How to Collaborate in a Distributed Team

Paul Boag

The biggest challenge for distributed teams lies in communication and collaboration. Fortunately, there are approaches that can help.

A reoccurring theme as I mentor digital team leads, both in agencies and in-house, is managing distributed teams. Some leaders are nervous about the whole idea, while others have embraced them only to face problems.

After 13 years of managing a distributed company, I can tell you categorically that managing remote teams is challenging.

Going in, many people think the biggest problem will be productivity. That people will slack off and work won’t get done. Not once have I seen that be the case. Instead, the problem lies in collaboration. It is hard to work effectively together when you are not working face to face.

Nothing beats the results you get from putting a group of people with diverse skills into a room together. That is especially true in the initial stages of a project when you are prototyping and setting direction.

However, despite the limitations of distributed teams, they are becoming increasingly popular and with good reason.

Why Even Consider a Distributed Team?

There are many advantages to building a distributed team from lower costs to boosting staff morale.

However, the biggest advantage of remote working is that you will be able to build a higher quality team. There are two reasons for this.

First, without the restrictions of geography, you will have a much larger pool of candidates. You can focus on hiring the right person, not just somebody within commuting distance.

Second, a lot of potential employees want the flexibility of remote working, especially among the newer generation of workers. That makes distributed teams attractive to many people.

Remote working is particularly appealing to the next generation of workers and has been shown to significantly improve stress levels and quality of life.

Another advantage of distributed teams is that you often find them more productive, especially when people are mainly working by themselves.

In this kind of environment interruptions are often much rarer and communication more considered. That enables a more focused working environment where people tend to get more done when working on tasks that need less collaboration.

However, for a distributed team to work well, this challenge of collaborative working has to be carefully managed, and that starts with clear and regular communication.

Clear, and Regular Communication Is Critical

One of the biggest problems of distributed working is a lack of visibility between different people’s work. Take a typical designer/developer working relationship.

In an office environment, it is not uncommon to hear heated discussions between designers and developers over the best approach. A designer will regularly comment on how a developer is implementing their design. Equally a developer will warn a designer against some decisions at an early stage because they are aware of the development costs.

These ongoing discussions about each other’s work avoid time-consuming mistakes and aids understanding of each others role.

The need to understand what your colleagues do cannot be under-estimated, and that only comes with contact. Take for example a salesperson. What exactly do they do all day? It is easy to devalue a role we do not understand, and that can lead to resentment.

Without daily contact with those in other roles it is easy to see them as the enemy.

Without rubbing shoulders with those in other roles and seeing them in action, it is easy to come to see them as the enemy, rather than a part of your team.

To combat these problems we need to ensure our distributed team has a clear view of each other’s work and understand what each other does.

That is where things like daily standups, retrospective meetings and more become invaluable. However, those casual interactions are just as important to team building. Never underestimate the importance of sharing silly jokes and pointless memes!

But how do you practically run standups remotely? How do you encourage a similar level of casual interaction and exposure to colleagues that you see in an office? The answer lies in having the right tools.

The Right Tools Are Essential

Fortunately, alongside the growth in distributed working has come an explosion of high-quality communication tools for these teams.

There are now collaboration tools for almost any role.

  • Designers have tools like Invision for collaborating on design with each other, developers and stakeholders.
  • Developers have web repositories like Git Hub for sharing and working on code.
  • Content specialists can make use of web apps like Gather Content for collating and writing content.
  • Sales teams have CRMs like Pipedrive for managing customer relationships.

The list goes on.

However, the stand out tool within many distributed team is Slack. Slack has shot to dominance as the primary communication tool for remote workers with over 8 million active users and 70,000 organizations actively paying for the service.

Slack has become the definitive communication tool for many distributed teams.

What makes slack such a crucial tool for distributed teams is its flexibility. No matter how your team communicates or interacts, it seems to be able to accommodate it, mainly thanks to the vast number of applications that integrate with it.

Take for example the daily standup. Standups are an excellent tool for:

  • Encouraging interaction between remote team members.
  • Increasing team members understanding of what colleagues do.
  • Removing obstacles that prevent people from getting work done.
  • Improve people’s view of the broader work the team is doing.

However, standups can quickly feel impossible with a distributed team. Even face-to-face they can become cumbersome if poorly managed.

Fortunately Slack can provide an excellent platform for managing digital standups. That is because the standups can be much more focused and run asynchronously, so avoiding cutting into people’s productivity and time zone issues.

Standuply integrates with Slack allowing for improved team communication.

Slack standups can be even better when supported by an app like Standuply. This application integrates with Slack and allows you to schedule and structure your standups automatically. It also allows people to respond to questions using video so improving the personal interactions missing from distributed teams.

However, I have to say that no clever app will entirely replace the visceral experience of face-to-face team events.

Face-To-Face Still Matters

Face-to-face meetings are always going to be necessary, even if you run a distributed team. They are not something that you should ignore.

As I wrote at the start of this article, some things are just better done in person, such as the initial collaboration required to set the direction of a project. Although it is possible to do this remotely, things will move faster in those early stages when they happen face-to-face.

However, although you could, in theory, skip in-person meetings for projects, you cannot afford to do that entirely for your team. Meeting in person is crucial for team building even if it only happens periodically.

If you look at any successful distributed company, they still regularly get together for team events. It is at these events that working relationships are cemented and company culture shaped.

In terms of how often that needs to happen. Well, that depends on how distributed your team is and the associated cost implications. The simple answer is that you need to bring the whole team together as often as you can. That is especially true when only some of your team works remotely.

A Distributed Team Is an All or Nothing Affair

Earlier I said I ran a remote team for 13 years. That is not to say the entire team worked remotely. We did have an office too. However, I would still call us a distributed company because if one person is working remotely, you have to treat it like everybody is.

It is all too easy for remote members of staff to feel like second class employees. They can be left out of the loop, unaware of what is happening in the broader business. They can also be frustrated in their work by poor communication from team members.

All of this means that if you decide to take on remote workers, you need to be structured in such a way that your entire working practices support this approach. There are no half measures with remote working.

Distributed Teams Are Both a Blessing and A Curse

I have seen a lot written on distributed teams that either paint it as a curse that destroys company culture or as a revolutionary disruption to existing business practices. The truth is that it is somewhere in between.

Like so many things distributed teams can be both good and bad. They help in some ways and hinder in others. Whether you adopt remote working is up to you.

However, if you do, then I would encourage you to think long and hard about the tools you put in place and in particular how you encourage excellent communication and collaboration.

If you get that right, then you can end up with a world class team that would be almost impossible to build otherwise.

Stock Photos from De Repente/Shutterstock

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