Going the Distance: Five Tactics to Compensate for Distance on Distributed Teams

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Summary:

Teams communicate quickly and freely when they work in the same room. There's no time wasted walking down the hall, going to another floor, or waiting for a return email or call back. Collocation is the most effective arrangement for teams, but that's not always possible. Esther Derby shares five tactics that help teams compensate for distance.

When people communicate face-to-face, they not only hear words and inflections, but also see facial expressions. This helps each communicator understand what the other is saying and gives clues to assess when people are mad, sad, or glad. Teammates know what each other looks like; they learn about each others families.

But it's not always possible to have a team working in the same room. When people aren't co-located, you can't just hope that communication will work and the team will gel—that somehow, miraculously a group in the U.S. will hand off to a team in Hungary without missing a beat. Some teams can achieve round-the-clock attention through seamless hand offs, but it's rare and takes a lot of work.

When teams aren't collocated, they face challenges about contact, time, context, and culture. To compensate for the distance, extra effort is required to make contact with distant members, leverage phone time, adjust for time zones, and learn the differences in context and culture. Below, I've detailed five tactics that can help you compensate for distance on your distributed team.

Make Contact
When people are in the same room, or at least close by, they get to know each other. They develop relationships that go beyond work-related transactions. They may not be best friends, but there's some social element that ties them together.

You may never get to meet your distributed teammates in person, but you can make contact. Post a map that shows where your far-flung team members are located along with pictures of them. We tend to trust what we can see, and this little gesture can help build trust.

When you can, share a meal together—even if you are on different continents. Schedule a call, post the pictures, and set the table. Breaking bread together is an ancient sign of hospitality and good will. This simple gesture can help knit the team together.

Make the Most of Phone Time
There's an old adage, "children should be seen but not heard." It seems that conference calls go even further—people who aren't seen are often not heard. One team I work with has pictures of every offsite team member in stand-up frames. When they have a conference call, the frames are placed around the table to remind the people in the room of who else is on the phone. This way they are less likely to forget the people they can't see.

Until everyone on the team recognizes each other's voice, it's good practice to say your name each time you speak. Yes, it feels awkward, but it really helps the people on the other end of the phone who aren't in the room and can't see who is speaking. Be careful to have one conversation at a time; a babble of voices emitted from a small, black box is impossible for most mortals to decipher.

Appoint a facilitator for each call. Having someone monitoring the flow of conversation and participation helps the quality of conference calls immensely. Poll the people on the other end of the line when it's time to generate ideas or give input. Don't rely on them to break into the conversation.

Utilize wikis—web pages that users can edit on the fly—to build a meeting agenda and post decisions, action items, and other meeting outcomes. My team—there are six of us in six different states—uses a wiki to keep track of meeting outcomes and any other important information that each of us needs to know.

Don't use conference calls for serial status reports. In my experience, the people who aren't talking during these regularly scheduled calls also aren't listening. They've hit the mute button and are probably checking their email. Save phone time for when you need to have conversations.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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