The world and the working dynamics are ever changing, especially in the IT universe. Nowadays, our home can also be our workplace, jobs are goal-oriented rather than time-dependent, and teams are often heterogeneous and multicultural. Today we will talk about the last topic.
The Challenge of Distributed Teams
It’s increasingly common for a company to have teams that are distributed in various geographic locations. For example, the backend and frontend teams can be located at polar opposites, be culturally different and work in completely different time zones. Not to mention the fact that speaking different languages adds complexity to the mix.
For some project managers this can sound terrifying, while others take it as a common challenge in the IT industry. Let’s begin by saying that distributed teams are teams based in different places that must collaborate with each other. This isn’t the same as dispersed teams, in which professionals are part of the same team but are geographically separated from each other. Today we will focus on distributed teams, and for that, we’ve interviewed Vanesa Inés Savino, Project Manager and Scrum Master of one of our most challenging projects, developed, of course, by distributed teams.
We are going to discuss some of the barriers of distributed teams and suggest a proposal to overcome them in the best possible way.
Communication: Language, Culture and Time Zones
We all know that English is the global standard for communications, and it could be a language shared by teams. However, people don’t have the same fluency and domain of vocabulary. So, how can we avoid communication problems?
- It’s essential to use the same technical terminology so that every team member understands what the other wants to say.
- It’s also essential to check understanding among each other, in order to avoid misinterpretations. In a meeting, it’s valid to make a pause and ask whether everyone understands what’s being explained, even more than once. Usually, distributed teams meet remotely through conference calls, that’s why it’s convenient to record everything being discussed, write it down and send it via e-mail to the participants, so that everyone is on the same page.
- Teams have to profit the time shared to the fullest. These are occasions to make questions, solve issues and align interests.
When working with agile methodologies, professionals usually have to collaborate during the stages of planning and product adjustment. Let’s consider a special case: the retrospective meetings.
The retrospective is the moment when the team performs a self-evaluation. And culture plays an important role in this.
- The team’s self-evaluation of their work is determined by culture, which adds complexity to the already complicated situation in which members don’t have the same cultural background. This is why it’s better to implement more guided dynamics.
- However, it’s worth saying only those who want to analyze the work done in the sprint stage participate in ceremonies. Participation isn’t mandatory and there’s no room for judgment. Facts are analyzed from an honest and constructive perspective.
- If there’s someone who doesn’t think retrospectives are relevant and doesn’t want to take part in them, we should ask them why in order to change that. In that way, we can engage everyone into thinking how the team and work can be improved.
Undoubtedly, communication is key to reinforce the sense of companionship among the team. However, there are other factors that play a role when it comes to developing and improving interpersonal relationships. That’s why it’s important to take the following advice into consideration:
- Understand and emphasize that everyone is working towards the same goal.
- Have a basic understanding of the work dynamics of colleagues at the other side of the world.
- Promote respect and empathy for fellow colleagues in order to create trust relationships. For example, it usually happens that we need to consult a colleague because there’s something we don’t understand, or we need to re-assess a task or understand a feature. The best way to contact someone for the first time is to say hi, introduce yourself, explain what it is that you do and only then state the reason for contacting them.
Each provider works as they think best based on their experience. In the case of distributed teams, it’s critical that there be a single product owner for all teams and that teams be aligned with the same methodology (even if they don’t participate in the same ceremonies), so as to work by the same deadlines. When there’s more than one product owner, they must coordinate priorities and come to an agreement.
It’s also critical for everyone to know and understand the application from the user side and be aligned with the stories that are being created. This not only decentralizes information, but also guarantees product management for everyone and helps understand workflows.
And if We Make it Agile?
We have implicitly made reference to some concepts of agile methodologies because, at least from our point of view, they have proved to be the most productive. Why? They adapt better to changes in general, especially in a volatile and accelerated market like the software industry. In addition, they allow to add value from the beginning and work in different iterations to check that the product turns out to be what the end user wants.
“This continuous stream of value also helps create a trust relationship between the team and the product owner, and developers feel free to suggest solutions to co-create the product and iterate,” explains Vane Savino.
We must remember that it’s important that leaders guide collaborators to work in the same way, so as to be aligned and work by the same deadlines. Working with agile methodologies saves us a great deal of work to align teams.
There are many stages along the journey towards maturity for a team, and sometimes a more management-driven role is required while other times a coordination-driven role is necessary. It’s a matter of trying and seeing what works for each team. As always, the first step is to try. Then, it’s all about keeping on learning.