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Eight best practices for optimizing a distributed team

Having all your team members under one roof is the exception today rather than the rule. How can you ensure your distributed teams are successful?

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part tip by management expert Joseph Flahiff on how to manage and optimize the performance of distributed teams.

Some people insist that the only way to work is in small groups of five to nine team members who are collocated: Never work remotely. Always be in the same room working face to face. 

I wonder what color the sky is where these people live. In the world where I live, working remotely -- and therefore managing a distributed team -- is a fact of life. That's especially the case for companies that grow to be a global force.

Now, I totally agree with these folks that having your team under the same roof would be ideal, but most of the time it just doesn't work that way. So how do we make the best of working remotely?

Quick definition of a team so we are all on the same page: A team is a group of interdependent people who are working together toward a common goal for which they are mutually accountable.

In this article, I will just talk about distributed teams in the same time zone. These two issues -- distribution and time zone differences -- are multiplicative. That is, if you have a bad team structure and team members are spread across time zones you have multiplied your problems.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -- Margaret Mead

Note that in the quote above it does not say a small group of collocated citizens. The renowned anthropologist emphasizes thoughtful and committed. With your organization, be more concerned about these attributes of a team than about the location of the people. It will make all the difference. A group of thoughtful, committed people can come up with workarounds for almost any problem.

Eight common optimizations for a distributed team

No matter the distribution of your team, there are some common practices and tools that will make your communication easier and your remote teams work better. These are things that every organization with remote workers should strive for in every team.

Use video teleconferencing. Video teleconferencing (VTC) greatly increases the ability of a distributed team to understand the 50% to 93% of our communication that is nonverbal.  Numerous VTC technologies are free these days, so there is no reason to just make phone calls and miss out on nonverbal intelligence.  

Create a speaking protocol. Your process should ensure that everyone gets to say his or her piece. Maybe you have a speaking protocol to always go in alphabetical order, maybe it is by order of work, or something else, but agree as a team on a process that guarantees everyone has a chance to speak.

Use multiple collaboration tools.  Modern-day collaboration tools really do enhance collaboration -- and they are getting better by the day. If I were to elaborate on collaboration tools here, the information likely would be out of date before it was published. One piece of advice: Don't limit your tools for distributed teams to video conferencing. Think about screen sharing, file sharing, text and instant messaging as well as other ways of sharing virtual space together.

Maximize the use of pairing. When two people work together on a problem they build better products and they increase their affinity and sense of mutual responsibility for the work. They also decrease the number of mistakes and rework necessary. People can pair in a variety of ways and on innumerable tasks. I like to leave it open-ended and just ask people to work together. They will figure out the best way to do that. Software developers have a number of technical best practices they use when pairing, but don't limit your use of pairing to software development. I ask leaders to pair when hosting a meeting. There are technical tools to facilitate pairing such as screen or document-sharing and video conferencing.

Hire good communicators. One obvious requirement for ensuring thoughtful, committed distributed teams is to hire people who are good communicators. But be careful you don't assume that good communicators must be extroverts. Introverts can be awesome communicators. A desire to limit the amount of time spent in chit-chat makes some people develop great communication skills. They know they need to share enough information to communicate the point, but not too much. They don't have the compelling need to tell you how to make a clock when you ask the time. They will tell you the time.

Distinguish between self-starters and self-finishers. Lots of people can get things started; in building a remote team you need people who can get stuff done. To get at this, ask questions about projects they completed by themselves.

Remote teams should be autonomous. There is a dichotomy here, because you need to foster interdependence for a group of people to function as a team, but ideally each of the remote groups (not solo people) should be an autonomous unit, able to complete discrete work with no back-and-forth with other team members based in other locations. This allows the remote team to work quickly without lost time in hand offs.

Have on-site events once in a while. Always start with a group event. Ideally, this will include both team-bonding activities as well as planning and execution activities. But even if the on-site event is just working as a single team on something, it is essential for a distributed team to get together. Plan these to happen quarterly or at the very least every six months. If you cannot afford to do this, you cannot afford to have remote teams.

In part two of this three-part series, Flahiff describes three types of remote teams and offers advice on how to mitigate the problems associated with each. In part three, he discusses two more remote teams and explains why collocated teams may not be all they are cracked up to be.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at www.whitewaterprojects.com.

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