Managing dispersed teams in software projects
The development of modern technologies, globalisation and increasing difficulties in finding the right “local” employees to join the ranks of more and more companies make the number of projects carried out by the so-called dispersed teams, remote teams or hybrid teams grow every year. I asked Aleksandra Harnasz, a leader who knows the in(s) and out(s) of managing such teams, to share her experience.
To quote Lamson Consulting: According to a recent study published by Upwork.com; globalization, skill specialization, and agile team models will change the workforce in the next ten years. The second annual Future Workforce Report found that 63 percent of companies have remote workers but more than half – 57 percent – lack the policies to support them.
What kind of problems do you face as a dispersed team leader and how do you deal with them?
Aleksandra Harnasz: I would refer to quite basic issues or policies, because they are the ones that most determine the quality of work perceived. First of all, managing such a team or working within such a team in general is certainly a communication challenge – how to communicate, how it’s supposed to be organised.
In the software projects in Future Processing we operate within scrum framework, there is a lot of contact as such. Every day we have stand-ups, during which we update one another on what has been completed, what hasn’t, who is stuck and where, who has problems and of what kind. We see the client for whom we are running the project every 2 weeks: the whole team then presents what they have done and what they haven’t done and together we plan the work for the next 14 days. This is really a lot – to hear each other every day. Frequent communication can eliminate the discomfort of physical distraction, I would say that if properly planned, it can even eliminate the “distance factor”.
In the above-mentioned day-to-day communication we use standard solutions such as Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack or just mobile phones to make the call – it is important to ensure good quality of the call, because there is nothing more frustrating than crackling noises, not being able to hear. These are small details that are worth taking care of, because thanks to a good quality of connection you can achieve the effect of closeness, lead to a situation where you no longer feel any difference whether this someone is standing next to me or talking from the other part of the globe.
I also make sure that these virtual meetings we have together are untouchable, non-transferable, always on the same days, at fixed times. They should be arranged in a clear and permanent scheme, the quality of the connection should be taken care of, conference rooms should be reserved, a tool available for everyone should be chosen – everyone must know how to join the teleconference. For me it has always built up a regularity, a sense of stability, and this work then becomes equally organized for everyone.
In your opinion, using technology can ensure effective communication and help you avoid problems with it?
AH: It’s not just about technology. What I find interesting in the context of distributed teams is a sort of contact deficit – and each side is trying to reduce that deficit. I would actually say that you can even expect the remote team to take much more care and contact and make better use of the limited time we spend together. This is something that often happens with remote teams – the team sees the need to think about the quality of communication, so they pay more attention to it, they are more active, they do not evade communication.
As far as polices are concerned, what else should be standardized at the launch of a dispersed team?
AH: Surely the important thing to take care of, such a policy, is a clear and transparent system of reporting work. Members of dispersed teams often have such a fear that if other team members are on the other end of skype, then maybe they are just lying there and watching Netflix. It’s something that comes to everyone’s mind that if the boss doesn’t see the work with his/her own eyes, doesn’t control the employee, he/she doesn’t know if they are actually working. Here, one of the tools that always works well for me is a clear, transparent system, available to every team member in every location – it can even be a simple Excel or some more dedicated reporting system.
How do you deal with a situation where someone hasn’t filled out such a sheet?
AH: I send an email to everyone, thank those who have filled it out, and I ask those who haven’t yet done so to catch up. And in such a system, I transparently share everyone’s working time – everyone knows who has worked on how much and what. This is common knowledge, available to everyone – after some time in the team a habit is developed: “ok I do this, and that man does that” and the initial internal concerns are settled.
There is one more issue that I think needs to be considered in depth. I’ve had teams I never met personally in my life. We couldn’t quite sense each other as people – in a leader’s job managing this human side is also very important. In a dispersed team it sometimes happens, especially in the case of people who are very secretive, that there are assurances from the employees that everything is in the best possible order, that they are coping with everything. And although you can watch how many vacations a person takes, how often they get sick, how they get on, how productive they are, you don’t see the person’s face, you don’t know if they toss their backpack in the morning, if they smile, if something is bothering them, you don’t have a chance to get any of the non-verbal signals – the leader is deprived of that knowledge.
Do you have any tactics to take care of this area, to elicit such knowledge?
AH: I always say that unfortunately not everyone is cut out to be a remote employee. In the process of recruiting members of such a team, special attention should be focused on people with high interpersonal skills, who are aware of the need to be open and willing to talk about problems. Otherwise if you don’t say something, it won’t exist and in spite of his/her sincere intention, a leader without proactivity on the part of the employee has no chance to take care of this human side, then depersonalization of the relationship will occur. This is a gap resulting from the fact that we do not see each other every day and this risk should be born in mind.
How to build trust in a dispersed software team?
AH: Trust is the spice of remote teams! In Poland, we have a proverb which says that trust must be earned, although my experience puts its legitimacy a little bit in doubt 😉.
In a dispersed team, you can’t see what the other person is doing. You can only account for the results of your work, as you know dispersed teams are task teams: you work on a specific task, a registered execution time.
On the other hand, I have observed an amazing thing: very often the mere fact that we start to work remotely and account for the effects of our work puts unspoken pressure on us to trust each other. The lack of physical contact creates a void that demands to be filled.The lack of physical contact creates a void that demands to be filled. Click To Tweet
Thoughts keep racing in your head: “if nobody is looking at me, how can I justify my hours of work? I have to prove my occupancy, my efficiency” – again: there is a greater desire to give the other person the feeling that I can be relied upon. Here, you have to strive for this trust much more, you have to put out a little bit more so that someone can see it, hear it, you have to make your own proactive contribution so that you will be seen. And since everyone makes this effort to satisfy also their own psychological needs, trust becomes a default element in dispersed teams. When we start working on a remote project, the mechanism of social contract known from management psychology is activated – the lack of direct contact makes these people want to be more trustworthy, it becomes one of the important individual goals. I have not observed this phenomenon on such a scale in projects where all employees work in one location. We do much more because of the discomfort caused by not seeing each other.The lack of direct contact makes these people want to be more trustworthy, it becomes one of the important individual goals. Click To Tweet
Finally, the question is: does working in a dispersed team offer any added value?
AH: Working in a distributed team develops and builds new competences in people – it improves communication skills, people stop being blocked or feeling the stress of participating in calls or teleconferences. They also develop the ability to present their thoughts in a clear and precise way – during teleconferences or skype-calls you often can’t gesture, you have to do without “vision”. I have also noticed that remote teams are usually more independent, more disciplined and more committed.
See the previous post: Mission: to recruit programmers
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