Agile and Tech Comm: Working on Remote Teams

Working on Remote Teams

More and more, we see teams that are distributed around the world. An increasing number of  businesses are functioning this way, because of a number of factors. It benefits everyone who works in an agile environment to figure out how to best address the challenges associated with the global team model.

Challenges of Working on Remote Teams

Often, there is an us versus them mentality on a remote team, especially when two teams come together as the result of a merger. Suddenly, you have larger teams in at least two locations, and it’s easy to forget that the team in the other location is part of your global group. Additionally, if teams in different locations have different backgrounds, different processes, and different cultures, the difficulty of getting those teams to act as one grows exponentially.

To facilitate remote team member collaboration, look for ways to increase their social interactions and all communications. For example:

  • Institute a buddy system where team members from each location match up with each other and have regular calls to discuss fun stuff, work challenges, ideas for projects, and more. It helps to give them a suggested list of topics if they feel awkward about starting off the discussions on their own.
  • Create a culture of inclusiveness with quarterly global team meetings. Regularly scheduled events ensure the whole global team stays abreast of everything the team is doing and planning to do. Encouraging interactivity and participation is a must. Have team members from each location take turns planning the meeting and ask for input from the team members on what they’d like to discuss. We have had more success with our meeting agenda being team-driven than management-driven.

clockAnother common challenge with remote teams is time zone differences. While there’s nothing you can do to completely eliminate this obstacle, short of discovering time travel, it’s important to be fair in scheduling, attending and following up on action items:

  • Switch off scheduled meeting times. It’s easier to tolerate inconvenient meeting times when you know that the next time the other group is meeting outside their normal work hours.
  • Be responsive outside of normal work hours if you have a team across the world. You don’t have to check your email ad nauseum throughout your evening and morning, but it’s a good idea to check it at least once in the evening so if someone across the world needs something, you can send a response without them having to wait 12 or more hours.

Finally, one of the most difficult challenges involves the pressure to keep standards consistent around the world. A group’s pre-merger practices, culture, and processes can impact how well they adhere to company or team standards. Since some team members work on multiple projects, the consistent standards across the organization are important to reduce process learning time as people move from project to project.

It’s All About the People

A team is made up of people. Whether those people are down the hall from you, in the next state over, or across the ocean, they are still people. Making a global team work depends on knowing the people on that team, how they work, and helping them adapt to a remote team model.

Getting to Know Your Team Members

Acquiring some knowledge of the remote team’s culture helps you anticipate how they interact with others (both managers and peers) and how their daily personal lives intersect with work. Some cultures are more hierarchical, some are less. Understanding interactions among various levels is key to relating to them on their own terms. It also helps you get a picture of their office protocols, which is essential if you need to understand why resistance to new processes and procedures is occurring. And that gives you the opportunity to work with them to figure out processes that take the best from both worlds.

Probably the most effective way to stay in tune with others on your team is to have frequent 1:1 or small group meetings. Regular meetings with your team members around the world ensures that no one feels left out, and establishes communication that will support you through difficult times.

Travel is not always the solution, but can be a big help. We have some great technology nowadays that lets us communicate easily with people around the world, but it’s hard to beat face-to-face. If you can go visit your team members around the world every few months or so, it makes a big difference. And if you can’t go to them, consider  bringing as many team members as you can together for a few days of meetings or training.

On the social side, I suggest developing a Who’s Who page on a shared website helps team members put faces with names and get to know a few things about each other. Our team Who’s Who pages includes a picture, birthday, hobbies and interests, products each person works on, and their office location. It’s a good quick reference to see the whole team at once.

Another way to encourage team member social interaction is a fun area on your shared website where people can chat about non-work: share their favorite recipes, recommend books to each other, post family pics, etc.

Team Expectations

Holding the entire team to the same expectations is vital. Showing favoritism one way or the other hurts the overall team. No matter the seniority of one team over another, a single set of standards shows consistency on your part. It shows them respect and demonstrates trust. And that goes a long way towards ensuring deliverables and communication between remote locations have the same clarity, consistency, and quality.

But remember, consistency should never trump fairness. The ways you communicate with a local team member might not work for a remote team member. The idea is to tailor your feedback, communication, and way of working to each team member’s personality and preferences, wherever possible.

Team Systems and Processes

Though your ultimate goal is one set of standards for the entire global team, if joining teams through a merger, you will also face challenges from different legacy processes. When determining what to do going forward, analyze what you can pull from both sides, rather than assuming your preferred method is better. Not only do you continue building mutual respect among all team members, combining the best practices from all groups ultimately improves the entire team, and builds a truly global group.

Consider what each group can teach the other. If someone in a particular location is really good with a particular tool or process the team will use, for example, have them teach the whole group. But be sure to assign someone in another location another teaching opportunity. Opportunities should be available to all of the team members, no matter the location.

In addition to the knowledge sharing, ensure that support and leadership flow from all locations. It’s important that all of the team leaders are not in one location.

Communication

The key thing to remember with remote teams is to over-communicate. Too much information is always better than not enough information. Frequent 1:1 conversations and group meetings keep the information flowing in both directions.

Use all the communication tools at your disposal:  various chat tools, conference calls, and video conferences help keep people in tune with each other and up-to-date on important news and project status.

Use email as a last resort. It has its place, but doesn’t have the real-time aspect or personal nature of other communication tools. If you do need to use email to communicate with the team, try to anticipate questions to make up for the long turnaround time.

Whatever forms of communication you use with your remote team, focus on collaboration and conversation. The best teams work together to take the team forward.

Alyssa Fox

Alyssa Fox is Director of Information Development and Program Management at Micro Focus, and is based in Houston, Texas. Alyssa is a member of Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) and User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA). She is also a senior member of Society for Technical Communication (STC) and is currently serving as the STC Vice President. Alyssa speaks at numerous international conferences about various management, agile, and technical communication topics. Find Alyssa on Twitter @afox98.

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