HR, Thought Leaders

Tips for Fostering Effective Communication in Distributed Teams

October 8, 2019

by Yuri Kurat

CEO, New Normal

Untapped potential can be found in working through distributed teams. Companies need to conquer one challenge first: fostering the communication to make everything run efficiently.

When finding outside resources for development and other services, a distributed team may work well with your company if communication is streamlined. Through reviewing the benefits of these relationship and offering practical advice, there will be key points that will help with their implementation.

Tricks for Facilitating Effective Communication with Outsourced Teams

  1. Getting everyone on the same page.
  2. Finding out that no one is secondary.
  3. Assigning work using three key strategies.
  4. Define communication flows
  5. Rule your software

Why Do Distributed Teams Fail?

A distributed team have members scattered across different locations and time zones. Tech innovations have made it exponentially easier for remote team members to collaborate, resulting in the number of companies electing to work with distributed teams increasing every year.

The rationale behind such a setup is that you can optimize the efficiency of your company by using teams with various skill sets, on demand. In an agency setting, for example, if you can leverage affiliated companies and outside vendors to work on consulting projects, you can offer a wider range of services to your clients and increase your profitability.

Out in the field, though, only 29% of software projects involving distributed and remote teams succeed. Why is this the case? It’s all in how you arrange communication. Below, I’ll share the formula and takeaways work for my business.

Key takeaways:

  • No one team possesses all of the skills necessary for building a successful product
  • Poor communication is at the root of all failure
  • Successful roadmap planning should always include remote teams

Following the above guidelines are the prime starting points for having a successful distributed environment. Through these takeaways, business owners can expand their processes.

Getting Everyone on The Same Page

Context is powerful. Often, though, it’s only the managers who understand the entire project, while the rest of the team is only given information that seems relevant to them. Developers get technical specifications, legal teams get information on the use of data and messaging, and marketing gets information pertaining to distribution.

Effective collaboration isn’t a spy game, where everyone gets only a piece of the puzzle. We are not helping anyone by limiting their exposure to information or ongoing discussions. For everyone to get and stay on the same page, the whole team needs to know the entire context of a project.

Legal outsourcing teams need to know about how the project will be implemented technically, marketing needs to know legal strategy, and developers need to know the content approach. It may seem superfluous and burdensome, but it makes a lot of practical sense: project members will make thousands of small decisions in the course of work. Knowing the full picture will ensure they make the right ones.

Before the kick-off meeting with the entire team, we create a document called a Project Charter. This sets up the context of the project and is required reading for all team members.

At the meeting itself, the project manager or product owner will talk about the product in general anecdotal terms: how the idea came about, what we are trying to achieve, and how we measure success. The kick-off meeting should give everyone enough information to come up with concrete specifications and plans for their work:

project charter graphic

A project lead should allow for conversation to happen at this meeting. Let people ask questions, throw ideas around, and restate crucial points. While it’s tempting to start talking about project logistics and scope of work as soon as possible, make sure you let the context sink in first.

Finding Out No One is Secondary

An unintended consequence of working with distributed teams is that remote teams get left out of conversations and important decisions and tend to be assigned “leftover” work from the main office. This is destructive to the morale of the remote teams and is something you should monitor periodically.

There are measures you can take to create an atmosphere where each person is heard and is aware that their opinion matters. It’s all in intentional planning.

Assigning Work Using Three Key Strategies

Assigning work takes intentional and thoughtful strategy.

  1. Agency. The work a remote team is assigned has to be significant: it must impact the outcome of the project. Each team should have the ability to influence the scope and schedule at the planning stage.
  2. Autonomy. Each team must feel confident that project leaders trust them to make their own decisions locally, such as picking their own approach to problem-solving, choosing the methodology to deliver results, and finding an appropriate work pace.
  3. Cyclicity. The strategy of cyclicity for distributed teams is:
  • Estimate and assign work at the beginning of a cycle
  • Let each team concentrate on the work for the duration of the sprint
  • Pull the results together at the end
  • Present results for the whole team

Cyclicity is part of the Agile methodology, but even if your company uses a waterfall model, a steady, universal pace for every team is a must.

Remember: teams should work independently during the sprint. Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, believes that physical distance from an office or another team could actually boost efficiency because it cuts down on the amount of distraction in the work environment.

One vivid example of these principles in action is the project we worked on building a gaming platform for an airline. The timeline was tight, so we organized two concurrent cycles: one for working on core features and another for the feedback loop.

feedback loop example

Each of the cycles had teams working autonomously on delivering the next iteration, with the feedback being shorter—one week versus two weeks for the feature loop. This setup allowed us to keep developing at a fast pace while efficiently incorporating feedback from our partners.

Define Communication Flows

  1. Communicate in abundance. Discuss various topics with the remote team and provide lots of details. Don’t hesitate if some team members may have learned this information earlier—even seemingly irrelevant information helps everyone understand the story behind the project and decide upon each action more accurately.
  2. Establish communication flows. How does a question get posted and answered? How is a bug report submitted and handled? These are about managing expectations: team members must be informed what to do if they have a question, and know when and from whom to expect answers.

At New Normal, we don’t email the team with each question we have. Instead, we send one document before the end of the work containing all accumulated agenda items:

  • What happened yesterday that needs the attention of a remote team?
  • What is anticipated today, and how do we mitigate it?
  • What issues are we running into?

Those basic questions can go into specific details and help us compile a useful letter.

Rule Your Software

Communication software is widely available and affordable, but ensure it serves your process, not the other way around. It would be a mistake to run the tools in their default configuration because they will soon become ineffective this way.

First, create a communication flow and then configure the software to support your strategy. I recommend setting up several types of software for the distributed environment, like these tools below:

software tools

Tools like Skype and Zoom can be used for synchronous communication, while Gmail and Basecamp are for asynchronous communication. Jira and Asana are popular project management software and OfficeTime and Toggl are great for tracking time. Zeplin, InVision, and various Google tools are useful for document management.

Using Distributed Teams to Your Company’s Advantage

Working in a distributed team environment can give your company a competitive edge in today’s marketplace. Taking your time and establishing good working relationships are ways to start. Following guidelines through setting up clear communication and dividing work can manage the workflow and encourage creativity and independence. This strategy will pay off for your business in a significant way.

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