Distributed teams – we answer 7 questions you always wanted to ask

„So, I hear you would like to work remotely.” said Peter Horsten, managing director at Goyello. It was a year ago at our first meeting. We were discussing the terms and conditions of our prospective cooperation. I was a freelance copywriter then, working remotely and doing projects for several clients. I was getting tasks via e-mail and sending back ready texts also via email. From time to time I used to leave my home office to meet other people working on the same project. We often talked on Skype or wrote messages on Facebook. I didn’t know then that the phenomenon I was part of had a name: distributed team.

More and more companies opt for distributed, or virtual, teams these days, which is mainly a requirement of our time. Companies go global. They win global clients. In many cases this requires remote work.

Thanks to modern communication tools companies don’t have to limit their recruitment programs to their nearest surroundings and the local job market. So not only can they look for global clients. They can also hire specialists anywhere in the world. In addition to that, the characteristics of many industries, particularly the ones connected with new technologies, make it possible to work remotely. There is no need to commute to your employer’s office every morning.

Today I know so much more about distributed teams than I used to know a year ago. In this post I gathered the most important and most interesting facts about this phenomenon. If you are going to organise or join such a team – here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions.

What is a distributed team?
You think „distributed team” and see a bunch of freelance startupers working on a project till 3 a.m., each of them in their own house? Or perhaps you imagine those same freelancers sitting with their MacBooks in a trendy cafe? They may be members of a distributed team, indeed. However, a virtual team does not have to consist of freelance specialists.

A distributed team is a group of people working on a common project and towards a common goal but not always in a common office. They can be scattered around a city, country, continent. Even around the world. Their form of employment is not important here. What counts is that they collaborate in an online work environment without meeting in one office every day.

A virtual team can also be a group of people working at the office and their colleagues working remotely – from a client’s office in the same country or abroad, form the company’s branch, from home or from a coworking centre. They can work freelance or be permanent employees who don’t come to the office on a regular basis. An example? There you go: Goyello headquarters are located in Gdańsk. We also have an office in Koszalin. Together with colleagues from Gdańsk our developers from Koszalin take part in projects for international clients.

That’s right – there also are distributed teams built of people employed by the company providing a product or service and its client’s representatives. They work together on a common project, each team in their own office. At Goyello we also work in this way, e.g. on a project for one of our clients from the UK.

Sometimes the whole team is scattered across the world. Literally. A company can consist of people based in different cities, countries and even on different continents. Despite that they are still able to achieve goals for the company they run together. That is how for example Buffer, an American social media marketing company, operates.

Does it mean that members of a distributed team can work whenever it is convenient for them?
Well, not really. A remote work does not mean you can work till 3 a.m. and then sleep till noon because that is how you prefer to arrange your tasks.

You have to remember that members of a distributed team work towards a common goal. Very often your colleagues need you to complete your tasks to be able to start theirs or continue your work. So you can finish at 3 a.m. on condition that you have discussed your deadline with the rest of the team and the outcome of your work is supposed to be available for them the next morning.

Besides, in Agile teams like ours, working in accordance with SCRUM, there are rules and principles that organise your time and workflow. Deadlines are set within the team and they simply must be met. That is the reason why establishing effective communication is a key objective in distributed teams.

Yes, exactly – how do people communicate within distributed teams?
It can be quite a challenge, indeed. It is however possible to establish good communication even in virtual teams.
Messengers such as Skype, Lync and Google Hangout make it possible to communicate in real time. At Goyello every team member has their own business account on Skype and Lync. We use it to communicate with other people at our Gdańsk office, with the colleagues in Koszalin as well as with people working remotely and our clients.

People working as part of distributed teams at Goyello confirm that the messengers are useful and very often come in handy. They emphasise that it is much easier to call or chat with someone on Skype, briefly discuss a topic and have done with it within minutes. In contrast, exchanging emails usually takes ages.

In the project for the client from the UK I mentioned above cameras have been installed in both offices – ours and the client’s, which lets both teams see each other as if they work in one room. As our colleagues from the team say, the solution helps a lot. Despite being based in two different locations, they don’t feel that separated. Conversely, they feel united.

Online project and time management tools support the work of distributed teams. At Goyello we use, among others, Redmine which enables you to assign tasks, make estimates and communicate with other people involved in a task or a project. We also use Trello, a tool that helps you visualise your work as well as track progress.

Experienced distributed team members state that very often communication in such teams is much more effective that in traditional ones. It is due to the fact that certain information must be exchanged in a given time and place with the use of given tools. That requires some extra effort.

Despite that however, one of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto says that a face-to-face conversation is the most effective way to communicate within a team. That is why, in spite of the possibilities provided by new technologies, a team working on a common project should actually meet from time to time. When we are about to kick off a project at Goyello, we set up a meeting with a client first. We invite them to our office to enable them to meet the team and to discuss the most important matters.

