How to Overcome Challenges in Distributed & Remote Teams?

Nowadays, distributed and remote teams’ challenges are actually equal: project management and change management. How can value be gained while managing or working as a part of a remote team? Much knowledge and cohesive steps are required to make this powerful and effective. In this article, I want to share Auriga’s experience and tips for distributed and remote team management for how to overcome multiple future challenges.

Challenges in Distributed and Remote Teams

Let’s first define what the terms “distributed” and “remote” mean for us. “Remote” usually means your team member (or members) work off the premises, while “distributed” means you work within (or lead) a team with people from several other locations working in the company office. However, for the purposes of this article, we will assume that these terms are synonyms.

Working remotely may be an attractive option; however, the deficiencies of the work environment (procedures, rules, corporate culture, face-to-face communications, etc.) do not suit everybody. Moreover, remote work means trust, and this trust works two ways. Therefore, some companies have had to establish offices after trying to release their employees “off-leash” because the freedom employees obtained first hand seriously impacted the efficiency and reliability of the workflow.

A survey by Owl Labs shows that, in 2017, 52% of respondents worked remotely at least one day per week, with 21% working from home more than once per week, 18% always working from home, and 13% only working from home once per week.

Source: Owl Labs

People choose to work remotely to improve work/life balance, reduce their commute, focus better, and spend more time with their family. This sounds great, but at the same time, remote employees miss discussions, small talk, corporate culture, holiday celebrations, and activities – a substantial part of the team-building process. Staying in the loop becomes a problem. The lack of visibility undermines team communications, and it is easy to feel disconnected. Work speed and coordination suffer. Face time with management is reduced to a minimum, resulting in career advancement limitations.

Facing the Challenges and Overcoming the Barriers

Based on my experience at Auriga, I can identify the top six challenges for remote and distributed teams. Let’s see how we can cope with each of them.

  • Work attitude

What is the key element in a remote team? Obviously, it is the right attitude, which helps to reach goals and maintain the team spirit.

If in the same company, even the same location, we often can’t avoid the demarcation between “we/ours” and “they/theirs,” and it is at least twice as hard to handle these boundaries while working in remote teams. The biggest challenge here is that this mind-set causes collaboration to worsen over time. When things go wrong, the two ‘sides’ blame each other. People get frustrated about the other “side” not behaving the way they are “supposed” to.

To handle these challenges a leader is a must: someone who helps to “break the ice” and get communications back on track. It is not about the title (this could be Project Manager, Scrum Master, Product Owner, Technical Lead, etc.) but the sense of belonging and awareness of who is the main person you can reach in case you need help…

Sometimes the leader should not only listen to concerns and limitations while moving ahead but pause to assess the situation and even stop the team if needed. Everybody can make mistakes (including the leader) – we are all human after all – but the team must be confident that there is a person in the project who is ready to make a decision and take responsibility when the going gets rough.

At every moment, the lead should recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates, shape the environment and set the direction based on individual assessments of the engineers. In a remote or distributed team, it is often difficult to feel unity and share responsibility for results, and the team leader should break the barrier between “them” and “us.”

  • Unclear goals

The bottleneck is never the code or creativity – it is a lack of clarity. Misunderstanding is very likely to happen when you communicate with remote colleagues. That is why you should not assume things when you are not sure. Ask, specify, and re-confirm. Don’t take tasks from your manager blindly – discuss the goals, outcome, resources in place, and tools you will need and start the implementation when you’re positive you are on the same page as the product owner.

  • Communication

The communication flow is crucial for avoiding miscommunication, misunderstandings, and misalignments. In the team, I often hear that is better to have too much communication than too little. Obviously, this is true as we need to communicate more in remote and distributed teams than in collocated ones.

If you are building a new team or starting a new project, team kick-offs and sync-up meetings are crucial for its overall success. Small talk with your teammates and customers before a meeting is an absolute must, as it creates a solid foundation for trustworthy and long-term relationships. Use two-way communication and ask for feedback frequently. Don’t forget to take meeting minutes – this is a common task and especially important for remote teams. Don’t waste time on long discussions; shorter meetings are usually more productive.

  • Corporate culture

Fit offline team-building activities and social events into your schedule to get to know your colleagues better and experience corporate culture in an engaging manner. Discuss interests, hobbies, sports, and whatever inspires you. During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, for example, we always started and closed our meetings by talking about football – even though I am not a big fan.

If you are cooperating with people with different heritages, organize tips-and-hints sessions where your teammates can share various cultural aspects and their experiences. This way you can get some really important insights into how this hidden information may influence your team. I would have loved to have such training when I started to work in a distributed team! If you understand what drives people, you can obtain better results.

  • Robots or humans?

After a few years working in a remote team, you may get the feeling you are dealing with digital characters instead of human beings. When you don’t see the live team, are you 100% committed to team work? Probably not. That is why face-to-face meetings are important. Even while talking on Skype, don’t hesitate to show your face and smile and don’t underestimate body language. Be open to colleagues and customers, and you will see that this will positively impact your results. This is something that we always try to implement in Auriga’s workflow with customers. As I didn’t have such experience with my previous projects, I felt inspired and somewhat astonished to realize how camera usage builds a totally different atmosphere when talking face-to-face with teammates and clients.

  • Expertise sharing

Expertise sharing may be difficult in a collocated team, but in a remote or distributed team it is a real challenge. We at Auriga cope with this by organizing regular tech talk sessions to share knowledge and lessons learned. Document your experience, but don’t just upload files in a database – discuss what went well and what didn’t go so well with your team.

Pair programming may be good practice to start with. However, in my experience, some engineers get so used to pair programming that they never take on any other tasks. So, while it can commonly provide good support for your project (especially by introducing fresh teammates to project tasks and routines), it should not be used as an imperative daily habit. Pair programming should be implemented only in cases that will really benefit from it and help to perform project tasks faster or with better quality. The code reviews that we perform regularly improve code quality but also drive knowledge sharing. Finally, the rotation of projects and tasks allows employees to gain even more skills and expertise.

Key Takeaways

There is no single formula for success that will work for all teams. We are all unique personalities with different habits, cultural backgrounds, communication styles, and so on. Nevertheless, here are five takeaways that will definitely help remote and distributed teams to achieve a better performance and deliver great results:

  • Communicate more, but shorten your meetings
  • Try to avoid assumptions – clarify goals
  • Let all teammates feel engaged in everything going on
  • Don’t forget: you are working with human beings, not robots
  • Be transparent, open, flexible, and rotate tasks

Find a way that works for your team and inspires and motivates you to do your best!