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


Adjust for Time Zones
Most of the time, I can keep track of time zones within my own country. I have a harder time minding time zones across the world. Along with your map, try posting inexpensive clocks that show what time it is where each group is located. The clocks remind us that the end of our day may be the beginning of someone else's.

Make every effort to schedule meetings in the slice of time that overlaps "normal office hours" for as many people on the team as feasible. When there is no overlap, don't always expect the "other" team to get up early or stay up late. Be willing to trade off for the extra hours of work.

Understand Context
Even if you work for the same company in different locations, you work in different organizations. Learn as much as you can about your teammates' work world. What is the organizational structure? Don't assume it's just like yours, even in the same division. What are the physical arrangements? Having a picture of your teammates' physical surroundings—their cubes, floor, and building—is another way to make distant people more real.

Look for commonalities between your organization and each teammate's organization. They may share similar values, or they may not. Knowing where there is overlap and where there isn't helps you manage expectations.

Be Sensitive to Culture
Some cultural differences are readily apparent, while others are subtle. Watch out for words or expressions that mean one thing in your language and something different in another's culture.

A Canadian friend of mine tells a story about how he inadvertently offended half his team by offering a virtual toast—"Cin cin!"—after a successful code release. His toast had a completely different meaning in Japanese—one that I can't write in this column.

Making a distributed team work takes extra effort, but putting all these tactics to use can help any team traverse distance. Differences in context, culture, and organizations are magnified when there isn't day-to-day contact to build familiarity. Compensate for the challenges by applying these and other practices to help your distributed team gel.

Now that I've shared some tools and techniques that have worked for me, what would you add to my list? Email me or post your comments below.

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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