Over the last two decades, I've seen outsourced development come and go. During the late 1990's and early 2000's, many companies looked to outsourcing technical services to drive down costs by finding highly-skilled talent at a fraction of the cost. As it turns out, people dramatically underestimated the complexities of managing distributed teams at that point in time, and these complexities led to inefficiencies, quality issues, and schedule delays.
Over the last decade, however, distributed teams have seen a resurgence. Not in hopes of financial savings, but rather to access unique and hard-to-find talent such as technology, design, and data analytics.
Having been a team coach during much of that time period, I've seen many of these distributed teams struggle, but I've also witnessed many of these teams excel, too. The best ones do not achieve this success by overcoming their challenges, rather, they turn their challenges into advantages. If you're on a distributed team or your company is building a distributed team, here are a few key considerations to keep in mind.
1. Create multi-channel meeting environments
Technology has evolved in so many ways. One of the most useful advances has been in the development of collaborative documents and video streams. I encourage my distributed teams to have two screens on during our meetings. One with the video feed and one for a collaborative document. Sharing a screen for these two functions limits interaction. Instead, fire up an online document and let everyone type at the same time while still being able to look everyone in the eye.
2. Formalize informal conversation
One of the biggest things distributed teams miss is the water cooler banter and chit-chat before a meeting starts. For my distributed teams, this is built into the meeting agenda. We spend 5-10 minutes at the start of each meeting with a conversational opener that has nothing to do with the meeting topic. Pick a question that gets people talking and learning about each other before you switch into work mode.
3. Leverage "always-on" technology
Technology and connections are so ubiquitous now that I suggest teams ditch the scheduled video call and move to always-on devices. Having a tablet next to you with a continuous video stream takes some getting used to. However, it's great (and worth it!) when you want to have a short conversation to ask a question. I've seen people spin their wheels for hours because they didn't pick up the phone to ask a simple question.
4. DJ rather than facilitate
Facilitation skills are key for distributed teams. I make sure everyone is trained as a facilitator. But I like to take it one step further. I suggest to whoever is running the meeting that he or she DJ the experience. This usually involves music and rituals at the start and stop of the meeting; this could even include cheers, chants, and call-and-repeats that create energy and focus. I've been in more than one meeting that has had a dance party at some point.
5. Master asynchrony thinking
The most advanced distributed teams I've worked with have mastered asynchronous thinking. Whereas co-located teams thrive on gathering in a meeting room to hash out ideas in heated, often quick-paced debate, well-distributed teams evolve ideas and build concepts over time using different communication channels. To use the Daniel Kahneman term, distributed teams are better at slow thinking, which is a much better mode to be in for finding solutions to complicated, multifaceted problems.
While co-located teams have many advantages, the fact is they are not always possible. Distributed teams are here to stay and will most likely become even more popular has technology continues to develop. And while it's no secret that distributed teams create some unique challenges, following these suggestions can help turn them from a liability into an asset.