How to succeed with distributed teams

Kristian Redi 2

At present many Norwegians are working from home, and there is a lot of advice available on how to work effectively from home. But how do teams that do not sit together – and whose members are potentially in different counties - ensure they work effectively?

 

At Itera, we have over ten years’ experience of working in distributed teams as part of our delivery model, and in this blog post I would like to share how we succeed in working effectively despite not sitting together. In writing this I have taken into account the fact that at Itera we work with colleagues in different countries, but the tips may well be suitable for everyone currently working from home.


Have a low threshold for getting in contact with colleagues


You should have a low threshold for contacting your colleagues when you would like something clarifying. This helps with productivity and, importantly, co-operation.


While one often follows project and development methodologies with fixed meeting schedules and set agendas, do not forget the quick one-on-one discussions that you might typically have over a cup of coffee, whether this is with the colleagues you usually see in your office or those you most often see over webcam.


Be extra clear


Tips and tricks from home office gurus often include the advice that you should behave as if you were at work and not allow yourself to be distracted by things at home. Just as important is maintaining the project procedures you followed before, as well as extending this to make extra clear for colleagues what work you are doing.


This is easy for development and testing tasks that are often on sprint or kanban boards, but also consider whether more operational tasks can be made clear, even if this is only by sharing your calendar. The routine for developers is to hold daily stand-up meetings – something we have also seen become a more common practice outside of development departments at some of our customers now that working at home has become standard.


Ensure you have high-quality tools


With regard to communication, there is a sea of options. The most important thing is to ensure you have good sound quality and that you make it easy to hold meetings and have conversations efficiently, without any time being unnecessarily wasted fiddling with cables or microphones and cameras. At Itera, we frequently use both Microsoft Teams and Slack. Slack is primarily used for chat and small ad-hoc conversations.


If anything needs to be explained that will impact a project or those involved, it is important to document this, both in order to share the information, but also for people to refer to later.


Email threads can quickly become too complicated and do not make it easy for others to follow the history of the exchange of messages, so ideally use shared drives such as OneDrive, Confluence or any other solution that fits your company’s portfolio and licencing policy.



Allow everyone to be involved in the big picture


Projects do not always progress as planned, but successful projects always start with good planning.


Let everyone involved have access to the big picture, not only the tasks that they are assigned. Let them see what is driving the plan, whether this is functionality, promises for the delivery, budget restrictions etc. This enables everyone to help in coming up with better solutions.


Regardless of what is driving the plan, take care to ensure the scope of the work is clear, whether by defining MVPs, sub-goals or KPIs. And involve the whole team.

Advice and tips for hybrid, distributed teams


During the current period your company may have to bring in outside expertise, potentially from a different country, and a few simple steps can make this process seamless.


No ‘us and them’


The first thing you should do when starting to work with a distributed team is to move beyond an ‘us and them’ mindset. This can be difficult and something you need to remind yourself to do regularly, but in theory it is no different from being joined by a number of new colleagues all at once. 


If you have good onboarding routines, these can easily be transferred to a distributed team, and if you do not, it can be a good time to introduce some that can also be used with new local colleagues in future.


In general, our set up means that we have one person on site and a team of 4-8 people elsewhere (in our case they will be in Kiev in Ukraine or in Bratislava in Slovakia). The person who is on site often helps set up new routines, in addition to revising existing routines.


Personnel in other countries - nearshoring


When you are putting your team together, a model such as nearshoring will give you the luxury of being able to adapt it to the company’s roadmap and strategies. Also importantly, you will be able to adjust it to meet the needs of the company’s existing development department, as the IT market in Ukraine, for example, is significantly larger than in Norway. Find the balance between experience and youthful drive that is the right fit for the tasks involved and the working environment.


A short time after starting, your team will have the domain knowledge it needs to be productive, and it will slot in as a natural part of the rest of the developers.


One rule that it is good to follow is that if meetings are held with the development department, include everyone, regardless of where they are located. Chinese whispers can be fun as a game but is a poor choice for a way of communicating at a company.


Ensure your consultants know about the company they are working for


When carrying out a project at Itera, we make sure the distributed team involved knows about the organisation they are working for and vice versa. When we are running demos we typically always leave the door open so that any part of the company can be there, meet the people and see what we are producing.


Every business has a history – about how they were founded and how they have got to where they are today. This history often explains the company's identity and why it is going in the direction it is. Provide every new person you add with an introduction to the company’s history – and also invite employees at the company's local office to be part of the history hour!

We hope these tips are useful and that they make your day-to-day work a bit simpler in the current circumstances. Please get in contact if you want to learn more about our distributed delivery model.