Managing a geographically distributed team

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Lots of teams are distributed these days, sometimes nationally, sometimes globally.   We go where the talent is, and requiring people to clock in at headquarters every weekday is no longer a smart way to do business.

This poses challenges as a distributed team cannot coordinate by osmosis the way a colocated team can. They can’t figure out what everyone else is doing by hanging out at the lunch table or chatting about projects in the bathroom (yes, we do that around here).

Here are some strategies to make sure the team bonds well, interdependencies are clearly understood, and the project runs effectively and efficiently.

  • Do a face to face kickoff if at all possible.  Face to face contact establishes rapport much more effectively than video conferencing or phone calls.  Getting the team to meet each other at the start of the project provides much-needed social context.  This helps everybody understand how to work with each other.
  • Establish a weekly coordination phone call and stick to it come hell or high water. No matter how frequently you touch bases, having an official project check point sets expectations that progress will be assessed on a weekly basis and is very helpful in keeping everyone informed and coordinated.
  • Do impromptu Skype conferences. I like Skype – you get video / voice calls and screen sharing for free.  (Anyone remember the PictureTel days? This is so much better.)
  • IM. Again I like Skype, but anything else does too as long as your whole team agrees to adopt it and log in when they are working.
  • Go to voice whenever an email thread starts to get long.
  • If there is significant time difference between key parts of the team (e.g. if part of the team is in India, Taiwan, or China), be ready to be very flexible with your time and be prepared to get up early or stay up late (or even get up in the middle of the night) to communicate with your remote team members during their working  hours.  In return. they should do the same for you sometimes too.
  • Organize periodic face to face events – call in remote contributors to headquarters to reinforce the personal connections between team members. While we like to think technical work is all left brain, there is much intangible benefit in the personal relationships between people.  A well bonded team generally works more productively and effectively than a team of people who barely knows each other.

In the final analysis, I believe there is no substitute for face to face communications.  However we can go far with a little structure and a little technology.


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