In his 2005 Book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman sums it up pretty well. “There is just a job, and in more cases than ever before it will go to the best, smartest, most productive, or cheapest worker—wherever he or she resides.”
My first experience with offshore teams was well before that. Albeit not the best experience, it got better as we figured out how to work together. As distant economies bring the best and brightest online, the world is flatter. To succeed you need to make it a smaller world, too.
[This article was adapted from Kevin Carlson‘s original blog post.]
To best manage these challenges, follow three basic principles to deliver top results.
1. Lead With a “Single Team” View
Nothing kills productivity faster than “us and them”. Unfortunately, a lot of companies experience this. . And it exists in companies with only local resources! With offshore teams, that chasm occurs even easier.
When everyone is working together toward a common goal, you have a team. A team functions best when there is unity and everyone is accountable to the same standards.
In my work, I see this most often between business stakeholders and technology teams. It’s a lot worse when there is another “us and them” on the technology team. Fragmented teams always struggle. Teams with many fragments rarely produce what they set out to build. In the rare case such a team delivers something of value, its perceived value varies to a high degree.
To build a cohesive team across many time zones, always treat every team member as if they are in the same room. One’s physical location should not influence importance, impact, or influence.
A technique that I use to keep this in perspective? Imagine that team members on the phone are working from home that day. Sounds simple, yes, but it works.
As a leader, you set the tone. You set the example. Others will follow and those that don’t, regardless of location, may not be best for the team. Sometimes, you’ll have to make tough choices. When you do, make them early and move on.
2. Define a Single Process for team interaction
Technical projects can be difficult enough when coordinating tasks and information. Business stakeholders, product owners, user experience, developers, QA, DevOps. Everyone needs to know where things stand and what’s coming next.
Whatever method you use to manage the process, make sure it’s easy to use. The more areas in which it’s easy to go around the process, the worse things will get.
I’m a big fan of using tools to create a workflow that — at a glance — shows an accurate picture of things. But be careful, as many out-of-the-box workflows are useless. They are simplistic and a general free-for-all with no permissions or data requirements. In other words, they fool you into believing you have something useful when you don’t.
Don’t Be Shy About Workflow Stages
Take the time to define the process with as many stages as it takes. Permission transitions to specific project roles. Require data when moving items from one stage to the other. And above all, let everyone see where everything is!
On larger teams, create specialized role-based dashboards, too. For example, create a view for the QA team to see what’s in development, what’s ready for QA, what’s in QA, and so on. The combination of these dashboards allows for team-wide accountability and role specific focus.
If you find a workflow isn’t effective in a particular area, change it. Every situation is different and requires monitoring to be effective. I promise, you won’t get it right the first time. I never have.
Keep it Transparent
Avoid the temptation to deny access to dashboards. It sends a message that some information is only for some. It erodes trust, visibility, and feeds the “us and them” mentality.
Of course, there are areas where information is very sensitive and requires care. Security and compliance related issues are examples that may dictate limited access.
3. It’s All About Communication
Communication is the glue that holds a team together. Doubt it? Spend time in a company where leadership sequesters themselves. These organizations become weaker and more brittle by the day.
To make sure the glue is strong, communication must be consistent and frequent. And most important, don’t forget that great communication begins with great listening skills.
You’ll have team members that don’t understand an approach or a goal. They may flat out disagree. Any they may be right. Listen and you will be a more effective communicator because you understand the team.
Don’t Slack on Frequency
Leaders will sometimes slack off on communication frequency. It’s an easy mistake to make. Always remember that a lull in communication provides fertile ground for doubt.
If you’re in a leadership role, turn this around to understand it. Image a dedicated team member that stops contributing ideas. They’re less vocal during stand-ups. It would be natural to think something might be wrong.
That’s exactly how the team feels when leaders stop communicating.
Maximize time overlap
When working with teams across many time zones, it’s important to provide overlap. Even with a 12 hour divide, adjust working schedules to make sure there is ample discussion time.
Teams that don’t get a chance to talk are rarely the most efficient. People will act on assumption instead of understanding. In my experience, this increases churn and rework.
Use video conferencing
There’s nothing like being face-to-face, even if it’s on a screen from thousands of miles away. Body language is necessary to pick up on nuances. Phone calls hide body language. Email hides voice inflection. The less cues one team member is able to give another, the less able they are communicate well.
There are a lot of free services that enable this. If you have a larger team, paid services can provide the best experience. And, if you think you can’t afford it, wait until you see what miscommunication costs.
I recently worked with a company that had screens and cameras in team rooms. Quite often, a remote team member would connect and be “on screen” most of the day. It was like they were actually there.
A Flat, Small World
Things have changed since I entered the technology world. Global competition has made us sharper and global collaboration makes us all better. It is indeed, a flat world.
Using proven practices around team identity, process, and communication increase effectiveness. They serve to make our world smaller, which serves us all better in the end.