What every CEO, CTO, and PM needs to Know about Distributed Teams in 2022

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Olga Demidenko
Author, Geomotiv
Published: Feb 10, 2022

It takes all sorts of efforts to make the work efficient and productive when the whole world suddenly goes online. Some employers didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when the proper infrastructure and tools were needed to operate a dedicated software development team. But for other organizations, it was necessary to redefine work processes and deploy the remote-first model overnight.

But not the pandemic alone drives the demand for adjusting in-office work processes. Talent scarcity and difficulties in sourcing and retaining the right talent with relevant skills have also forced employers to seek some sort of alternative. 

Skill gaps have become critical for most businesses participating in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recent study. Roughly 74% of respondents predict having challenges filling open tech positions and recruiting skilled IT workers this year.

Apart from that, increased digitalization has enabled businesses to operate successful distributed teams regardless of where their employees live. For instance, visual technologies are likely to be present in 8 out of 10 regular meetings scheduled by Global 1000 firms, as stated by IDC

As businesses embrace the potential of a distributed workforce, many of them have recognized this model as the new normal. IDC also predicts that 70% of G2000 organizations will deploy remote or hybrid-first work models by 2023.

In this article, we are going to tell you why so many organizations prefer to work with distributed teams and describe the essence of that approach. But first, let us explain what the work model means.

What is a Distributed Team?

A distributed team comprises employees who work across different locations and don’t share the same office workspace. They can work from anywhere - in different cities, or countries, even faraway ones. But at the same time, some of the team members can work from a central location, like the company headquarters, or work remotely from their homes. 

Apart from being apart, distributed teams are characterized by their ability to interact and collaborate without face-to-face presence. Therefore, they should be able to remain accountable for their activities and foster efficient communication using modern technologies.

If you still wonder where the divide between remote and distributed teams lies, you are not alone. These models of work overlap as they involve some sort of remote collaboration between the team members. So their common feature is that some team members work in a physical location away from their colleagues. 

However, employers set up a team consisting of a mixture of office-based and remote workers with remote work. In this example, some people are in the office, and others work from home. The emphasis is that individuals don’t have to stick to a specific location to succeed in their job position.

But in a distributed team model, employers operate geographically dispersed teams to run and facilitate the delivery process and thus meet their company’s goals. For example, administrative staff can work in the headquarters office, while customer support and virtual assistance teams may be located in different time zones. As for software development teams, they can reside in local delivery centers outside technological and business hubs.

How do they function as a cohesive whole?

At first glance, distributed teams don’t fit well into the contemporary software development approach. However, as the Agile approach dominates the world of software development, it can’t but trigger the way the team functions as a whole. Its principles imply frequent face-to-face communication, daily stand-ups, and regular reflection of every team member.

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

But it is possible to compensate for the discrepancy between the way a distributed team operates and the Agile Manifesto principles. Thanks to the wide adoption of digital tools for communication and reporting, the team can mimic personal communication as closely as possible.

Distributed teams also rely heavily on an infrastructure that encompasses proper technologies and oversight, flexibility, and accountability. That helps to compensate for the physical distance between specialists successfully. Another crucial aspect is to set up the right team structure according to the distributed Agile framework like Scrum to manage the collaboration.

Distributed Agile Team Structure

It consists of:

  • Developers, who form the core of the distributed team. They report to the Scrum Master at regular daily meetings. During these check-ins, they share current updates with other team members and tell them about their plans for the day ahead. That helps to assess how the particular sprint is running and report any roadblocks along the way.
  • Scrum Master, who leads the team and handles all organizational activities. From sprint planning, daily scrum meetings, reviews, and retrospectives, the person is responsible for removing roadblocks from the Agile software development workflow.
  • Product Owner acts as a point of contact between the development team and the stakeholders. Their primary role is to define user stories that lay the groundwork for the projected software functionalities. A Product Owner also focuses on the deliverables of the work done and the software itself during sprint reviews.

When combined with the core Agile principles, such a team structure creates the most favorable conditions for making the work of distributed teams productive. This, in turn, establishes a setting where businesses can uncover the unique benefits of working with such a team. What are they?

Benefits of Building a Distributed Team

  1. Save costs. Having a distributed team in different affordable locations can save a ton of the company’s expenses. This model enables businesses to reduce costs of hiring top talent, paying for office rent at overpriced business hubs, and removing the operational load from the main office.
  2. Hire from anywhere in the world. With distributed engineering teams, companies no longer face restrictions in hiring talents living in the same geographical area. Instead, they can choose skilled developers by gaining access to a global pool of technical talent. 
  3. Improve business agility. Companies can build teams in different time zones to create a round-the-clock workflow without in-house teams working in various shifts. When distributed in other strategic locations, the team can function adequately without disruptions.
  4. Boost team’s productivity. The Codingame developer survey found that 70% of developers want to work remotely. This is no surprise as the distributed workforce model provides excellent conditions for work results, flexible schedules, and better productivity. For example, remote employees have fewer sick days and take shorter breaks around the day.
  5. Improve employee morale. When appropriately managed, distributed teams can maintain work-life balance and flexible working days. For example, after attending scheduled video calls and discussions, distributed specialists can work outside regular hours without pressure. As a result, developers can achieve more in their profession without compromising their personal life. 

Distributed teams do still have a few disadvantages rooted in the peculiarities of the work model. Let’s go through the most widespread issues associated with distributed teams and later find out how to manage and overcome them.

