The Secret Ingredients of a Successful Distributed Team

Recently, I really enjoyed my time attending Net:Work, a new conference that was presented in San Francisco by GigaOM. The event evolved around the topic of remote collaboration, or as the organizers described it, the opportunities that new technologies “have created for connecting work and workers.” Infrastructure changes, the impact of the cloud, “mobilocracy” – those are just a few trends in the wide range that the speakers covered. There’s no doubt that today’s workplace is not what it used to be several years ago. In the modern creative economy, work extends the boundaries of a traditional office, and it has also become quite common for peers to be spread across several cities, countries and cultures. But how can we ensure that remote collaboration is efficient in such an environment? Is there any solution that would work for all companies? In this post, I’ll share my ideas on this topic.
Today, more and more companies manage their projects across multiple locations. A lot of project teams aren’t defined by geographical proximity anymore. Instead, creative professionals work as a “human cloud” that is made possible thanks to the rapid development of new technologies. Like any project team in its traditional definition, remote peers work to achieve common goals, competing on the market like any other company. However, they do not communicate in a traditional face-to-face manner. This adds extra challenges to their collaboration process. Co-located team members have opportunities to interact directly throughout their working hours, but members of a distributed team don’t. So in remote collaboration, it is very important for the project manager to keep all the colleagues on the same page and, thus, ensure that the team can quickly respond to any changes that may occur.

Obviously, any project team has its own specific style and everyday challenges. For instance, the process is different in an established marketing team that works from several locations, compared to a temporary group that is formed to collaborate with external consultants. However, according to my experience of managing distributed teams, there are several key factors that are important for any kind of remote collaboration.

Establish ground rules
Establishing a set of ground rules that will cover the basics of the way collaboration is organized will save you time on certain routines connected with keeping your team on the same page. For example, ground rules stipulate when and how joint meetings are held, how the team logs the working hours, how colleagues report on their everyday work. If everyone sticks to the same rules, the risk of administrative slips in your collaboration process will be minimized.

Accurately manage workload
It’s fair to say that maintaining control is more challenging with a distributed team than with a co-located one. To avoid any duplicate efforts, be very accurate in assigning tasks to your team members. If the task is a new and non-typical one, make sure the assignee has a clear understanding of the goals and what output is expected upon completion. Also, check whether you share the same vision of project priorities and where the new task stands among them.

Ensure constant communication
Team members collaborating remotely need to have a convenient way to constantly communicate with the manager and with each other. It’s vital to make the workflow transparent to the team, so that plans and updates aren’t spread across the peers’ personal storage spaces, but get shared with everyone who’s impacted. It won’t happen if there’s poor communication between distributed colleagues.

It’s important not only operationally and administratively, but psychologically as well. Communication helps to establish a good atmosphere inside the team. Apart from discussing work-related questions, they can share some personal news, and this might be a helpful step toward bonding the peers who are separated by oceans. I also believe that the relations between colleagues will greatly benefit from a face-to-face meeting, so don’t hesitate to seize the opportunity of organizing one, if it arises.

Leverage the right technologies
Following the previous three tips will be much easier if the team leverages the right technology for supporting its remote collaboration. Cloud computing, social software apps and mobile technologies, if implemented correctly, can turn colleagues who are spread across the globe into a powerful human cloud that benefits from collective intelligence. Adopting a system that merges communication into project collaboration will help the team always be on the same page, which is one of the key things necessary for efficient remote collaboration.

The right technologies should help to make up-to-date information visible to colleagues at any time, even if several projects are running simultaneously. This will let users connect separated silos into a network and turn the team’s collaboration into a smoothly running system where the feedback loop closes very often, despite the lack of direct face-to-face communication. Whenever a change occurs, a minor one or a big one, the peers have all the necessary data at hand to be able to immediately adapt to the new conditions and adjust their work accordingly. For the project manager, this is the basis of correct decision-making.

Have you had experience in working as a distributed team on your projects? What do you think is the secret ingredient of successful remote collaboration?

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