5 Non-Negotiables Of Making Distributed Teams Work

14/07/2016 2:12 PM IST | Updated 16/07/2016 1:08 AM IST
John Lamb

The way businesses operate is constantly changing. The traditional approach of getting your team into the office from nine to five each day is giving way to a new model: distributed delivery. Organizations across the world are increasingly implementing a few--or several--teams distributed over geographies to maximize output with limited resources. As a result, conventional team structures have undergone a disruption. Companies have shifted their software to the cloud, as well as their files and their communications, and it's a similar transformation for talent through distributed teams.

In a distributed delivery model, on-site and remote employees join forces to achieve compliance, shorten project timelines, and improve the efficiency of implementations. Talent is maintained in multiple locations globally, working across time, space and organizational boundaries -- as opposed to a traditional team, where everyone comes into the office at the same time and is physically located in the same place. With the ever increasing capability of technology it is possible now to connect people and capabilities in different places to deliver services. Distributed teams can work on projects around the clock, and strong talent can be found in less competitive markets. Not to mention, talent is easily retained since undesired relocations are not necessary.

Relying on process and technology to make distributed teams work is like relying on good sports gear to make a winning soccer team.

But the benefits of distributed teams aren't without some trade-offs. This trend started two decades back and the underlying technology and processes have become more sophisticated with time. What a lot of organizations miss is that it's important to recognize and ensure that the human ecosystem at play is thriving. Relying on process and technology to make distributed teams work is like relying on good sports gear to make a winning soccer team. A number of organizations get the distribution structure wrong.

In my experience of building winning teams over the years, here are a few points worth focusing on

1) Acknowledge that making distributed teams work is different and harder

Before setting a distributed team, you must acknowledge that it is different and difficult. Therefore, you have to address it more specifically and you have to communicate more because when people are distributed in different time zones then you don't have the same sense of what's going on around you. For example, when you are sitting next to the client and having a conversation, there's clarity built into the situation; the purpose is clear. However, if you are not in the room and the purpose is being communicated to you, you kind of don't understand it so clearly.

2) Create a shared context

Providing the directional context in which teams operate is critical. There is a need to ensure that people feel included and have a shared context of the larger scheme of things. Communication is the key to getting everyone on the same page – it's a crucial part of the success of any distributed team. Sometimes, you will have to over-communicate; distributed work is very valuable but it requires a lot of effort. It comes at a cost- of focused investment in time and effort, of building relationships in person.

Communication is the key to getting everyone on the same page – it's a crucial part of the success of any distributed team.

3) A common value system of the organization

For any distributed team, it is the fabric of an organization's culture that binds it all together. Since there is no physical space to connect, distributed teams must be bound by a strong sense of common purpose. People have to ride in the same metaphorical boat to move forward. This makes it much easier to come together and respect each other's sense of judgment. These commonalities will have to be built through human connections and trust.

4) Respect for expertise

The whole reason behind distributing teams is that we are trying to get the best of talent from everywhere possible. But if you are not giving everybody a seat on the table where they have the ability to directly contribute then there is no point of having such expertise on board. Expertise will exist in different pockets at potentially different locations and you have to allow them to serve. Everyone must feel that they have a direct ability to contribute and create impact to the client rather than structuring an extremely layered process.

5) Commonly understood tools and methodology

Most importantly, the right communication tools and methodologies are vital for distributed teams, as shared technology becomes its shared space. We cannot take away the importance of the tools and the methodologies because, obviously, ways of working and operational clarity is absolutely required. We need tools that allow team members to connect more effortlessly and seamlessly across geographies.

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