By Sandra Van Scheppingen
While the Agile world regularly urges the need for teams to work co-located, the business reality is that having all employees in a single location is next to impossible. In modern times, many team members work distributed, be it occasionally, regularly or constantly. As an Agile team you have to find a way to deal with that. What crucial factors for international cooperation exist and what makes a distributed team work well?
Thus far in my career I have mostly been working with distributed teams on both the business as well as the IT side. At the moment of writing this blog, I am involved as an Agile Coach with a team distributed over the Netherlands, India, Ireland and the United Kingdom. While acknowledging the fact that it is most convenient to have your team co-located, my experience is that you can very well achieve results with a distributed team too. To make things work from a distance, you have to take certain facts into account. Let me talk you through them.
Assume good will
When you encounter and work with people from different cultural origin, the best thing to do is to keep an open mind. A lot of information about cultural differences can be found on the internet, as well as in books. Such inquiries are good to start off with when you are preparing to work with colleagues residing abroad.
Adopt the motto “Assume good will”
In case of doubt, best ask how someone actually intended a specific comment or action. Often it turns out intentions are way different (better!) than they were interpreted at first. Used not only at work, but in life in general it will save you – and the team – a lot of unnecessary negative emotions.
Provide constructive, fact-based feedback
Next to that, be careful when providing feedback. While the cliché states that ‘feedback is a present’, often it is not perceived that way. This is because people tend to mix emotionally and/or subjectively phrased opinions into their feedback, resulting in defensive behavior of the receiving party. Cultural differences in providing or receiving feedback, the fact that one often is not a native speaker of the common language as well as the lack of body language can result in explosive situations. Sufficient reason to be very careful, especially when the team doesn’t know each other that well yet. Building mutual credit takes some time.
How to provide feedback ?
In short, the way to provide feedback is as follows: observation – consequence- reflection – action.
Constructive, well-received feedback starts with asking if the person you would like to give feedback to is open to receiving it. If so, continue with describing the facts and their consequences in short sentences. You want the person receiving your feedback to stay with you. Then offer him or her a chance to reflect on what you just said.
- Is this behavior recognized by him/her?
- How does it make him/her feel hearing your feedback?
- Can anything be done to change the outcome of this person’s behavior (preferably let him or her come with input!)?
- Is (s)he willing to try this other behavior?
Smoothen team communication
Decide on a common language
Avoid getting lost in translation in oral or written communication :
- Decide on a common language, mandatorily used between all team members in e-mails, team sessions and official documentation. Most often team communication will be English.
- Synchronize the team’s vocabulary used when discussing content and Agile rituals. E.g. create a team glossary that is available in a central spot. Verify that all team members truly know and understand the Agile values and principles the team is using, as well as the specific Agile methodologies. If necessary, organize a training to get everyone on the same page.
Ensure access to tooling
One of the downsides of not working on one location is the lack of body language used when discussing things. Video tooling helps overcoming this bridge to some extent (e.g. Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts), but teams often lack access. Still, aim at (virtually) seeing each other as often as possible. Some colleagues of the team I am currently working with a team that has no webcam and very limited access to the videoconferencing room. Nonetheless, we agreed on seeing each other at least every retrospective. The rest of the meetings we do via Skype audio. For quick one-on-one talks we use the chat option of Skype. Work with the instruments that you have and make the most out of those.
Make information available to all
Sometimes, team members abroad are not included in official mailings. Reasons for this I have heard in the past, were e.g. that contractors have no need for this information or that these people were in fact no real part of the team. A great way to go if you are looking to demotivate your team… Involve your team actively and share as much information as possible. This means that you make sure everyone in the team can access relevant information online. Not all members in my team have central access to SharePoint or such, hence we store important information for the team, e.g. the Velocity and Burndown charts, in separate cards on the team’s Trello Board.
After all, the Agile way of working is about offering transparency. Always.
Get a proxy on-site
Having a proxy from the team abroad to work on site, is from my experience one of the differentiators creating successfully cooperating distributed teams. On the one hand, (s)he represents the colleagues abroad by speaking their language, understanding and explaining their culture to the colleagues working on-site. On the other hand, (s)he has the possibility to get to know the team and the culture on-site. (S)he can explain its peculiarities to the team abroad and help clarifying any misunderstandings. It’s even better if you are able to rotate team members, letting them work on-site and off-site for a longer period. This way your team members get to know each other in the best way possible. Rotating team members definitely has a positive impact on team velocity, as it stimulates team building as well as knowledge sharing across borders.
When this is not possible, then at least have people in your team – and yourself! – visit each other on a regular basis. Get close and personal as much as possible in every way feasible. It is worth every invested eurocent.
Invest in the retrospective session
As distributed team members usually don’t have the possibility to ‘hang out’ with each other during lunch or after work, the retrospective session*) becomes even more important for them to interact with their coworkers in another context. In a nutshell, the retro can help the team tremendously in
- Getting to know each other in a different way
- Adding to the mutual credit balance
- Helping to ‘assume good will’ in a future occasion.
In general, organizing a retrospective session involves serious preparation of the facilitator. Even more so, when there is a distributed team involved. Even if you can see each other via online video, still a substantial part of the body language is lost. You may end up with a boring, monotonous session. How do you keep people involved and engaged when they are participating from multiple locations? What to do if you cannot use actual flip-overs and sticky notes? Fortunately, there are many easy to use and free online tools available that, in combination with existing popular retrospective practices, may give the right vibe to your session.
Never underestimate the human factor in teams. It is important for teams to discuss and create Team Values: get to know each other, invest in the team’s level of trust and credit. What is important for the team members to be able to work well in their team? What kind of behavior do you expect? Which shared team values can the team derive from all of this input?
Daniel Pink’s video shows what actually motivates people at work (spoiler: it is not their salary!). Consider what you can offer team members to build on their level of autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Next to these 8 suggestions, I would really like to add one more thing. In my experience this is crucial for people in general, but even more so for team members working abroad as they often are forgotten (out of sight, out of mind): appreciation.
You cannot imagine the power of a simple, heartfelt ‘thank you’ or a ‘well done’.
If people feel appreciated, in fact: noticed, they will thrive. As you will see in the above mentioned video, motivation has nothing to do with remuneration. Your team needs sufficient freedom to choose how to do their work, to develop themselves, use their knowledge and to know ‘why’ they do their work. Combined with giving and receiving appreciation, the team will prosper. When to show appreciation? Both the review and retrospective sessions are great occasions to show each other appreciation!
I hope I have been able to inspire you on how to improve distributed teams’ cooperation. In my next blog, I will tell you about the lean & mean tools I like to use in retrospective sessions with distributed teams.
*) A retrospective is a great way to build your team, making it more mature. There is room for mutual reflection; what happened in the last sprint and why? The team agrees on what they will improve in the next iteration. It is an important Agile ritual.