Making virtual and distributed teams work: A practical approach

By Simon Chambers

· Strategy,Distributed Teams

An ever-increasing skills shortage, economic restructuring, and a general trend towards open and flexible working practices have pushed more and more organisations to revisit the way they structure their workforce.

“37% of around 5.7 million UK SMEs (that's around 2 million SMEs) state ‘staff and skills shortage’ as a major obstacle.” - State of Small Business Report

The technology industry, in particular, is not unfamiliar with these issues, and has been forced to widen their search for specific technical skills:

“An estimated 600,000 vacancies in digital technology are costing the country £63 billion a year” - according to information provided by techUK

Many restructuring options present themselves each with their own strengths and weaknesses including outsourcing (on and near shore), contracting, remote and flexible working options.

However, how can employing any of these options be effective and at the same time still retain the same level of continuity to businesses? This may be a valid question for a project manager who is working with an outsourced technical team or a business owner who is looking to leverage a distributed workforce.

We want to (in part) answer by sharing our own first-hand experience with the outsourcing model. We think it is prudent to establish from the start that our experience comes from working in roles where there was a need to establish an effective hands-on strategy in managing offshore software teams. This is important as a number of offshore engagements will be very different in nature, favouring onshore placements and offshore project management as a preferable method.

Why is this topic important? Well because in our opinion, get it right and the potential gains in terms of flexibility and scalability are huge. Likewise, however, so too is the potential to employ less than efficient practices.

Before continuing we propose that some readers may find our somewhat "inclusive" strategy towards virtual teams costly and even alien to 'traditional' thinking, but these have worked extremely well for us over a 10-year period, where we consistently delivered high-quality solutions and services to very tight timescales. It wasn't easy at first and our practices were honed over several years, and what is listed below is a few of our suggestions.


Hopefully, you will find the insights in this article useful when considering this mode of skills-based resourcing. We also hope that the principles mentioned here could also be adapted for other outsourcing, and remote working models, and indeed other areas out with software development and support which this article is focussed on.

Anyway, to some of our insights.

Collaborate, not Communicate

In our experience, it is better to think about "collaborating" and not "communicating". Simply communicating can mean a back and forth flurry of email exchanges or detailed instructions. This approach is usually highly ineffective and just leads to lots of follow up questions and misunderstandings anyway.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” - Henry Ford

There are many ways to work more collaboratively, including daily meetings, and collaborative platforms to greater involvement in the wider business context. Along with distinct methods, it is useful to adopt a more inclusive philosophy thinking as:

working with us” and not “working for us

Perhaps a useful perspective to take is to adopt, is to consider your external colleagues, as close working colleagues who have just moved abroad and whom you still need to work with on a daily basis. Asking yourself how you would do this is a very useful mindset to get into.

Another absolute crucial mindset is to view all the team together with equal respect, and not the external members as separate. Only when everyone feels part of the same team will they work in a more collaborative and effective manner.

It can, after all, be too easy to fall into a "them and us mindset", especially when things get hard, which is very counterproductive.

Team-based Tech

We are very much a ‘technology pull’ kind of guys, as opposed to a ‘technology push’, in that we like to very much think of the problem first and then afterwards decide what technologies to ‘pull in’ to help solve that issue. With that in mind, it is worth ‘pulling into’ this space, a few technology enablers that can help facilitate this process. There, of course, many more technological aids, and indeed holistic platforms that incorporate many more collaborative features, but to highlight some useful features:

Collaborative Document Sharing

There are many on the market that allows the team to work on the same document at once with edits being visible to all in real time. This saves lots of time editing different versions and emailing round different copies. Most software allows version control, offline editing and proactive alerting capabilities.

Private and Public Messaging

Having a collaborative platform on which members can perform real-time chat will help tremendously with communication and workflow between the team.

Video Conferencing

This can be full-blown (not to mention expensive) VC setups to free applications using your phone or laptop. ‘Seeing’ each other is much more productive than faceless phone conferences where interruptions and misreading comments are all very common symptoms of not being able to see and read one another’s reactions and intentions.

