With changing business conditions, it has become imperative for every organization to adopt new technologies and to make sure their business keeps on rolling whether teams work together from the same office or they work remotely. Irrespective of challenges with Distributed teams, businesses need to address them to rip benefits of great team work.
Working together and sharing information face to face is still considered to be the most efficient & effective way of developing equitable software products, forcing businesses to make their teams flexible enough to work as distributed teams whenever necessary. Equipping teams doesn’t only mean providing them with all the necessary tools, but also the teams are well trained and conditioned in terms of people, processes, or evolving infrastructure.
Building and managing remote teams presents numerous problems, but if these challenges are addressed effectively and on time, overcoming them can be advantageous to all parties concerned.
In this blog, we’ll first explore some of the challenges of working in remote teams, and then we’ll share some tips to overcome those challenges in terms of people, process, tools, and infrastructure.
Challenges With Distributed Teams
Collaboration & Communication Barriers
Distributed development usually involves teams from various locations and mainlands; culture differs among the team. If someone is unfamiliar with the culture, even the most innocuous behavior, or lack thereof, can cause resentment in professional relationships.
For example, many people in some nations find it difficult to say ‘no,’ yet in others, it is acceptable, rather than receiving a mixed response.
Different Time Zones
Distance between teams restricts face-to-face conversations and presents some practical problems.
Team members working in drastically distant time zones, such as Los Angeles (USA West) and New Delhi (India), overlapping working hours puts everyone in a dilemma.
Language also becomes a significant communication barrier when both the on-shore and off-shore teams have a different primary speaking language.
For example- a team in the Netherlands has Dutch as their primary language while another party in Mexico speaks Spanish.
Team members must adopt English as their second language to work effectively by compromising the ability to communicate effectively and crisply while maintaining a neutral accent is difficult.
Lack of Visibility
Working in distant locations makes it difficult to see what is happening on other sites by reducing information propagation and giving rise to multiple sources of truth, ambiguities, and unexpected situations within the team.
Lack of Trust Among Team Members
Due to distance, the team gets lesser avenues for informal communication, hanging out, or extending personal help. This leads to a lack of trust between team members during the initial days. There is a necessity for greater trust between them for better collaboration, and we can only build trust when people spend meaningful time together. With distributed teams, it takes time to achieve and needs some explicit efforts to build trustful associations. Lack of confidence can lead to precarious situations like finger-pointing or blaming when a slip or failure occurs. It leads to a lack of productivity and further diminishes trust among on-shore and off-shore teams.
Difficulty in Understanding Requirements
While working in remote teams, requirement gathering mainly happens over video conferencing or phone calls. Often, product owners, business analysts, and teams are all based at different geographical locations making it tough to clarify requirements, naturally leading to an increase in documentation which is against the basic principles of agile product development. Requirements misunderstanding also happens when there is no common language between teams of two geographical locations, they take more time to understand the bigger picture and subtle details.
Lack of collective code ownership
Since no single member owns the code, the entire development team owns it. It means the code is open to refactoring for all the team members, and this environment gives rise to multiple challenges in distributed teams —
· Difficulty in maintaining collective code ownership at different work locations.
· Lack of accountability among team members and finger-pointing when a bug or failure occurs during production.
Integrating code bases without breaking or overriding each other’s work is crucial when many team members work on interdependent and complex functionality.
Remote teams must adhere to strict continuous integration procedures. Inconsistencies in tools, an ineffective version control system, and a lack of a consistent quality standard at different locations lead to many integration hassles.
How can we address these challenges?
Above challenges we have discussed above can be addressed in three ways.
- Optimizing how people interact and collaborate.
- Modeling & optimizing existing project management processes for distributed work environments.
- Adopting new tools and infrastructure apt for distributed development.
Let us breakdown and understand how we can implement these solutions on the ground level:
WHAT ARE THE WAYS TO BUILD A MORE FLEXIBLE YET SUSTAINABLE DISTRIBUTED WORK ENVIRONMENT?
