Working Effectively with Distributed Teams

Working with distributed or remote teams is hard. Here are some ways to make it less hard.

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The problem with distributed teams

Nowadays, the concept of distributed teams is prevalent especially in hyper-growth tech companies. It’s inevitable that in the span of your tech career, you’ll have the opportunity to work with or lead teams across multiple time zones.

Over the span of my career, I have worked closely with people and teams from across different office locations globally; Edinburgh, London, San Francisco, Shenzhen and Singapore.

When I was new to working with remote teams, I struggled. I spread myself thin across my many responsibilities as an engineering lead and manager. This has caused the teams I worked with to stay late or come too early in the office. Results included delayed deliverables, miscommunication and misalignment in our collective goals which caused further delays.

The guidelines

I would like to thank our Engineering Director at Skyscanner Andy, for sharing us his “Guide to working with overly remote teams”. It served as the inspiration of some of these guidelines.

We have come up with the following guidelines and have shared them across our teams to help them deal with this situation.

Separate work streams for different sites. Collocated teams can have similar work streams whilst minimising dependencies between different locations. We are all in for collaboration, but for distributed teams, we’d like to have as much autonomy as possible for each collocated teams or groups of teams in order to reduce dependencies between locations.

Get to know your remote colleagues and build personal relationships. Spending time with remote colleagues in person is not always possible but it’s the best way to build rapport. If you have the chance to go for a business trip to spend time with your remote teams, grab it, it’s worth the investment. If meeting in person is not possible, at least make an effort to spend one on one conference calls with your remote colleagues, especially if you’ll be working closely together. Start by having an introduction conference call to break the ice. This helps kickstart building your good working relationship.

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Negotiation and compromise should come from all sides regardless of location or office size. Different sides of the world will need to give and take. There are times when our UK based teams will need to wake up early or Singapore and Shenzhen based teams will need to stay late in the office in order to collaborate effectively.

No last minute changes or requests. People have adjusted their schedule either to wake up very early to jump on a call or to skip their dinner appointment so they can join your negotiation call with your potential third-party solutions provider. If you really need to change or cancel the meeting, at least give 24-hours’ notice. Your colleagues will thank you for giving them their time back.

Treat your documentation as part of your product. When your team in Singapore is sleeping, the source of truth about your products and how to use your API will be its documentation. Keeping your documentation up-to-date will make sure that your remote colleagues’ questions will be answered while you’re asleep on the other side of the globe.

Lessons Learned

Optimise for time overlaps

There will be cases where it will be impossible to compromise without taking a toll on people’s personal lives. One example is the dynamics between teams that are in different time zones without any reasonable time overlaps, for example, San Francisco and Singapore. For such cases, it’s best to structure your teams and meetings in such a way that there is no need to schedule a meeting between offices that do not have any office hours schedule overlap. For example, schedule meetings and set work streams that are meant to be optimised between Singapore and London, then London and San Francisco.

Asynchronous communication

Always default to asynchronous communication by making use of tools like Slack and Confluence, unless it’s really necessary to jump in a conference call for a meeting.

Examples:

  • Leave your questions in the relevant Slack channels before you go home, and check them the next morning. Best case is you’ll have an answer. A good case is when someone sees your question but don’t know the answer and mentions someone else who can help.
  • Write a Confluence document of your plans with the breakdown of tasks. Share this document to your remote colleagues before you go home. Ask them to leave their comments on the document so you can check them the next day.

Lean coffee meetings

Use the lean coffee format for some of your meetings. Trello is the perfect tool for this because teams will be dialling in. This will give your remote teams a chance to voice their opinions and vote on which topics to cover during your synch-up meetings. It’s a better use of everyone’s time than getting stuck in an agenda that does not matter to the attendees. Limit the amount of time you spend to discuss each topic and agree on the action items.

Pre-reading before meetings

Provide pre-reading materials before meetings. For example, share a Confluence page with a decision table before an important decision-making meeting. Ask your colleagues to leave their comments in advance if possible. This is more efficient than having people go back and forth to answer questions that could have been answered by pre-reading before the meeting.

Continuous improvement

Revisit your guidelines regularly, revise what needs to change. What worked yesterday might not work today or tomorrow.

I am using the words “distributed” and “remote” teams interchangeably here because this post is applicable to both. You can find out more about the key differences between the two here.

About the author

My name is Ardy Dedase. I enjoy travelling, playing guitar, reading and tinkering with new tech that I come across.

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