Distributed development is a common working practice for many organisations. The various roles, and knowledge specialists involved, often mean that teams are spread across multiple locations. This could include multi-building/site, countries and timezones.
Managing this presents challenges and can be complicated further if you are working with third parties. Any project – where at least one person is a remote worker – needs careful consideration.
It’s important to remember that distributed teams are not a barrier to success. While technology plays a pivotal role it is not a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to managing projects and you need creative solutions to overcome the obvious communication issues that will arise.
Problems With Distributed Development
Having spent over 25 years working with national and international business organisations, I’ve seen the problems that projects encounter with teams working remotely. Common distribution scenarios include:
- Developers, Testers, PM or PO in separate buildings/sites;
- PM or PO onshore, Developers & Testers offshore;
- PM, PO, Developers onshore, Testers offshore;
- Work-from-home for some/each team member(s).
With these setups the two common issues that companies regularly struggle with are:
1. Lack of Interpersonal Interaction
It’s hard for teams to build working relationships with individuals they aren’t seeing, speaking with, and problem-solving together, on a daily basis. The risk of this is an increased impact of Conway’s Law.
2. Time Zone Management
Sadly, time zones don’t naturally fit together, meaning the end of one-person’s working day isn’t always aligned to the start of another team member’s. This can result in decreased productivity and create hand-offs, impacting progress.
Because of these challenges it is important to realise that doing things the same way won’t work. And you will not produce the same results compared to co-located teams if you ignore this.
Things To Avoid In Daily Stand-Ups
Daily stand-ups are difficult for distributed teams for a number of reasons. Factoring in time zones and interpersonal interactions, the methods used should be adapted to deliver an improved solution. To do this, you should avoid:
1. The Usual Questions
Going to a fall-back position of the three questions: (1) What did you do yesterday? (2) What are you doing today? (3) What is stopping you? – there is a place for these in the process but they are limiting in the effectiveness of project progress, especially with remote teams.
When it comes to stand-ups, remote teams may prefer the Kanban-style approach as a more efficient and productive tool that helps visualise the status of the development process. This will help indicate up-to-date work-in-progress, blocked work, and completed modules.
If Albert Mehrabian’s research is anything to go by, nonverbal human behaviour is 55% body language and 38% tone of voice. In a digital environment – webcams, poor audio quality, intermittent internet connections etc. – your remote team will not benefit from a video call that inhibits their ability to see what’s really happening in the room.
When dealing with remote workers you need to understand that they are at a higher risk of feeling isolated. Videoconferencing, and seeing most/a majority of their ‘colleagues’ in one place, may compound the issue and fail to engage them in a productive way.
How To Maximise Your Daily Stand-Ups With Remote Workers
Understanding the challenges involved, and things to avoid, might make you question how you should manage your remote workforce. It isn’t pragmatic to liaise with everyone individually and develop the project in this way.
Instead, you need a way to manage your daily stand-ups that deliver efficiency and works for those involved. Here’s how:
1. Treat Everyone The Same
To avoid communication issues treat everyone as an equal when it comes to joining the daily stand-up, even if members of the team are in the same building. Manage your stand-up online and get everyone joining with headsets. Using this approach forces people to be clear in their verbal explanations/reasoning.
2. Use Web Tools
To support the stand-ups use web tools that enable the meeting to be managed productively. Use tools like Jira to visualise the stages of work and Webex for screen-sharing. The combination of tools and VOIP solutions shouldn’t impact the purpose of the stand-up.
3. Take The Same Approach
Manage the Kanban ‘e-wall’ from right to left. Focus on the work, not the individual. Ask “How can we get this card moved across?”. The daily stand-up is about progress, not status updates. When you have less work-in-progress, your stand-ups should be slick and quick.
4. Emphasise Blocked Work
With a distributed team emphasising blocked work is vital. If there’s an ETA for blocked work don’t discuss it until the ETA date. If blocked work will take longer/be resolved sooner, the stand-up should identify this during the process. Don’t let the remote factor contribute to this.
5. Increase Collaboration Opportunities
Build chances for you to increase communication/collaboration between remote workers by seeing if they can help others complete their work. Look right or down on the ‘electronic card wall’ to see if freeing someone up presents an opportunity to increase participation and interaction.
6. Review Goals And Update
With everyone on the call, use the stand-up to review goals and ensure everyone is working towards them. Distributed teams can ‘silo’ themselves and it’s important to keep them on track. At the end ensure that the ‘e-wall’ is updated ahead of the next stand-up call.
It’s important that you don’t approach a distributed team mentality with the expectation of simply ‘using Skype’ (other systems are available…) and an online resource. If it was this easy then projects wouldn’t suffer through teams working across different locations.
Small changes that enable progress can make significant changes to the way that distributed teams communicate and collaborate. Delivering a successful project is not contingent on teams being co-located in one building, or one office, but it does require tightening up your practices.
Use technology to your advantage but don’t assume it is the solution. Taking a pragmatic and proactive approach to distributed team management will see successful results. Starting with your daily stand-ups is the first step to ensure this.
Ian Carroll is the Owner and Founder of Solutioneers, an industry-leading Agile software development specialist. With 30 years’ experience, Ian has worked with national and international brands, including SKY, the NHS, JCB, MoneySupermarket.com, the Co-Op, and more, delivering improved software and technology solutions that increase efficiency, bottom-line profit margins, and working processes.
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