Regular strategic meetings are then held, depending on the project, once a year or once every quarter, at the client’s office or here in Gdańsk. Apart from business talks, an important part of such visits are less formal after-hour meetings. They help build the team spirit and introduce a friendly atmosphere.

Do people working in distributed teams encounter any obstacles in communication?
Of course they do. That’s inevitable. The necessity of using a foreign language may sometimes be a challenge. If members of a team come from several different countries, they usually use English to communicate in the project. However, the level of English may vary among the project participants. Funny or not so funny misunderstandings may happen as a result.

One of our .NET developers recalls a situation when a British client wanted to praise our team for the excellent outcome of the sprint. He said “Good stuff!” Some members of the Polish team were pretty convinced he was commenting on… smoking pot. No matter whether it matched the situation or not. 😉

People working in distributed teams emphasise though that it is much easier for them to use English when it is a foreign language for everyone in the project. They do their best to express their thought in a clear way then. They also make an effort to understand their colleagues or clients.

Another problem you may come across when working in distributed teams are time zones. Team members can be scattered across various, often remote locations in different time zones. If one part of a team is based in Poland and the other in Sydney, Australia, the time difference is 10 hours. So when the Aussies start their work at 9.00, in Poland it is still late evening on the previous day. Arranging a SCRUM or a Skype call can be quite a challenge then.

And what about cultural differences?
Another thing you have to be aware of is that distributed teams often consist of people coming from various cultures. In such a case it is really hard to avoid differences in attitudes towards work or authority. The Americans are known for their open attitude, enthusiasm and willingness to shorten the distance. Indian people tend to say “Yes” even if they don’t mean they agree or they are going to complete a task they were assigned. Some nationalities will never say “No” to their boss, even if they know they will not be able to do what they were asked.

Such problems usually occur at the beginning of a cooperation. When team members get to better know each other, they learn how to read one another’s behaviour and they are able to predict what situations may result in misunderstandings. If they try to avoid them, their future work and communication will be uninterrupted, that’s for sure.

What influence do people coming from different parts of the world have on the quality of the project?
Today we are much less attached to one place than we used to be in the past. Moving places due to new work opportunities is what many of us do these days. Sometimes, however, you don’t want to or are not able to move. In addition, there are industries like design, software development, copywriting or translation that don’t require your daily presence at the office. You can work from wherever you want.

So the advantage of distributed teams is that they give employers access to talented and experienced specialists worldwide. And the other way round – professionals can cooperate with companies located anywhere in the world.

I used to work in a project in which we needed native speakers of English and experts in biology, chemistry and physics at the same time. They were nowhere to be found in Poland. Finally, we found them in the UK. They did really well! I guess we wouldn’t make it without them and the quality of the final product would not be that great.

Can members of distributed teams be really productive?
The fact that you don’t have a direct and everyday contact with your manager and/or the team and flexible working hours may encourage a somewhat relaxed attitude to work. That is when SCRUM comes in handy in teams like ours. You can also look for some proven online support. These tools for better time management, attention and focus will help you keep your work on the track and avoid wasting time on distractors.

Members of virtual teams sometimes complain about that peculiar feeling of being isolated from other people. When I was a freelancer working from home, that was what I often experienced too. Luckily it seems I have found an ideal solution. I come to the office three days a week. And I spend two days working remotely. After such a remote-work day I’m happy to meet my colleagues from the marketing team at Goyello. And when I know I need some quiet time focusing on a text, I opt for remote working.

And finally – a bonus question: Can anyone work in a distributed team?
Definitely not. For some people the above mentioned obstacles and challenges may turn out to be insurmountable. Others need to be in a face-to-face contact with all their colleagues to be able to work effectively. Some managers prefer their teams to be gathered in one office instead of being scattered across the world. And finally, not every client is ready to accept this type of cooperation, even with cameras installed in the offices.

But from my own experience I can honestly tell you that being a member of a distributed team can bring you a lot of satisfaction. It gives you that special feeling of being independent and responsible at the same time. And it lets you adopt a completely new attitude towards work and cooperation.

If you have ever been a member of a distributed team and would like to share your experience and observations, please leave a comment.

Aspire Blog Team

Aspire Systems is a global technology services firm serving as a trusted technology partner for our customers. We work with some of the world's most innovative enterprises and independent software vendors, helping them leverage technology and outsourcing in our specific areas of expertise. Our services include Product Engineering, Enterprise Solutions, Independent Testing Services and IT Infrastructure Support services. Our core philosophy of "Attention. Always." communicates our belief in lavishing care and attention on our customers and employees.