4 reasons why distributed teams fail (and how to fix them)

4 reasons why distributed teams fail (and how to fix them)

calendar 2017-09-22 time 5 min READ Sreeram Sreenivasan

Distributed teams are more important to tech industry than many of us expected. Did you know that Automattic, the company that built WordPress, has a 100% distributed workforce? In fact, they even closing their San Francisco office because their employees never appear there.

It’s not just WordPress. Even startups such as Basecamp, Buffer, and Zapier completely rely on virtual teams to run their businesses.

Today, high-speed internet and cloud-based apps empower businesses to hire the best people. No matter where they live and work.

However, you should also be aware that if you don’t manage your distributed teams well, they can seriously damage your projects.

Here are 4 reasons why distributed teams fail, and what you can do about it:

1. Lack of mutual understanding

We tend to assume that distributed teams are nothing but geographically separated people who are basically doing the same work and have access to the same projects. However, it’s important to note that they are also separated by time zone, language, culture and other factors. These factors can cause some interesting challenges.

For example, if you schedule a meeting for Monday morning, it might still be Sunday night for your colleagues in a different place. When you celebrate holidays, your teammate might be waiting for your email approval.

issues with managing distributed teams

So make sure you’re familiar with the local environments. Your colleagues may have totally different cultural norms and style of working. Also, reach out to your company’s HR team for some suggestions.

Embrace diversity and it will be your advantage. For example, since Buffer’s team is located in different time zones, they never stop working. Even big companies like SAP use their distributed workforce to provide unique ideas and diverse perspectives on their projects.

2. Poor communication in distributed teams

Communication gap is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for distributed teams. In-person meetings allow you to correctly understand the meaning of what’s being said. Through various non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. Since distributed teams have to rely on text-based messages like email and chat, it can lead to misunderstandings.

Without non-verbal cues, you may completely miss the context and even misinterpret the message. For example, you may have made a joke in your email, but your use of sarcasm or irony may not be clear. Similarly, if your boss replies ‘yes’ to your idea, does it mean he’s excited about it? Or is he just accepting it with a hesitation?

how to manage distributed teams

Avoid using jargons, slangs and pop culture mentions in your emails. Also, keep it short and to the point. If you need to compose an elaborate email, it’s better to simply call the person or set up a virtual meeting.

Communication should be clear about the 3W’s – WHO does WHAT by WHEN.

General Electric came up with an innovative solution to communicate with their 90,000-strong global workforce.

They created a virtual classroom that enables employees to learn how to collaborate and achieve common goals, using e-learning and online quizzes. To make the training more interactive, they even created virtual breakout rooms, online polls, whiteboard sessions, games and role-playing scenarios. Each employee received feedback about their strengths & weaknesses and gained tips to improve their performance.

3. Choosing the wrong communication channel

Let’s say you have a client meeting in about 30 minutes, and you noticed an issue with your presentation that was prepared by your offshore team. What will you do? Will you email your team or call them up ASAP?

Create a simple guide that will clearly list which channel to use in every situation. Share it with everyone in your team. This will help set expectations about communication methods and build trust. For example, you may use email for serious information such as legal documents. Futuramo Tasks for tasks management. Skype for daily huddles and chats. Dropbox for brainstorming and file sharing. Phone calls for emergency situations.

distributed teams and how to communicate

As an example, Zapier uses Slack for day-to-day conversations, GitHub for code-related project management, Google Docs to store documents, Appear.in to video calls & Sunrise Calendar for scheduling meetings.

The key is to create a set of rules that helps everyone work together and be on the same page.

4. Hiring the wrong people

Hiring people to distributed teams is completely different. So, it’s not about hiring someone based only on their qualifications.

They need to be proficient with popular collaboration tools. For example, a candidate may be great at face-to-face meetings but can she/he use a virtual whiteboard to pitch an idea to your clients?

hiring right people to distributed teams

While hiring distributed team members, ensure that you interact with the candidates the same way as you will communicate with them on the job. It means conducting interviews via email, phone, video and in person. Each medium will give you an idea about a different part of their skill set. Is she/he a good listener? Does she/he ask questions? Can she/he communicate ideas clearly – via email, on phone, in a video? Does she/he understand the challenges of working in a distributed team – different time zones, culture, location? If not, she/he may not be the right fit for your team.

Conclusion

It’s important to realize that there are many organizations with awesome distributed teams. Just as some unproductive teams work together in one office. By keeping an eye on the above pitfalls, you’ll be able to spot potential team management issues upfront and take timely action. It will help you to build a high-performance distributed team that is productive and accomplishes great things together.


About the author:

For more than 8 years, Sreeram Sreenivasan has worked with various Fortune 500 Companies in areas of Business Intelligence, Sales & Marketing Strategy. He regularly writes at Fedingo about a wide range of business growth & marketing topics. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Ubiq BI, a cloud-based BI Platform for SMBs & Enterprises.

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