A global network of Skills: The benefits of working with Distributed Teams
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown people around the world that the location where we do our work isn’t that important. What’s important is the resources and skills we can combine to tackle a project. Niteco’s Mark Welland tells you what to do if those resources happen to be distributed across the world.
Our world has become a smaller place. Air travel has revolutionized the way that we move around the globe, breaking geographical barriers and opening up connectivity and long-distance travel. Technological innovation over the past three decades has taken that to the next level, enabling global, real-time communication.
The concept of messaging between computers began as far back as the early ’60s. In the mid-’90s, the evolution of email really took-off and with it, a new chapter in the communication revolution began. In the space of a few years, we were able to communicate as instantly with our colleagues in the same office building, as we were with someone on the other side of the world. At a similar time, the launch of the world-wide-web created a platform for the internet to reach the masses. What followed was a frenetic pace of development with the launch of many small tech start-ups that have grown to become some of the biggest brands in the world today.
That technology revolution has changed the way that we work and communicate. It has been an enabler to do things differently. To work smarter, not harder. To work globally.
That brings me to teams and teamwork.
Teams are what gets work done
We all know the adage that two heads are better than one. We all know the benefits of working as part of a high-functioning team and we also know the pitfalls of operating less effectively. I am fortunate to have worked with many different teams throughout my career, with many differing dynamics, across many different sectors. I have built teams from scratch, inherited others and been part of a team in many more. Some teams are for short-burst projects, others long-term operational units. Through trial, error and a great deal of hard work, I have learnt a recipe for success in creating and running effective teams.
Over the past decade, throughout many countries and continents, there has arisen an increasing drive to work differently. Successful businesses with visionary leaders understand their people are their biggest assets. In challenging and competitive markets, agility and adaptation can mean the difference between success and failure. We are breaking the shackles of a 9-5 presence culture to empower our people to work remotely and our processes to be more flexible. This is coupled with greater understanding and focus on wellbeing and mental health. If we value our people, we attract the best talent and we create the right culture for them to succeed and innovate. The outcome of this is greater confidence that we don’t all need to be in the same room at the same time to be productive and effective. Technical innovation has supported this evolution, providing the tools and capabilities to operate independently whilst remaining connected. It has enabled us to work differently. It has enabled us to work remotely.
Telecommuting, the new Normal
Now more than ever, as the world is in the grip of a pandemic, we have all been forced to work differently and to adapt quickly. We have lacked the time and space to procrastinate; to plan and strategize. Businesses that have been on a delayed path to digital transformation have had change thrust upon them. As governments have scrambled to react, restricting movement, changing behavior and turning lockdowns into the new normal, we suddenly no longer rely on what we had previously.
Instead of working alongside our colleagues in situ in a physical office, we are doing it virtually over Zoom calls or MS Teams or Google Hangouts. We are distributed. But here’s the key thing: whilst we are distributed, we are still a team. We have adapted and adapted quickly, learning to make it work. It has dawned on us that we can be as productive and as effective as before, if not more so.
Physical proximity doesn’t equal success
So where am I heading with this? Well let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The preconception is that working with a team outside of your immediate physical office location is a challenge. Because isn’t life always easier when you can just turn around to your colleague, ask a question and get an immediate response? I’m not going to argue with that. I’m not here to try and convince you differently. In fact, I completely agree. But in my opinion, it’s a restrictive point of view. No matter what size of organization you work for, sometimes, getting time with your immediate team or even your boss can take time, even though they’re in the same physical office location as you. Colleagues in your own team or another department may be too busy to respond as quickly as you need them. Proximity doesn’t equal response and presence does not imply productivity.
Let’s tackle another one. Working with teams in a different time zone and/or a different culture. That’s even harder, right? Well, that all depends on the lens you look through; how you see a challenge and how you view opportunity. The benefits of working with a distributed network of skilled resources far outweigh any perceived boundaries of time zones. Businesses that succeed and endure need to be responsive, they need to have a 24/7, follow-the-sun mentality. If you switch off, you can be certain that your competitors won’t. And that’s where distributed teams really come into their own.
A globally distributed network of skills
A distributed team is essentially a network. A network of people, key skills and resources that combine to form an effective team. That could apply to people within your own organization, even within your geographical location (people dispersed across different locations/floors around your office building). Larger businesses may have multiple office locations, in the same city, the same country and/or spread globally.
It can also apply to other teams outside of your immediate organization that provide key skills or services that complement and enhance your own. A distributed, global network. Over the past couple of decades, this was labelled as off-shoring. It was viewed as a way of getting a certain task or function completed for reduced operational expenditure than you could get in the local market. Essentially, it was perceived as a cost-cutting exercise. Cheaper (albeit skilled) labor. Whilst a lot of that was true at the time, it has done little more than stereotype cultures, create barriers and close eyes to the opportunities.
I have witnessed both worlds. I have worked first-hand with insular, tight-knit, specialist teams with a highly focused but ultimately narrow view; and other teams in a variety of different global locations, across many cultures and multiple time zones. The trick is to manage the people, the communication and the process right. If you understand that, then the latter choice will always win for me. Building a global network of small but skilled teams brings tremendous benefits. Adaptability and agility. A bigger-picture, greater world view. Diversity. Consistent delivery around the clock. Managed well, this nurtures innovation and creates new opportunity.
