Monday, March 17 2014
Keywords: Working remotely, virtual teams, remote teams, The Matrix, distributed teams, geographically dispersed teams, team with different time zones
Benefits and challenges of remote teams, and how to make it work. Part 1 of 2.
There are various ways they are referred to:
"Virtual Teams” (I don’t like the term "virtual team"... as it makes the team sound as less of a team. A remote team is 100% of a real team... made up of real physical people… just that the members are geographically dispersed across the globe)
I have done over 8 years of remote work during my DBA career so far...that’s a lot actually…and although I just spent the last 4 years working with a co-located team…our product is almost out the door, and as such I have been advised that I’d be working with remote teams very soon.
I have to admit that network administrators, system engineers and database administrators, due to the very nature of our jobs (the client-server topology) and always being connected to remote servers… incur the least amount of changes when working with remote teams. It affects us of course, but not to the same extent as it would affect a director, a project manager, product owner, application developer, database developer, QA staff, SCRUM Master or a team lead.
There is no lack of negativity surrounding water coolers when it comes to “the Matrix”, that’s how it is referred to in many companies... when someone is pulled out of a local team and placed in a remote team to fill a void.
Matrix brings changes to people’s daily routines…and we are all aware of how humans react to disturbances in their peaceful galaxy. But the other reason folks don’t like the matrix, is that highly efficient existing teams who have learned to work together well for years are sometimes broken up in order to be dispersedly placed into several other projects…therefore it not only potentially places the developers at an undesired project or team…it also undoes years of company’s investment in creating highly effective agile teams who know perfectly how to work together in harmony and trust.
The latter is certainly a fact, but besides being a sad reality, it does not by itself invalidate the potential benefits of remote teams and the matrix. There are two sides to every story. Sometimes something undesirable could happen but neither side is really the guilty party and both sides could equally be right in their reasoning.
Companies need the matrix to fill in the empty positions in their top priority projects with the most talented individuals in the company. Instead of constantly hiring new staff all the time and dealing with large amount of hiring and firings and HR work, they choose to re-utilize the existing pool of talent. The matrix therefore makes perfect sense from business point of view, by getting the highest revenue generating products done first. And it is profitable for employees too: they are not laid off when the local team has finished up the project at hand… workers still keep their jobs by working on new projects with remote teams. It is therefore mutually beneficial.
So with all this going… it begs the questions: “How do we get Remote Teams to work efficiently together?” and “Can distributed teams perform as well as those in the co-located environment?”
They say if you want to achieve the success that someone has already achieved, you need to act like them. To become one ... you need to learn exactly what steps one has taken to get to where he or she is at…and then you follow the same exact path. The same principles apply here...you need to ask yourself "what makes working with a close proximity group more efficient than a remote team?" and then try to replicate the same. Not only it is possible... but it could sometimes bring greater rewards.
Colleagues usually proclaim to be more efficient when they’re away from the office distractions, less noise and less interruptions certainly help…but are they really more efficient when they work alone??
I started to do my own research to find actual university grade researches showing whether remote teams were more or less committed to their work. My conclusion was that there were only a few existing researches, and that they totally contradicted each other. Their contradictions reminded me of looking up Coffee or Fish Oil or even Fruits in the Internet: there is definitely no absolute certainty there: thousands of researches claim one thing is dangerous… only to see another thousand researches claiming the complete opposite. What's worse is that either side backs up their opinion with much argument. The truth, as usual, lies most probably somewhere between the two extremities more alongside moderation.
The same goes for researches that have to do with “remote teams”…article writers could pick and choose the ones that back up their own personal views...making their opinion sound more scientifically backed up by referencing a certain research...but to my humble opinions we could benefit from more and bigger researches before making meaningful medians out of them.
The truth I believe is more in form of “it depends”:
It depends on the managers...and how they encourage as well as manage their remote teams.
It depends A LOT on the maturity level of the team members.
It depends on the company and how they motivate the employees.
It depends on the project itself…not all projects are a good candidate.
It depends on the technologies used to collaborate and keep the remote teams updated regularly.
It depends on the time of the day you work at.
It depends if your teammates are in a time zone close to yours or not.
It depends if you have too many individuals over-stepping each other or not.
- Working away from your team is supposed to help you concentrate more, as co-located teams distract each other more.
- In fact, sometimes and depending on your particular team, you might even notice that working remotely you are communicating more efficiently and more frequently with your team and your manager than if you were local...as being far from sight helps motivate some people to try to communicate more.
