How to get the best results from distributed teams

Considering the technological breakthroughs we have had with the Internet and other communications technologies, it’s amazing that...
As more businesses begin to use virtual or distributed employee teams, the need for clear project goals and communication has become increasingly apparent | Dei Mosz /Shutterstock

Considering the technological breakthroughs we have had with the Internet and other communications technologies, it’s amazing that the weekday routine for most people still involves slogging through rush hour traffic to park yourself at work, put in your requisite time, then fight traffic again getting back home.

Shouldn’t we be living in more of an environmentally friendly, distributed way where we work close to where we live, whether that means working at home in our pajamas or from the local co-working hub?

Yes, face-to-face contact is important and the breakthrough ideas and cross-pollination that come from being around other people at the water cooler.  But do we really need to do this every day? Shouldn’t we be set up in more of a distributed way, leveraging global knowledge and teams more remotely?

Probably we are creatures of habit, and it’s difficult to move towards a leaner, more mobile and more distributed workforce, but it can be successfully done by companies large and small. Here are five tips for leveraging the power of distributed teams.

1. Hire the best people in the world

Some jobs require people who must live in close proximity to your business, but many job positions such as programmers, designers, bookkeepers, sales people and consultants can be sourced from a much wider pool – the world. 

Automattic, the company behind one of the most-visited sites on the web, WordPress.com, has an intentional hiring policy of finding the best candidate for the job no matter where they live and then letting the new employee work remotely. Their 270 employees are spread out over more than 138 cities and 28 countries. By literally choosing from among the best in the world rather than from the best in your neighbourhood or city, you are vastly increasing your chances of cultivating a first-rate workforce.

It’s not about saving money on office costs. It’s about being able to have the best team possible.

2. Meet regularly face-to-face

Just because you are leveraging virtual teams doesn’t mean you can never meet in person. In fact, most virtual teams work best when there has been an initial face-to-face get-together, or at least an in-person meeting at some point. For example, Automattic has an annual week-long get-together in different locations in the world for employees to brainstorm the broad strategy for the company. 

3. Have clear goals and project management processes in place

You have to be lean and agile for web development projects in which developers, administrators, the sales team and clients are located in different parts of the globe, but you still need very clear, agreed-upon approaches for communication and process. Work can be assigned and the virtual project team can jump in where necessary. Monthly releases with specific goals can be shared, so team members know the direction of the project. Operating in a distributed manner means that the best people for each role can be found worldwide. 

4. Have some regular online meeting times

Don’t just wait until there is a problem to connect.  Schedule regular phone or Skype calls or chat sessions to proactively discuss what everyone is working on. It’s easy when everyone is working remotely to get alienated and forget that you are part of a larger team, so it’s important to have regular connection times. Better yet, work together remotely in real time through collaboration tools when time zones permit.

5. Use project sites

Email will kill you if that’s your primary communications approach.  Things get missed and buried and there is no common archive that people on your project team can access. Again, Automattic is a leader in this area with their P2 blogs, an excellent WordPress theme that was built with real-time communications in mind (www.p2theme.com).

Conclusion

There is no magic pill for effective virtual project teams. Trust and respect among team members is essential just as it is in a face-to-face environment. The five tips above, though, should help if you are new to remote project teams or you are considering soon moving in this direction.

If you need more convincing, one of the best articles on the topic is a blog post by Toni Schneider, partner at True Ventures and former CEO of Automattic, “5 Reasons why your company should be distributed.”

“I know that the distributed model feels very strange to business people who are used to the traditional, centralized way of running a company,” says Schneider. “But I’m here to tell you that it works. It might even work a lot better than the traditional model for certain types of businesses. After all, distributed systems tend to work well in general (the Internet itself being a prime example).” 

Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg, in a blog post on the future of work, provides some important insights.

Even when big companies try to adopt the distributed-team model, “people still face cultural resistance from their managers and teams, or find themselves as a second-tier citizen versus those in headquarters,” Mullenweg wrote. “The same often happens in ‘remote offices.’ For it to really work it has to be part of the DNA of the company from Day 1.… Whether you call it a virtual or a distributed team, smart companies are using this approach to help their business succeed in this rapidly changing, networked world.

Cyri Jones (cyri.jones@zenlaunchpad.com), the founder of ZENPortfolios.ca and co-founder of Zen Launchpad, teaches at BCIT and Capilano University. Ivan Surjanovic, the CEO of iPower Lab, is in Capilano University’s marketing faculty. He blogs at whereispuck.com and tweets on www.twitter.com/whereispuck.

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