a group of people, who are working on one project, but from different locations – within a city, country, continent or even the whole world. Form of employment is not important. What matters is that they, as a group, usually collaborate online, and do not meet every day in one office.

A distributed team may consist of people working in an office as well as working remotely, e.g. from a client’s office, located in the same country or abroad, from home or from co-working centres. Here’s an example from our Evolve project:  development teams are working in Gdańsk and Belfast offices. So we do work in different locations, but still are aligning with company business strategic objectives.

Members of a distributed team share a common goal. In addition, teams such as ours, work using Agile methodologies, and we apply Scrum principles. Therefore, in the team whose members work in different locations, communication is essential.

Effective communication in a distributed team can be a real challenge. However, it is possible to arrange it so that the work will proceed very smoothly. Instant messaging, e.g. Slack, Skype, Lync, or Google Hangout enable effective communication in real time. In Evolve each employee has a corporate account on Slack and Lync. IMs are used for day to day communication with people in Gdańsk and Belfast offices, and those working remotely.

 

Feedback from the team members shows that this solution is efficient and helpful.

Of course we also use a project management tool which helps us track what’s actually going on. In Evolve we’re using JIRA for visualizing what is happening, what is the progress and how the things you work on relate to the bigger picture. We also use Trello for collaboration and communication during our Sprint Retrospective sessions.

 

Another tool which has been introduced lately is Yammer. It is an interactive platform that allows team members to share professional information, help each other out and thus learn about each other’s fields of expertise and know-how.

 

Choosing the tools which suit your team best is the path to success.

The top problems and what to do with them

1. Lack of face-to-face communication

We need to remember about the benefits of in-person communication.

Based on the a graph comparing the effectiveness of modes of communication with the richness of the communication channel employed:[1]

 

 

we may say it’s recommended that the members of a team strive to meet face-to-face at least once during project’s lifecycle. Team formation and relationship building allows team members to ‘break the ice.’

It’s also the best way for your team members to feel connected with each other.

Of course we may face different blockers in communication. Sometimes we really can’t avoid them.

2. Communication in a foreign language

If team members come from different countries, the norm is to use English. However, the level of language proficiency may be different. When not everyone is a native speaker, it’s good practice to follow up in writing. It is important to have something in writing that goes over the key facts and decisions so that your team can refer to it if they’re unsure. It also helps to double check that you are clear in the first place.

3. Time differences may be another problem

Members of distributed teams often work in different, sometimes distant time zones. In our case, part of the team work in Gdańsk, and the second part work in Belfast. Time difference is one hour. We have to keep that in mind and remember about public holidays and lunch times, as it’s really important to ensure maximum participation in all Agile team meetings.

 4. We need to remember about culture differences as well

Below you can see the comparison of Poland and United Kingdom cultural differences based on Geert Hofstede*[2] research on cross-cultural groups and organizations:

 

Let’s compare the biggest difference – dimension called Uncertainty Avoidance:

“Poland scores 93 on this dimension and thus has a very high preference for avoiding uncertainty. Countries exhibiting high Uncertainty Avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. In these cultures there is an emotional need for rules (…), people have an inner urge to be busy and work hard, precision and punctuality are the norm, innovation may be resisted, security is an important element in individual motivation.”

“At 35 the UK has a low score on Uncertainty Avoidance which means that as a nation they are quite happy to wake up not knowing what the day brings and they are happy to ‘make it up as they go along’ changing plans as new information comes to light. As a low UAI country the British are comfortable in ambiguous situations ….”

If you want to understand more, please visit: https://geert-hofstede.com/poland.html

 

We need to accept cultural obstacles and keep in my mind that we’re different. Knowing each other better will help us avoid misunderstandings and help to improve our communication. Despite all cultural differences, we are primarily humans and we are very similar when it comes to relationships with other people. We should focus on building trust and having respect for each other. Of course, we can do much more, but addressing these areas is a good start.

Based on my own experience I can honestly say that working in a distributed team can give you a lot of satisfaction. It also gives a lot of sense of freedom and teaches us a completely different approach to work and cooperation.

 

 

[1] http://agilemodeling.com/essays/communication.htm

[2] https://geert-hofstede.com/