Managing Distributed Teams

I attended a very good meetup about distributed teams today and I thought I’d share some takeaways. The meetup was organized by San Francisco Engineering Leadership Community , which has been putting together surprisingly good panels and audiences lately. Anyway, here are my notes from the discussion.

Distributed “water cooler” conversations

I’ve worked with distributed teams that were friends before becoming a team, with teams that became friends as they worked together, and with teams that were more like a group of independent individuals than a team. One of the speakers mentioned an interesting trend that I observed before: people on a cohesive team often dial into team calls before the start time and before the manager dials in. They use the opportunity to talk about they personal lives, the places where they live and travel, share rumors, news and opinions – in short, be social and have those “water cooler” conversations that happen spontaneously in colocated teams.

One-on-ones without the manager

Another interesting observation was that members of a cohesive distributed team have frequent 1×1 video calls or in-person meetings (when geography permits) without manager’s facilitation. By frequent, I mean more than once a week. This is also a tactic for a manager to increase teamwork – encourage your team members to talk to each other one on one when they have questions and to do that without the 3rd person (i.e. without a manager or a scrum master).

Deliberate non-verbal communication

A widely cited study by Albert Mehrabian claims that 93% of information that we communicate is non-verbal. That’s a study from 1970s and people may have gotten a lot more used to chat, Slack, HipChat, Telegram, SMS, etc since then. Still, a lot of information is communicated non-verbally. I find it important that video feeds work for everyone in every meeting. You may get by with low bandwidth and no video when everyone on the team knows each other well, but until then – make sure that video works well during all video calls.

Jason Warner from GitHub shared that he trained himself to make his facial expressions more pronounced and in sync with his verbal communication. This seems to be especially important for a manager or a tech lead, because the messages you are communicating often have a strong impact on the team. I am considering taking Paul Ekman’s training to become more proficient in reading facial expressions as well as in using them.

Mind the cultural differences

This one is hard, and especially hard when you have teams that span multiple countries. This is easier with people who have traveled the world or have worked in distributed teams for a while. It is more difficult with people who do not have a lot of multi-cultural experience. Over time, team members will learn more about each other and get used to specifics of cultural expressions. As a member or a leader of a multi-cultural team, you may need to say the same thing in several different ways to make sure that your message is clear. Leave as little as possible to interpretation and ask your team members to rephrase what you said back to you.

Shared goals and responsibilities

This may be one of the key ways a manager or a scrum master can increase team cohesiveness – make the individuals share the goals and responsibilities. At the very basic level, this means establishing a sprint goal based on what the team can do as a whole as opposed to a sum of what the individuals can do. If your team always falls back to delegating tasks to subject-matter experts – interrupt this practice and help spread the knowledge. This will inevitably lead to longer development cycles and suboptimal task allocation in the beginning, but it will increase team resiliency, improve teamwork and improve team throughput in long term.

Encourage mentorship. Let’s say a team member picks up a support case, an implementation task, or a customer escalation and realizes that someone else on the team is much better suited to handle it. In this case – do not reassign the task. Instead, have both individuals work on it together with the emphasis on the former individual learning how to handle a similar task next time.

Avoid excluding people from conversations

This is especially important for satellite teams. Frequently, a topic comes up in a conversation that affects someone who is absent at the moment. In a distributed team, you have to pause and make sure to pull in the absent person. This will slow down communication cycles, but it will improve collaboration.

Chat encourages miscommunication

This is related to how much of our communication is non-verbal. Too often, a conversation in chat may get completely out of hand, because people misread intent behind messages. All panelists seemed to agree that prolonged discussions in Slack, IRC, HipChat etc encourage passive aggressive behavior. I found it helpful to set up an ad-hoc video call whenever a discussion in text goes beyond several short messages. Another helpful tip from the panel was that whenever you talk over chat – put your ego down and assume the best. And to never assume you understand the subtext – always rephrase answers back.

Ain’t nothing like a remote worker rumor mill

If your team is communicating well, the rumors will spread like wildfire. This is a side effect of having a cohesive team. As a leader, you need to always err on the side of transparency even when you do not have enough information to make a decision. This may be very uncomfortable, but the end results are always better when managers are communicating openly and early.

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