What you need to make Distributed Teams work
So, I’m clearly a fan of a distributed network. But I didn’t become one overnight and it wasn’t without getting burnt along the way. Here are a few key insights to make it work, from my experiences:
- Communication - The single most important success factor for any team is the ability to talk, share ideas, validate thinking and understand who’s doing what and when. To share a vision, to share the successes and the failures. For an effective distributed network of resources, these criteria multiply tenfold. Communicating, comprehending, understanding and acting require careful management. If you’re committed to making this work, be prepared to invest time (particularly upfront) and it will pay dividends. Be respectful and considerate. When working with distributed global teams (where your language may not be the first language of the team you are working with), take some responsibility to ensure your message is understood. Avoid colloquialisms, particularly those where you would need specific, localized and/or cultural knowledge to understand a reference.
- Summarize - A really useful tip to ensure that your message is received and understood is to get the other party to sum up your request and repeat it back to you. This enables you to check and confirm their understanding. Remember, there are many non-Western cultures who aren’t compelled to say no to something when perhaps they should. Summarizing is a good way to really get the other party to think about communication and commitment.
- Tools & Process - Regular touchpoints are a must. There is a proliferation of cloud-based tools to support conferencing, some free and some via subscription – popular tools like Zoom, MS Teams, Google Hangouts, Webex, Skype, GoTo Meeting, JoinMe, BlueJeans, to name but a few. They offer the easiest way for a distributed network to stay in touch and share ideas through conferencing, chat and screen shares. Depending on the type of work you’re collaborating on, you’re likely to underpin the conferencing tools with a subset of other tools like Jira, Trello, Basecamp, Google Docs or Office 365 and chat tools like Slack, MS Teams or Skype. Whatever your poison, find the right tools and agree on the process to manage them. The best distributed teams will adapt to your tools and suggest new ones to help get the job done more efficiently and effectively.
- Collaboration - A word that is often paid lip service without pausing to consider what it truly means. This word encompasses many facets. A high-functioning team is underpinned by respect, trust, sharing, understanding, support, innovation, anticipation, encouragement and culture. Effective collaboration comes from having the right tools to enable it, from building trust and having respect for one another. If successful collaboration were a room, then communication would be the key to unlocking it.
- Celebrate uniqueness - If you spend the majority of your time and effort trying to bash a square peg into a round hole, you are wasting your energy and setting yourself up for failure. By that I mean, don’t waste your efforts trying to mold a team on the other side of the world to be identical to the one in your office. Successful leaders don’t surround themselves with similar people with similar skills. If you have a global network, you can maximize the variety of experience, insights and perspectives. Embrace different ways of thinking and different points of view. Create the right environment for that to blossom. Cross-pollinate ideas and blend them to create real innovation.
- Management - If you’re working with a good team, this shouldn’t become a cumbersome overhead. Agree on communication and escalation plans. Set out your touchpoints (from daily updates to monthly meetings, quarterly reviews etc.). Establish a framework so that you know what good looks like. Set KPI’s (key Performance Indicators) or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to help measure output. Have SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals. Managed well, this should become no different to the same mechanisms that you have in place within a shared physical office location.
- Lessons learned - Continuous improvement is about celebrating success and failure. No matter how well you follow all of the steps above, a distributed network of people, as with any team, will make mistakes. Don’t get hung up on them when they happen and don’t start attributing mistakes to geographical distance. Some of the biggest failures, as I have experienced happen right under your nose. Location and distance have little association if you’re managing it properly.
- Time zones - There are two ways of looking at differences in time zones. As an inhibitor or an opportunity. A glass-half-empty versus a glass-half-full view. One thing that you can’t do is fight them (the square peg in the round hole scenario again). If you’re working with a team that is not aligned with your working day, think more carefully about the points where you will synchronize and then celebrate the fact that while you’re asleep, there’s a whole other team beavering away while you’re counting sheep. To put it simply; make it work for you, not against you.
The future is distributed remote working
I would argue that in 2020, there is no longer a concept of offshore, near-shore and onshore. The global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that more than ever before. We’ve all been working remotely and we all use the same technology to keep going, whether we all live near each other in the same city or are spread far and wide around the globe. We know now that many of the perceived barriers to remote working have been proven to be false. Instead of the old off-shore concept, there are now richly experienced, highly-organized, highly effective networks of teams working in unison to bring the best of a big-picture view to bear on a challenge. All of that paves the way to break down imaginary boundaries, to challenge preconceptions and embrace a new global way of thinking.
Working with a specialist distributed network can offer you the best of all worlds. All you need is the right mindset. Teams of specialist units, distributed globally, bring different skills, experiences and points of view – embracing diversity and providing agility to work smarter, not harder. We are better and richer for working in a multicultural, diverse world where a network of talent and skills combine to achieve a common goal. Now is the time to be distributed. Now is the time to be global.