• Chris Davies

Maximising teamwork in distributed teams

Photo by Anthony Brolin on Unsplash

Since the Agile Manifesto first advocated “face-to-face conversations” and “business people and developers… work[ing] together daily”, there has been a gradual movement in which more and more teams are being distributed across different locations — the opposite of what the authors of the manifesto argued for.

In 2012, VersionOne’s annual State of Agile Survey reported that 35% of respondents said they had distributed teams. Three years later, more than 80% had at least some distributed teams using agile practices. The latest report indicates that:

78% of respondents said their organisation practices agile with team members distributed (not co-located). 68% of respondents said their organisation practices agile with multiple co-located teams, collaborating across geographic boundaries.”

Clearly, this pattern has become commonplace. In an interview, Lee Cunningham of Collabnet spoke last year about this current reality of distributed teams:

I think it reflects the reality that so many people today work not only in geographically-distributed corporate locations, but that many people work from home or work while traveling. In other words, it’s just a fact that everybody’s not in the same room at the same time. So if agile’s important to us, we’ve got to figure out how make that work”

Common sense tells us that for a team to function well, they should be able to communicate well. Katzenbach and Smith wrote that a team is a small group of individuals with a common purpose, complementary skill sets and shared working practices.

Such a team being isolated from each other severely reduces their ability to communicate with one another. And communication is possibly the critical factor that distinguishes a collection of individuals from a high-performing team.

Having some team members working remotely can also increase stress and feelings of isolation.

I have seen teams reduce their communication ‘bandwidth’ to a single daily meeting and the occasional email. The exchange of information and ideas is slower, questions get answered only when the recipient gets around to reading their emails, and even then meaning is also often lost or misinterpreted. I have seen organisations throw up barrier after barrier to communication in the name of ‘security’, blocking the use of communication and collaboration tools that other organisations thrive on.

In this environment, I have seen teams become accustomed to slow progress, choosing to avoid conversations because they are more difficult, preferring to simply do their own job rather than challenge and debate.

Delays are another significant result, incurring a cost to the organisation. When a problem affecting customers or frontline staff does not get resolved quickly, there is an impact. When new features are slow to come to market, there is a potential loss of revenue. When people cannot speak to one another without booking a meeting in their always-fully-booked calendar, information and decisions travel very slowly.

However, I have also seen teams utilise the latest technology to maximise their available communication ‘bandwidth’ through the day while some of them work from the office and some from home, with no noticeable drop in productivity. In fact, there was evidence to suggest that motivated people working from home were, hour-for-hour, just as productive as their desk-bound colleagues, but they worked longer hours, utilising the time others spent commuting.

There is no doubt that this distributed environment presents a challenge for teams and for the organisations looking to improve their ways of working and their performance under these constraints. But it need not be the end of collaboration nor simply the price we pay for cheaper office space and staff costs.

teams that maximise their communication bandwidth, even when not physically co-located, can do a lot to bridge the performance gap

Organisations that take a sensible and balanced approach to information security, while allowing teams to maximise their communication bandwidth, even when not physically co-located, can do a lot to bridge the performance gap. It requires that different divisions of the organisation get together to understand each others viewpoints, objectives and needs, and co-create policies that achieve both security and communication objectives.

It requires that teams have clear policies and boundaries for their autonomy, so that they have a certain amount of freedom to explore and use new tools and technologies to maximise their performance in ways that still work within the organisation’s guidelines.

And yes, this too requires collaboration — something many organisations are not very good at. Different parts of the organisation have their own specific objectives that aren’t necessarily compatible, and when these come into conflict, typically one part ‘wins’ and the other ‘loses’. This is not optimal for the organisation as a whole. So what is the solution?

Collaboration and communication do not always require people to be in the same physical space together, although that is undoubtedly best.

What is absolutely necessary is that people are prepared to listen to each other, understand each other, and align their needs and objectives to reach a solution that works for both of them.

This is where Organisational Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) can be very useful. In this situation, the coach works at two levels -

At the leadership level, creating an (emotional) environment of safety, to draw out the different points of view and the shared objectives, and generate mutual understanding and empathy. Through this work, the problem moves from something that comes between people to something that is separate from them, that they come together to tackle and resolve.

At the individual team level to bring together individuals with disparate needs and preferences, generate a one-team culture and ensure everyone has their say in co-creating an agreement on practices and behaviours that works for everyone. I see teams with one leader who makes all the decisions, leading to quiet resentment and demotivation, and others that are more democratic but find it difficult to reach decisions. Here again, the ORSC coach can help facilitate collective decision-making and provide teams with tools to continue to do so when the coach is not around.

Even in a distributed environment, it is possible to ensure teams reach or maintain high performance standards and reduce the stress and isolation they may feel, but the organisation must support them with the tools to do so — both technological and inter-personal.

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