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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Distributed Teams: Making them Work | Kinley

Distributed Teams: Making them Work has recently released a new white paper about working in distributed teams. The focus is really on Agile teams, but many of the findings apply to all sorts of project teams where people are based in different locations.
The survey showed that only 18% of respondents have their entire project team in one location. Most common is having the team split over two or three locations. A small proportion – 6% – has to deal with team members in over 10 locations. That’s a difficult job for a project manager.
The survey also found that the more work that is done by virtual teams, the more locations it involves. That might not seem like a difficult conclusion to reach: after all, if you do a good job of running a project team split over three locations, why not try four locations next time? However, we think this is symptomatic of a bigger trend. More companies are opting to use the best resources on projects, not simply the people who happen to work locally. That means finding ways to work successfully with virtual teams.

One version of the truth

One of the tips in the report is to use enterprise tools. These are great for making sure that everyone has a common understanding of the latest plan and documentation, especially for software projects. Enterprise project management tools provide a common location for project information, even if the people involved aren’t in a common location themselves. They give you one version of the truth.
This is really important for projects where things change a lot – and in fast-moving enterprises, that happens often. A central repository for project information is a valuable tool during the project, and it can also be used by the operational team when the project moves into the closure phase and is handed over into the live environment.

Other tools for distributed teams

The survey asked project managers and Agile practitioners what tools they used to manage their teams. Video conferencing was less popular than it might have been 10 years ago, with only 15% of people reporting that they use that. Low-tech solutions came out on top, with conference calls being the most common way of communicating with a distributed team – 27% of people reported using those.
What people use and what people find effective though, are different things. The report says that 60% of project team members still feel that face-to-face is the most effective way of communicating. If you can get your team together, this would be our recommendation as well. However, some of the benefit of choosing resources in different locations is because they can be cheaper. The savings you make by using cheaper resources would be off-set by higher travel costs, so that’s a decision that companies will have to make for themselves.

What time is it?

One of the other challenges of cross-continent working is the time zone. If you, like 24% of the research group, have a difference of over 9 hours, you will never be working at the same time as other members of your team.
Your tools can help. Enterprise project management tools, and other systems that don’t rely on real-time communication, can make sure that whatever time of day someone logs in, they have the most up to date data. Many tools have the option to email task or status updates, so that when you arrive at work the next morning you will have a breakdown in your inbox of exactly what has happened overnight.
When you do need to speak to project team members on the other side of the world, the report recommends learning to compromise. Someone will have to get up early or stay up late. Either way, someone on the conference call will be in their pyjamas. Swap things around as much as you can so the burden of working unsociable hours does not continually fall on one team. One of the things we’ve done in the past is have a clock in our project office showing the time of the team in the remote office, so we could always work out if they were at their desks. This can stop people ringing mobile phones in the middle of the night – although once this has happened a couple of times team members will soon learn to put their phones on silent when they go to bed!
The survey demonstrates that there are benefits to be had from running projects with distributed teams. It might be harder work for the project manager, it might need a greater focus on tools and communication, and it might need some personal sacrifices, but the results can be very positive.
You can read the report for yourself here

Distributed Teams: Making them Work | Kinley

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