A remote team member meeting with nine others on a video conference call

Co-Workers Separated by Miles: Tips for Working with Distributed Teams

Have you ever been at your desk in your workplace, furiously (or calmly) working on a deliverable (maybe with your headphones in because sometimes the office gets a bit loud) when suddenly you find yourself stuck? “If only I had this last small detail,” or “it would be advantageous to confirm this is the right approach before I go down the wrong path,” you think to yourself. Since you are at the office, you look around to try and locate the most qualified teammate to help you. And then, voila! Said person is located, you ask your question, then get back to your desk and complete your deliverable ahead of time, on time, or maybe right in the nick of time, but with all the correct information.

Sounds nice, right? Well, here we are in 2020, and there are a lot fewer people working in offices and a lot more people telecommuting, which makes stopping at someone’s desk not always an option. Add varying time zones and a potential language barrier, and soon that deliverable that relies on communication becomes increasingly challenging. Whether you are working in an Agile, waterfall, or a hybrid environment, the likelihood of working with distributed teams is very, very high, and there are some challenges that come with it.

Here are our top three tips for increasing productivity and collaboration within distributed teams, no matter your methodology.


Tip #1: Make the most of overlapping work hours

Today, many distributed teams work in different time zones; therefore, you may be restricted to a small window where everyone is available to work together. Make the most of these hours. Account for who is available during that time, and decide what tasks can be completed with those participants. 

If you’re part of a technical team, maybe you can use the time to review code. As part of a product owner team, we find that our overlapping hours with the development team are best used alternating between grooming future user stories and demoing or problem-solving user stories in the current iteration.

Takeaway: Strategically leveraging overlapping hours is essential for better communication and efficiency within a distributed team.

Tip #2: Find the best avenue of communication

Timely communication is essential for efficient work. Finding the avenue of communication that is most convenient for each team member limits confusion and the potential need to re-do work based on miscommunication or lack of communication. Today, there are so many communication methods available, from Teams to Slack, Zoom, and even good old-fashioned email. Choosing the best avenue will come down to team preference and comfort level. 

After much trial and error, we found that, due to time differences, email is the best avenue of communication between our developers and us; however, that required us to verify the information that we include in our emails to avoid misunderstandings and maximize efficiency. On calls, we find it useful to share screens, so there is a visual representation along with the conversation (a picture is worth a thousand words!). There are also plenty of management tools that, if used effectively, can be used as communication of real-time data.

Takeaway: No matter what communication method is chosen, the key is to communicate proactively and avoid keeping team members in the dark.

Tip #3: Cultivate a positive team culture

Don’t underestimate the power of kudos! When teams are separated by miles, it’s easy to create an “us vs. them” mentality. Prevent that with clear, actionable feedback; praise good work and offer ideas for areas to improve. Ultimately, it’s about working together as a team to make the product the best it can be. 

When we commended our offshore system testers for adding details to our user stories, we found that they became more involved in other discussions, and that translated into better user stories and better testing, and ultimately a better product delivered with less turnaround time.

Takeaway: Make everyone feel like a part of the team, even if miles apart, by creating a positive team culture and consistently enforcing good team dynamics.

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