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Challenges Of Working With Distributed Teams

19.11.2018 - READING TIME: 5 minutes

Challenges Of Working With Distributed Teams

Author: Fatima Tayyip Sahovic

 

This blog focuses on teams that specialize in developing software products.

First things first: What is a distributed team?

A group of people who work together but are separated by their geographical location, regardless of whether they stay in a different building or a different time zone.

Organizational structures may also vary, from only one member being in a different location to everyone being spread out across the globe. A team doesn’t have to be under the same roof as you to create magic, nor do they have to be employed at your company. 

Engaging such a team to develop your software product can provide substantial benefits.
Also, your competitive edge (business growth) depend on it.

Partnering up with such a group of specialized experts has undeniable PROS:

  • access to talent in one place,
  • teams that have experience of working together,
  • out of box thinking,
  • diverse teams drive creativity,
  • cost-effectiveness.

However, naturally, certain challenges might arise when partnering with such teams. Being aware of those challenges can help you avoid potential issues and all the fuss that goes with it.

Having worked with distributed teams for over a decade, we have identified the challenges specific to working in this setting.

So what are the key challenges?



  • lack of in-person interaction,
  • timezone mismatch,
  • product delivery issues, and
  • cultural differences

Let’s look at these more closely.


Lack of in-person interaction

Although there’s a number of communication technologies available, lack of actual in-person interaction can make it difficult to feel the energy, read emotions and judge the body language. Consequently, this makes it difficult to develop authentic relationships and to nurture a team spirit.

It can also be the source of misunderstandings leading to lack of trust and sometimes causing costly consequences. To prevent such issues from arising, it is of utmost importance to utilize existing collaboration tools properly.


E-mail only
 is not the best option, and we always advocate the use of tools with real-time communication options, integrated video chat, emojis, and gifs - all of which contribute to more human interaction.

Additionally, we strongly advocate creating a working agreement which clearly defines team communication procedures and ensures that they are frequent and concrete.

As a bonus, try to organize a visit to each other, or attend a conference together. This truly fortifies the relationship.


Time zone mismatch

Globally distributed teams often have issues identifying time overlap for productive meetings and timely feedback. It is important to include the update meetings in your working agreement so that all teams are reassured they will receive timely feedback.

Moreover, time zone differences have a psychological effect on the team’s dynamics. There’s a danger of people’s mood mismatch depending on the time of the day at their location. To avoid such negative effects, it is important to nurture private relationships and forge alliances between teams so they learn to understand and support each other.

A great tip that works for us is to always plan a few minutes of informal chatbefore the official part of the meetings so that people can relax and build mutual trust.


Cultural differences

While cultural diversity is a major asset to the project, it often causes issues related to language barriers and work culture. More fluent speakers in teams tend to speak more and position themselves as thought-leaders.

It is important for team leaders to recognize those with less confidence and encourage them to speak up in the meetings. Another way of mitigating these differences is making sure there is written evidence regarding project activities; meeting minutes do not take long to write up and are highly useful and appreciated. Additionally, they allow more introverted team members to share thoughts.

Different nations have different work practices. By allowing people to share insights about their culture, you help reduce potential misunderstandings. This certainly results in honorable work ethics, healthier communication, and positive team dynamics. Again, informal chats help, but working agreements fortify the quality of output.


Product Delivery issues

The process of delivering the requirements can be quite challenging because more often than not, teams are faced with confusing or incomplete solution design documents that are hard to read and digest.

We have found a couple of approaches that helped us eliminate the potential issues with product delivery:

  • Technical Grooming sessions where the product owner answers any questions the team has with regards to the solution design documentation, or an epic provided by the client; this allows the team to break down the epic and create additional user stories.
  • JAD sessions where experts (product team and technical leads) come together to share their views about the product, sync the perspectives and develop a sense of project ownership.

In our experience, the technical grooming sessions were particularly of great benefit to business intelligence teams.

IN THE END, IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO CHEMISTRY


Challenges can easily be turned into assets if tackled properly. Just remember, it takes continuous work on individual level, consideration of others, an open mind and some serious planning. This way the team builds up their unique chemistry, and as a result, they achieve effective velocity.