Drawbacks of Building a Distributed Team

  1. Time zone mismatch. Distributed teams are considered less efficient because of their allocation across multiple time zones. Indeed, it is tough to communicate and solve problems when you have just a couple of overlapping working hours.
  2. Alienation. Another issue is a sense of isolation and alienation in some employees working outside of the office. This may occur when the team is partially distributed, and in-office workers make up the most staff. For instance, they can enjoy daily interaction, free snacks in the shared office kitchen, or small talk in the hall.
  3. Reliance on technologies. Day-to-day interactions in a traditional office occur in different physical spaces. To compensate for these natural ways of communication, distributed teams have to rely on an impressive number of virtual tools. They become a shared digital place, a virtual watercooler, or a conference room that you’d otherwise use to discuss work-related and casual things.
  4. Team management. What if you need to discuss the requirements and the person responsible for that part is offline or unavailable? This and other questions may arise when there is no established procedure for managing and fixing such scenarios. The fundamentals of distributed workforce management suggest that everyone involved should understand their role and have a clear reporting hierarchy.

The distributed nature of teams that don’t share the same office or have no physical space affects how they should be managed and operated. It requires CEOs and CTOs to take a couple of steps beyond traditional in-office team management. Let’s explore them.

Guidelines on how to Manage a Successful Distributed Team

  • Unify sources of information. An efficient distributed team management starts with the organization of different sources of information in one place. There is nothing more frustrating than searching for a particular piece of information and getting to know that you are the only one without access to it. As a result, wasted time and feelings of isolation can even discourage a person from working with your company.
  • Ensure clear and consistent communication. Before setting up a distributed team, it is essential to think about how to communicate deliberately. The goal is to bring together all the people working on the project, no matter where they happen to live. For that, careful planning is required to figure out how to make every digital touchpoint an effective means of communication. 
    One good way to accomplish pre-planned goals is to diversify communication tools. Some of them require real-time communication, while others may not need an immediate reaction or response:
Asynchronous communicationSynchronous communication
Immediacy not requiredImmediacy required
Instructional video
Project management app (Jira, Trello, Asana)
Email
Documents
Video/audio call
Virtual meeting
Slack or Teams conversation
  • Agree upon the rules and benchmarks. The general rule of thumb is to ensure that distributed employees know what is expected. This might mean establishing due dates for every deliverable, first draft, or other applicable rules. In addition, you can set out the best way and time for team members to contact their team leaders or project managers. 
    The precise rules can be different for different teams, but there should be no division between on-site and distributed employees. Everyone should be treated equally no matter where they are located. That helps create a sense of belonging to the same entity and avoid work isolation and loneliness.
  • Boost engagement. Disengaged team members who have never met in person can hardly connect and understand each other. That is why it is essential to create opportunities for their connection. Regular communication with remote team members gives an idea of their mental well-being and helps to increase their work satisfaction. 
    One of the best ways to improve the team’s engagement is recognizing their achievements. For example, company leaders can organize virtual meetings and encourage every team member to join the gathering. They can thank teams, subteams, or individuals for their contributions to larger business goals during a call.
  • Trust a distributed team. Managers still need to keep track of the workforce amidst the remote settings. But it is easy to fall into the trap of invasive surveillance, such as tracking employees via web cameras or counting their mouse clicks. For the workforce, that can become quite offensive and make them frustrated about the company’s culture.
    It is necessary to be transparent and open with distributed team members and foster an atmosphere of trust before the project gets started. For example, company leaders can implement an employee monitoring system but explain that decision. Its goal might not intrude on their daily activities but to allocate a flat workload between every team member.

How we Use the Distributed Team Model at Geomotiv

What is the structure of the team?

Here at Geomotiv, we operate distributed software development teams for one of our US-based clients. It consists of mixed sub-teams that work on a single product. The distributed team includes developers and QA specialists in Eastern Europe and Latin America. The client’s in-house employees also take part in the software development process. Additionally, we operate a fully managed team on our side that consists of developers, QA specialists, and a PM.

What is the approach to development?

Together with the client’s on-site specialists, we decided to opt for the Agile approach that divides the work into two-week sprints. That enables us to cope with more tasks and build a tight-knit team despite their distributed character of work.

Is there a time zone mismatch?

All our distributed team members work in the same time zone and have sufficient overlapping hours to communicate with the client. That simplifies the workflow and lets our specialists communicate in real-time despite being apart. They have flexible schedules and can work in their preferred time frames as pre-agreed with the client.

What is unique about the distributed workflow?

We collaborate closely with the Product Owner twice a day during the stand-up meetings. The first meeting occurs in the morning when Our specialists inform the client about their plans and report any issues. Then, in the evening, the team gathers to share what they did throughout the day.

The recurrent meetings have fixed timing for every team member. Although the second call takes place outside of the regular hours, the team adjusts their timetable to make it more convenient for the client. Other everyday activities include sprint planning, backlog grooming, and retrospectives. 

It is worth noting that our distributed teams do not conduct Scrum review meetings with the client. That is because they lack in-house technical expertise. Instead, they delegate the task to their distributed development team. 

Time-boxed Scrum of Scrums meetings help to bridge the gap between sub-teams working on different components of a complex product. They help foster transparency, coordinate, and synchronize the work of multiple teams. As a result, the team can have a bigger picture of their activities and easily meet common business goals.

Summary

To sum up, a distributed team is one of the most popular collaboration options. For those who seek to reduce operating costs, access the most relevant tech skills, and remain competitive, the model comes as the best fit but with a few limitations. 

The cons of distributed teams are associated with possible risks of poor management, work loneliness, communication hurdles, and almost total reliance on modern technologies. Hopefully, with our guidelines, you will combat those issues if you choose to hire a distributed team.

Feel free to contact us. We will choose the approach which aligns with your requirements.

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