- Collaborative technologies are used more often and more efficiently in remote teams than in local teams...for the very reason that local team might take the luxury of working locally for granted...after all they can talk to each other in the corridors and around the water cooler…and the cubicles are only a few feet away.
- Co-located teams have more tendency to ignore team culture building… and a great majority amongst them purely concentrates on the given jobs at hand, and makes no effort at enhancing their communicational skills. Remote jobs encourage those merits.
- Less micro management.
- More diversity in the team.
- Could be cost-effective for the company.
- Employees don’t get laid off once local projects are done with.
- Your talent is used somewhere else in the company… not only in your home town.
- Your network of contacts grows rapidly.
- Remote working lets parents and students to flex the work to fit their life schedule.
- Nobody is micro-managing you…so perfect opportunity for you to give some time to master new technologies, to stand up amongst the crowd, to teach your team by doing knowledge transfer, to be a role model, and to take charge.
- Working in close proximity of one another helps in information sharing and entices team members to trust and help each other out. In general this could be harder to achieve with remote teams.
- Most of the day on the telephone…arrrg… telephone conversations could easily be over-done... Let the guys work! Don't spend half of some developer's day on the telephone please...their ears will hurt...their vocal cords will be sore and they will not produce much the rest of the day.
- Far from sight and far from heart.
- You miss out on company parties and daily lunch hour talks.
- Over-communication and repeated conversations are time consuming and might display lack of trust in the first place.
- Hard to manage a remote team.
- Hard for subordinates as well, if your manager is remote.
- Remote workers tend to log more hours.
- Performance review meetings with your manager becomes kind of awkward… someone who hasn’t seen you work in person will be judging you and deciding on your salary increase and bonuses.
- It might give some people the opportunity to greatly “slack off”, especially the non-motivated employees and those who need to be constantly pushed and can’t self-teach.
- It might give some individuals the opportunity to work on their own personal projects half the time.
- It might make some people feel like they are not being supervised...after all there is no camera watching over them...their manager is not there to see what time they start...what time they leave...how long of a lunch and breaks they take. So they may abuse it. No one is looking at their monitor so their browser is open the whole day with non-work related content.
- Too much collaboration means too much information sent toward every one... it could surpass a thresh-hold and becomes information intoxication, a cause of stress…and distraction.
- Time zones too different? It means night shifts for some...that also means that the night shift guys are not committed for long term... they are doing it because of necessity. They will gather some experience and then apply for other positions, or pack and leave for another company altogether. So they end up being waste of an investment for this company... solution: plus/minus 3 hours of delta in between different times zones is OK...more than that you will want to have completely separate and independent groups.
- Time zones are different? Stop booking meetings on some poor soul's lunch hour every single day! Just because he lives in a time zone 2 hours away and he was available from noon-13:00 doesn’t mean that you have to abuse it. You wouldn't like it if someone did that to you every day would you?
- If hiring remote employees was done merely with the idea of 'saving $$$' in mind... then it is not necessarily all the rights reasons... it starts to suspiciously resemble outsourcing, wrong people might get appointed to get the job done, and it might fail.
- Having headphones on the whole day and maintaining long daily conversations could end up damaging your hearing. You might laugh at this especially if you are in your 20s and still listen to loud music and feel invincible, but I have had 30+ years old colleagues who have complained of this phenomenon to me.
- ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a common problem nowadays...it's real, and it is a serious cause for concern...Research is clear on this topic: more individuals are being diagnosed with ADHD every day...During my career I have seen several colleagues who suffered from this problem. Individuals with ADHD will seek any potential excuse in order not to perform their job and duties, and will have a very hard time concentrating and performing in remote teams and are better suitable for an environment where they are enclosed by a close proximity team and supervised by a local manager.
- Get on the same page with the rest of your team regularly. Often talk about goals and objectives...build a certain team culture together… around common objectives.
- Be available to help ...show interest in being there for your teammates... display willingness in helping others.
- Be present as much as possible… time wise.
- If you are a coder: don't spend half the day on the telephone in long meetings.
- Use all this modern technology to your advantage: push yourself in everyone’s faces... “Hello I exist and I’m working on this project with you!”. Use various technologies and not only a single method to collaborate...use better mediums than email if possible...people are becoming rather allergic to emails...virtual “team meetings” are a plus...cameras are good ideas...it's great to be able to see your teammates' faces at least once a week if not more often... Skype... SharePoint... text messaging system (chat)... and be open to all the collaboration systems that future may bring.
