Working Effectively with Distributed Teams

In today’s fast-moving and connected business world, it has become more and more prevalent to work with globally distributed teams. No longer tied to brick and mortar offices and ethernet wires, the modern project team is capable of successfully executing on project deliverables and collaborating with team members across the globe in real-time.

Certainly not an easy task, but having the right tools (technology), processes, and culture in place can significantly increase the odds of being effective with distributed teams. It’s no longer uncommon to find yourself working with global teams and mixed cultures that are often fraught with a variety of challenges: communication and language, time zone differences, limited in-person interaction, varied regional work styles, and personality conflicts to name a few.

So how do you make it work?

Video: Use WebEx/GoToMeeting/Skype (or similar video conferencing tool) for meetings with a culturally curated norm and peer-accountable expectation that the camera is always ON (generally, no exceptions). After a bit of getting used to it, it no longer feels like a distributed team.  In fact, you “see” one another every day – sometimes hourly.  It eventually feels pretty natural.  Body language is powerful, and the use of cameras helps us to learn one another’s working styles and nuances in physical posturing.  

That being said, physical connection and proximity are also extremely important in building trust and relationships.  Whenever budget allows, project teams will be well-served to hold at least one face-to-face meeting or workshop to help solidify new relationships and strengthen existing ones. 

Digital dashboards (like Trello or Jira): Offer a one-stop view for the entire team to review tasks, status, and project progression (and details if desired) of an entire program portfolio.  Users can drill down on each project and/or resource task to see details, notes, dependencies, and important dates which fosters a sense of complete transparency and teamwork. 

Collaboration Tools: These take conversation out of the black hole of email and into a central location that can (with permission) be openly searched, shared, and integrated with other tools (e.g. Slack, Trello, SharePoint). These tools allow us to work efficiently and effectively while liberating intellectual property that is traditionally locked in personal email inboxes.  

Remote work: Because we work with global teams, some of us may need to collaborate with team members on the other side of the planet.  This can mean very early mornings or late nights due to time zone differences. One option is to map out meetings so that those on the east coast (EST) work early with India (IST), then transition to European (CET) colleagues from about 9-3, and then utilize the afternoons to develop project deliverables after 3pm.  Working remotely can also offer additional opportunities to collaborate during off-hours with distributed team members as it affords us the option to be flexible with our time. 

Creating distributed but personal connections:  It’s often the small and personal ways of making a connection that make the most difference. Sending birthday or holiday cards to other team members in foreign countries is an effective way to curate those relationships and strengthen team bonds.  These are powerful, yet simple, gestures that go a long way in building trust and fostering a cohesive team no matter the geographical distance. 

DiSC Assessments: DiSC is a behavior assessment tool used throughout the world to help teams understand one another.  Understanding working behaviors and work styles are incredibly helpful with a globally distributed team. Recognizing what makes colleagues tick and how to engage a person to both get what you want and give them what they want simultaneously is extremely powerful and fosters an efficient project team.  DiSC gives teams the tools to identify behaviors and motivations and offers suggestions on how to work and build teams with that knowledge.  Learn more about how we at SEI utilize DiSC within our own internal distributed team in this blog by Katie Tucker – DiSC – Improving Communication Through Understanding.

I have also found the book The Culture Map to be a good resource in navigating cultural differences across teams.  As business becomes more and more global, having real-world examples and an actionable framework becomes a valuable tool.

Working with distributed teams can be a challenge.  Overcoming those challenges requires part skill and part art but it can be done!  Being aware of the potential pitfalls and working through them will result in a successful project outcome – one that the whole team, whether they are across the country or across the world, can take pride in.

Kip Durney

About Kip Durney