Engage

Within distributed teams, in general, you want to break down any barriers as quickly as possible to harmonise how you all engage with one another and therefore improve productivity as a unit.


You ideally want to work towards a self-organizing team that feels empowered and trusted to make decisions.

Involve them in decisions, and don’t let them be just the recipients of instructions.

There are of course many ways to achieve this too numerous to mention here.

One of our first observations was the undercurrent of reticence in newly formed teams which can inhibit growth and innovation. We thus devised ways of injecting ownership and self-fulfillment into our best practices.


One very simple and effective example is to ask for solutions, not just report problems. This forces your team to think for themselves and view the problem in the wider context. We have in the past employed an ‘issue template’ to facilitate this. This forces the team member posing the issue to first consider possible solutions, risks, and impact before first raising it. This is not only more productive but promotes a sense of value and confidence. A very simplified version of this looks like:

  • Description of Issue
  • Reason for Issue Occurring
  • When Occurred
  • Have we Fixed this Before (if yes give details)
  • Proposed Fix
  • Risks Associated with Proposed Fix
  • Estimated Completion Time for Proposed Fix
  • Sanctioned by QA Lead?

I also suggest that even if it is not mandatory in the working arrangements you have with the external resources, you should ‘keep connected’ by conducting regular appraisals. Act on their wishes, suggestions, and watch them grow once they feel a real part of the team where they have a valuable contribution.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that awareness of cultural differences within your team is not only practical (in terms of public holidays and working hours), but also helps breed respect, and empathy within the team.

A Stable Nucleus

Before you engage with any distributed team it is always much effective to establish a good team lead, preferably someone who is located where the business resides. Such a lead should ideally be a hybrid role of project/technical manager, as either one on their own is not optimal. The lead will need to not only possess many skill sets but also possess patience and flexibility to try new approaches. They should not expect current practices to fit exactly within this model, and time should be allowed to discover the team’s velocity, and not expect them to fit instantly within existing KPIs.

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” – Ronald Reagan

To neglect to appoint a ‘qualified’ lead will soon result in a reduction in the quality or necessitate the need for additional layers of costly resource management to accommodate. There is however a dichotomy here in that this approach requires a more experienced and higher paid resource to act as the central pivot for this to be successful. The level of experience will depend on the team’s function and capability requirements, but it is worth bearing in mind as this approach clearly provides a more effective ROI when a more longer-term engagement is considered. There are of course more appropriate strategies for shorter term engagements but that is not discussed here.

Get Structured

It is crucial to establish the structure of the team and their roles\expectations before you start. This will give the whole team clarity and save on wasteful email clarifications later. This should not only include the ‘external’ roles but also the internal roles which they will interact within your organization. This will also include the appropriate channels and etiquette for communicating with other stakeholders. After all, you want the team’s capability to grow and ultimately self-organize, and eventually not have to run everything through your lead. This will also help you establish crucial benchmarking metrics earlier on the process, as you will know what responsibilities to measure crucial KPIs against.

There are many models available for distributed teams including; body shopping, onshore-offshore, offshore alone, client co-ordinated, onshore vendor co-ordinated to list a few, our own preference was to have full ownership over the external resources, and even if not mandatory had direct involvement in their appraisals, holidays, and ideally bonuses. This helped promote a cohesive team structure and feeling.

Summary

In our opinion then virtual and distributed workforces be it through outsourcing, remote working or other flexible working practices is definitely worth the investment. Depending on the exact nature of the engagement and the capability and motivation involved, this will require a level of commitment to optimise but the return on investment will be huge.

Hopefully, the insights mentioned here serve as practical pointers, or at the very least areas for reflection when embarking on this journey.

As you will have gathered, the suggestions mentioned in this article are obvious and simple, but surprisingly are not so simple that not everyone employs them. They are if you like

obvious but not instinctive’.

If you are passionate about this topic as we are, please reach out to me at simon@.nlts.io or via the comments. We would like to hear your honest views, problems and how you have tackled this within your organisation.

Listed below are links to some other articles that deal with the same topic and may be of interest to you.

About the Author

Before co-founding New Leaf Technology Solutions, Simon Chambers worked for a decade successfully building and managing globally distributed technology teams.

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