Going the Distance: Five Tactics to Compensate for Distance on Distributed Teams

©2006 Esther Derby

When people communicate face-to-face, they not only hear words and inflections, but also see facial expressions. This helps each communicator understand what the other is saying and gives clues to assess when people are mad, sad, or glad. Teammates know what each other looks like; they learn about each others families.

But it’s not always possible to have a team working in the same room. When people aren’t co-located, you can’t just hope that communication will work and the team will gel–that somehow, miraculously a group in the U.S. will hand off to a team in Hungary without missing a beat. Some teams can achieve round-the-clock attention through seamless hand offs, but it’s rare and takes a lot of work.

When teams aren’t collocated, they face challenges about contact, time, context, and culture. To compensate for the distance, extra effort is required to make contact with distant members, leverage phone time, adjust for time zones, and learn the differences in context and culture. Below, I’ve detailed five tactics that can help you compensate for distance on your distributed team.

1. Make Contact
When people are in the same room, or at least close by, they get to know each other. They develop relationships that go beyond work-related transactions. They may not be best friends, but there’s some social element that ties them together.

You may never get to meet your distributed teammates in person, but you can make contact. Post a map that shows where your far-flung team members are located. Post pictures of them. (We tend to trust what we can see, and this little gesture can help build trust.)

When you can, share a meal together–even if you are on different continents. Schedule a call, post the pictures, and set the table. Breaking bread together is an ancient sign of hospitality and good will. This simple gesture can help knit the team together.

2. Make the Most of Phone Time
There’s an old adage, “Children should be seen but not heard.” It seems that conference calls go even further: people who aren’t seen are often not heard. One team I work with has pictures of every offsite team member in stand-up frames. When they have a conference call, the frames are placed around the table to remind the people in the room of who else is on the phone. This way they are less likely to forget the people they can’t see.

Until everyone on the team recognizes each other’s voice, it’s good practice to say your name each time you speak. Yes, it feels awkward, but it really helps the people on the other end of the phone who aren’t in the room and can’t see who is speaking. Be careful to have one conversation at a time; a babble of voices emitted from a small, black box is impossible for most mortals to decipher.

Appoint a facilitator for each call. Having someone monitoring the flow of conversation and participation helps the quality of conference calls immensely. Poll the people on the other end of the line when it’s time to generate ideas or give input. Don’t rely on them to break into the conversation.

Utilize wikis–Web pages that users can edit on the fly–to build a meeting agenda and post decisions, action items, and other meeting outcomes. My team–there are six of us in six different states–uses a wiki to keep track of meeting outcomes and any other important information that each of us needs to know.

Don’t use conference calls for serial status reports. In my experience, the people who aren’t talking during these regularlyscheduled calls also aren’t listening. They’ve hit the mute button and are probably checking their email. Save phone time for when you need to have conversations.

3. Adjust for Time Zones
Most of the time, I can keep track of time zones within my own country. I have a harder time minding time zones across the world. Along with your map, try posting inexpensive clocks that show what time it is where each group is located. The clocks remind us that the end of our day may be the beginning of someone else’s.

Make every effort to schedule meetings in the slice of time that overlaps “normal office hours” for as many people on the team as feasible. When there is no overlap, don’t always expect the “other” team to get up early or stay up late. Be willing to trade off for the extra hours of work.

4. Understand Context
Even if you work for the same company in different locations, you work in different organizations. Learn as much as you can about your teammates’ work world. What is the organizational structure? Don’t assume it’s just like yours, even in the same division. What are the physical arrangements? Having a picture of your teammates’ physical surroundings–their cubes, floor, and building–is another way to make distant people more real.

Look for commonalities between your organization and each teammate’s organization. They may share similar values, or they may not. Knowing where there is overlap and where there isn’t helps you manage expectations.

5. Be Sensitive to Culture
Some cultural differences are readily apparent, while others are subtle. Watch out for words or expressions that mean one thing in your language and something different (and possibly negative) in another’s culture.

A Canadian friend of mine tells a story about how he inadvertently offended half his team by offering a virtual toast–”Cin cin!”–after a successful code release. His toast had a completely different meaning in Japanese–one that I can’t write in this column.

Making a distributed team work takes extra effort, but putting all these tactics to use can help any team traverse distance. Differences in context, culture, and organizations are magnified when there isn’t day-to-day contact to build familiarity. Compensate for the challenges by applying these and other practices to help your distributed team gel.

This article originally appeared in Stickyminds.com

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