- Update the team often on what you have done... so they know that you do care about the project, and are actively working at it. It encourages them to waste less time as well, and to trust you even more. Use an app that makes it easy and snappy to update others.
- In your mind and heart, you need to accept that you are working with just another team...do not think of your team any lesser than a local team...otherwise you will act upon your beliefs. Don’t constantly complain about belonging to a remote team. This is it, this is the reality. Work best with what you have got.
- Excellent communication is the key…I often see people trying to solve this by over-communicating and being “verbose”… You should only over emphasize on decisions and plans. Stating things out redundantly might work for you but you will be tiring everyone out...I am a realistic person...if you over-communicate systematically, people will start resenting you.
Also, that would prove to me that in reality you might not as good of a communicator as you think of yourself, if you always over-communicate...I bet you are shocked to read that...but it's true.
The best way to communicate would be to build a thorough understanding between you and your team... a certain deep trust… telepathic conversations do exist amongst best teammates… so that with least amount of words your team members understand each other. Build common grounds with them...try to understand each other better... work with each other closely...trust each other and you won't have to say anything more than once! I speak of experience here. But I also admit that this is a rarity. If you are lucky enough to find such team, try to cling on to it and joy-ride it for as long as you can. You can accomplish the greatest projects in the world together.
- Budget allowing, teams should meet at least once a year… I know that this is not feasible for many companies and teams and so be it...but hey if you can get together, then do it by all means! Maybe for company holiday parties... or better yet for process methodologies trainings: make the team meet in person as they take let’s say an Agile training course together... this is an amazing opportunity for the team to meet in person and to build culture and trust... while learning the same identical process they will be using to work with for many months. Instead of each person learning the process through their own sources and means, they learn it from a common source.
- You can't blindly choose any one individual to be part of a remote team... oh no... That would be a huge mistake. Not everyone is cut out to do this kind of job, and between those who do it not everyone could perform for a long period of time... some will tell you “yes” at first in fear of losing their job, but they will feel miserable and will be sending resumes out after a month... you would want to look for motivated individuals who self-teach and are not shy, can communicate properly, and most of all are MATURE.
Maturity level of a human being does not necessarily correlate to their age. You could have an 18 years old who is very serious...and a childish 49 years old. Don't judge people by their age... but by their real maturity levels
A person with higher than average maturity level...will try harder to make things work, will complain less, will be more self-confident to transfer knowledge out, will be a "go getter", and will build common grounds with his distributed team members.
- Don't let negative people be negative for long...or their negativity would rub on. This matter needs to be taken even more seriously with remote teams. You either make them happy by giving them what they need such as a salary adjustment… or you could let them work locally instead… or ...
- Remote work is not easy and remote team members should get rewarded with some great benefits...especially after having met their mile stones.
- The managers of distributed teams must especially educate themselves in deployment of amazing team bonding techniques to motivate the group.
- I've said it in my 'Agile series'... and it merits a mention again: thou shall trust your colleagues by default. Trust them and it will come.
- Is everyone in the team working remotely or just some of them? That affects things very much. If half the team is co-located and half are dispersed, much attention needs to be paid by managers so that the co-located peers don’t start taking complete control of the project and bully the remote workers. After all local folks see each other a lot more often... meet each other more often without the presence of the remote colleagues... and certainly try making decisions by themselves more often. Co-located bunch could also back each other's decision more often and try to dominate...a sort of peer pressure… I have heard and seen this… Local team becoming the dominant and the rest of the remote group has to blindly do the work and follow all the meanwhile not complaining or question anything… It is better to make everyone work in the same way...with the same challenges...with the same responsibilities…with the same level of power to plan and make decisions…so people relate to each other and trust each other more.
Will co-located teams be a thing of the past?
Some might say yes, but I personally don't think so.
Working remotely is neither suitable for every person, nor is it productive for every company or project. It is completely different kind of work. You can’t judge a person just because they decide not to take any part in a remote project, or because they are not good at it.
It’s a matter of preference. After all we are humans and not machines. And I fully respect any human who wants to work closely with another bunch of humans located in close proximity… chit-chatting with them in the cafeteria… Talking to them in person every day… Seeing their facial expressions…Going to lunch with them… And meeting them face to face over daily SCRUM meetings. Oh I can certainly see the virtue in that.
Read the second article on this series here: Doing Database Work From Home
Written by Ramin Haghighat