Working with colleagues based in another country — or even another continent — is tricky, to say the least! From time zone issues to language barriers, there are always obstacles standing in the way. Of course, these obstacles are intensified when trying to lead a team who are working from all four corners of the globe. However, while these obstacles can be frustrating, they’re not enough to hinder our efforts at effective team management, especially if we employ methods to overcome obstacles competently.
Here are 10 rules of team management that are essential when leading a dislocated team:
Keep the project on track
The purpose of a team is for everyone to come together to achieve a common goal. However, geographical distance means that it’s very easy for the right hand to lose sight of what the left hand is doing. Teams not only need to be working towards the same end point but also need to be able to deliver a unified message to customers. That’s where collaboration software and cloud computing come into play. With these solutions, we’re able to see instantaneous progress, keeping everything on track.
Use the right techniques
In the book Agile Project Management For Dummies by Mark C Layton, it is reported that only 60% of dislocated teams are successful, compared to 83% who are collocated. We need to know early on we’re on the right track, and selecting the right methodology is essential. It may be beneficial to adopt an agile-only methodology, allowing you to determine success from the start of the project and have peace of mind that what you’re doing is working. If not, you can adapt your technique to improve productivity.
Keep your team connected
Words aren’t everything. In fact, words account for just 10% of overall communications. Tone accounts for 30 - 35%, while body language accounts for 55 - 60% of communications. Teams communicating exclusively via messenger services or telephone boost the risk of misunderstandings. Video conferencing which allows teams to see each other is a suitable and cost effective alternative, although if budget allows it is important to try and arrange for sprints as often as possible; preferably at least once per year.
Train your team
While it may not be possible to hand select your team, it is possible to train them, providing them with the best skills for working in unison with, yet separated from, their colleagues. Open Source training can be hugely beneficial here. Based upon collaborative development, Open Source software skills are good for team members to have, especially when they’re working in a dislocated team. Open Source actively encourages individual participation on what is essentially a group project: perfect for dislocated teams.
Give your team responsibilities
Ideally, everyone on the team should have their own responsibilities, and know what every other team member has been assigned. If they don’t, they should have a way to ask! However, time zones can be tricky to navigate. Encourage your team to download clocks clearly displaying the international time zones relevant to their colleagues. This can help team members to feel a little more connected and, most importantly, prevents accidental 3 am wakeup calls and the subsequent tiredness the next morning!
Keep your team motivated
Think about office-based meetings; there’s chatter beforehand; there’s discussion afterward. These are ways for colleagues to get to know each other. Dislocated teams do not have these same social opportunities. Allow your team to get to know each other, encouraging off topic discussion through separate slack channels and, if possible, arranging for events to bring them physically together. Also ensure that any incentives or rewards offered by the company are equal, regardless of location.
Managing a dislocated team means the end of the standard 9-5, particularly if you’re leading a team who are based all around the world. Try to be available to your team as much as possible and, more importantly, try to be available as evenly as possible. For example, you could arrange to alternate your working patterns, beginning early on week 1, starting later on week 2, and so on, ensuring a fair split. It may help to publish your hours to your team so that they always know when they can reach you.
Develop a team culture
Stereotypes can be harmful, but we can’t ignore the fact that different cultures do sometimes exhibit significantly different personality traits. For example, the BBC reports that Brazilians tend to be more extroverted that Indonesians. While cultural differences are important, and they’re a part of who we are, we cannot allow these differences to dictate how people work together as a team. If necessary, work to create your own unique and inclusive team culture, taking into account the different nations.
Give the benefit of the doubt
Communication delays on a dislocated team will happen. And they’ll happen a lot! It is very easy to immediately assume the worst and become frustrated with our team members but we must acknowledge that, with a dislocated team, there is a significant knowledge gap. Consider that there may be holidays you’re not aware of (such as Patriot’s Day which is observed only in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin), or local events, road closures, or accidents which have not made international news.
If not all of your team members speak the business’ ‘lingua franca’, then it is important to encourage a linguistic balance. Monitor participation in terms of speaking and listening, ensuring that native speakers maintain an understandable pace and refrain from slang, and that non-native speakers resist withdrawal. Solicit participation from non-native speakers if necessary, and be prepared to ask for clarifications. If possible, try to restrict the use of languages other than the agreed lingua franca to avoid exclusion.
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The Light at the End of the Tunnel
While there are, of course, many obstacles to managing a successful dislocated team, when done correctly there are many advantages to a team that is divided by geography over a team that is collocated. These teams have a unique opportunity to learn from others who have different perspectives on the project at hand and, perhaps most importantly for the business as a whole, are able to demonstrate a global presence, ensuring effective communications with clients, wherever they are.