How to solve the two biggest problems with distributed teams.

September 15, 2011 by Jared Goralnick

Working in MadridI’ve spent nearly ten years working with distributed teams.  Working from San Francisco, DC, Buenos Aires, and Barcelona has offered me perspective, freedom, and a unique sort of productivity.

But there are two common problems that will sabotage any distributed team’s progress.  We fight them every day at AwayFind, and here’s what we’ve learned.

A big part of remote (er, any) work is a need to communicate frequently, or even over-communicate.  But in a distributed team, there are two communication challenges that lead to big problems.

First, let’s make some assumptions:

  • Others on your team have more experience with some of the things you have to do
  • The work you’re completing now will change before it’s presented to customers

These are true in any company with a handful of people.  And depending on the degree to which you address these assumptions through communication and feedback, your team can sometimes suffer from:

  • Over-perseverance – fighting through every new challenge completely on one’s own
  • Over-polish – perfecting what one’s working on before offering it up for feedback

I love having a team that works hard and gets stuff done, so perseverance and polish are generally great traits…but when they lead to slow work and re-work, that’s both frustrating and dangerous.

And on remote teams, these two traits are even more prevalent.  First off, people who are attracted to remote work are often independent people who enjoy working through their own challenges.  But more importantly, in remote work there are far fewer casual check-ins:

  • We’re less likely to ask for help form our colleagues when we don’t run into them
  • We’re less likely to see a project before it’s finished when it’s not right in front of us

Think about it—when you’re working in the same room you see what they’re working on and hear their frustration.  We’re quick to help one another out and to address problems at earlier stages.

Now this isn’t merely an argument against distributed teams (I’ve long been a fan), rather it’s a warning to prevent these problems from occurring in your distributed team.  As a remote worker, you need to:

  • Find a way to share your work well before it’s completed…and be open to reviewing others’ work while its unfinished
  • Ask for help from your colleagues when you’re working with a new tool or technology…and regularly check in with others on your team to understand their skills and where you might be able to help

There is not a month that goes by where I don’t learn of someone who struggled with a project I could’ve helped with… or a feature that could’ve been corrected before it got to its present level of polish.  These things can set us back DAYS or WEEKS, and they kill me because they’re avoidable.  Fight back NOW.

These problems no doubt exist in every company…but in remote teams they’re even more prevalent and pervasive.  And if you want to work with people in different offices, you need to proactively combat these issues and architect a culture that supports early feedback and casual sharing of ideas.

While these aren’t the only challenges in distributed teams, these may be the biggest.  If you focus on them head on, perhaps you can reap the rest of the benefits…and join me on my next trip to Buenos Aires.

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6 Responses to “How to solve the two biggest problems with distributed teams.”


  1. Kira

    We have team members in DC, SF and NY, so the concerns you raise are ones we address every day. Here’s what we’re doing, and I’m curious to hear other suggestions, too:

    - The whole team meets once a week by vcon to talk over specific projects and to update others on what we’re working on. The vcon feels much more chatty and open than a phone call.

    - We track a lot of our work through one big Basecamp project. The calendar and to-do list make more work visible in a shared space. (And people really do jump in on conversations that catch their eye.)

    - We’re on IM with each other all the time. Some teams might find this distracting, but it also lowers the bar for those casual hallway-type questions.

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Kira, these are some great tips! Video conference is a huge help, as are proj mgt tools (I used Basecamp for year, too) as well as regular IM : ). We’re in the same boat as you, so +1 here.

  3. Chris kirkland

    We see these challenges too and I think your suggestions are good.

    I’d add to the mix dealing with different timezones – we had a period working between California, Japan, Eastern Europe and the UK. In this kind of scenario you really want to keep the teams/people in the same area who are heavily dependant on each other, if this is not possible, you’ve got to be super organised with working times as the time frame each day for useful communication is really tight.

  4. Jared Goralnick

    Couldn’t agree more, Chris. When I choose people for projects, beyond the skillset, the two most important things to me are timezone and culture. Staying organized and using thorough specifications are hugely helpful when there’s not much overlap…but whenever possible, have lots of timezone overlap! Alas, maybe that’s why we aren’t in touch so much anymore… ;-/

  5. Matt Campbell

    I second Kira’s vcon comments. I’m in NY and have worked with a design team in the UK for 5 years, we gradually added more vcon sessions and it greatly helped personalize the interaction. Equipment and bandwidth makes a huge difference, we started with grainy ISDN cameras we could barely see one another on, and now do 720p conferencing with Lifesize or Polycom cameras, it’s a huge difference.

    Jared, on a side note thanks for the 4HWW spreadsheet, I’m working with it right now and it’s very well done.

  6. Jared Goralnick

    Great to hear what’s working for you, Matt! I’m fascinated by what one can just do with Skype these days! And glad to hear the spreadsheets’s helping, too : ) Cheers!

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