As the world becomes smaller due to more efficient communication, distributed teams are becoming quite common. If you ring a customer service line in any country, the odds are you will end up being serviced by someone in Manila. Your latest Microsoft software was most likely developed in Bangalore. I have been managing projects with teams and clients scattered in different parts of the country, and in some cases spanning multiple continents. I have been thinking about some of the challenges I face and how best to overcome them.
The biggest and most obvious challenge faced in managing distributed teams is the fact that you are not where they are. Even with all the new technologies, talking face to face remains the best form f communication. There are many forms of communications in projects – the truths, the half truths and the outright guesses. When you are managing the deliverables, you need to be on top of what is what. While this is not an insurmountable obstacle, it is a rather expensive one to mitigate. People work best with people they have known personally. They are more likely to be upfront with realities, than someone they find hard to relate with.
Working in different time zones also amplifies the problem. As an example, I work out of New Zealand and work with people in the west coast of the United States. During the southern hemisphere summer, it is reasonably workable, with abou 5 hours overlap. However, we lose a day. So we get about 20 hours during the week. In winter, during the Pacific Daylight Time, the overlap is as little as 12 hours. Our other base is in India, which starts work as we are leaving for the day.
Work cultures vary in different parts of the world. That plays a significant part in bringing a team together. New Zealand has a very relaxed working environment and an excellent work life balance. This is not to say, Kiwis are lazy by any nature. A lot of our innovation comes from this part of the world. I find Americans are much more intense with their work and put in significantly longer hours. Consequently there is always possibility of conflict if the teams perceive each other to be too pushy or too relaxed. Work cultures also vary in how people communicate bad news (or how they do not). While you do not want bad news in projects, if it does pay to get it early.
If you are indeed managing people from all the different locations, the likelihood is you are not their direct line manager. They are each likely to have their own line managers to keep happy. This in itself is not uncommon in a project scenario. Temporary assignments from operational teams is a routine occurrence. It is quite different when you are not there to ensure the story you get is the reality, rather than the party line.
You can alter your usual working hours to accommodate additional collaboration between the teams. You can utilize advanced telecommunications to give a feeling of co-location and one team culture. These are all good measures, but intermediate ones. The more the teams are isolated, your picture will be less realistic and you will struggle to enforce uniform processes across the teams. The only way to bridge that gap is to ensure regular face time.
If it s important enough to have distributed teams, it is important enough to ensure effective management.