Optimizing People’s Interactions and Collaborations
Introducing a proxy product owner
In distributed teams, most team members collaborate and work miles away from the product owners(PO). PO holds a significant role in agile teams, from prioritizing backlog to signing off product features and goals for the development team.
A proxy product owner should preferably work in the same time zone as remote teams’ and should have spent enough in-person time with the product owner to understand the business context, customer needs, and key deliverables in detail. This way, proxy product owners can provide context and clarify any doubts to team members to a greater extent. There should be a single point of contact between the two, and they should work closely to develop a mutual understanding where the proxy product manager capable enough to make important decisions, making his role effective and sustainable.
Not all team members have the same level of communication proficiency, and working in a distributed team requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills. It becomes imperative for the team to take advantage of people with better communications skills to lead the conversations. It requires in situations where —
- There is a need to communicate anything critical or unpleasant.
- The team is new to working in a distributed environment.
- There is a need to establish trust in a newly formed distributed team.
While discussing the challenges of distributed teams, we already discussed the importance of cultural sensitivity and how it can be a crucial hindrance to the productivity of distributed teams.
Given its significance, it is crucial to educate people traveling to other countries, especially when they have to work in a country that has a different culture from their origin. It is also crucial to hold cultural awareness sessions for people working in a distributed environment with team members of different cultures and countries. Indians, for example, nod their heads in a specific way to convey Yes. While this is appropriate in India, employing the same gesture when conversing abroad can lead to misunderstandings because it differs from how people nod their heads to communicate in other parts of the world.
Proposing new processes & optimizing existing project management processes for distributed work environments.
Promoting Video meetings
We shouldn’t underestimate the value of stand-ups in an effective agile team. This approach becomes even more important when the team is distributed, as the entire team must be aware of who is performing what work, dependencies, and blockages. Stand-ups should include all team members, which becomes challenging when there is a difference in the time zones of team members working from other parts of the world. To address this challenge, we should reserve maximum overlapping work hours between the locations, and high-quality video conferencing solutions should be used to ensure continuity. We can also use electronic story card walls or kanban boards to maintain a single source of truth for the entire team.
This practice is as crucial as joint stand-up meetings when working in distributed teams. Given that the teams are not co-located, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of pointing the finger at other team members who are not present in the meeting. These scenarios can lessen the level of trust between the team members. To address this, we must always organize these meetings and ensure the attendance is full. Strong facilitation skills and collaborative tools should also be taken into consideration to maintain a single source of truth.
Practicing Periodic Development Showcase
This practice helps distributed teams to reduce unpleasant surprises by demonstrating working software to stakeholders at the end of an iteration. This facilitates trust and confidence within the distributed team by showcasing their work in progress without waiting for the results. This practice can also be followed at the end of each story, showcasing the code or interfaces using mocks. These meetings should be kept short and crisp; once the team gets used to it, the time taken for these meetings will reduce automatically.
Adopt new tools and infrastructure apt for distributed development.
Now that we have addressed these challenges in terms of people and processes. Let’s look at how adopting new tools and infrastructure can lead to better-distributed teams.
Communication and Collaboration Tools
The most challenging and persistent problem that people in distributed teams have to face is the problem of communication and collaboration. While the ideal situation is to work face-to-face, the inability to work in person creates a significant amount of strain on the team members and can also lead to a loss of trust.
That’s why it becomes essential for businesses to provide distributed teams with proper tools to communicate and collaborate at a level that can be as good as working in person. These tools should be competent enough to facilitate individual and group communication and collaboration.
A few communications tools are Slack, Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. While Kanban Boards, Jira, and Azure DevOps are a few examples of other collaborative tools for project management.
Introducing a Source Control System
While working in distributed teams source control system should be used to encourage trunk-based development and reduce the need for branching.
A source control system —
- It should allow team members to maintain source code and make direct commits on their local machines.
- It must support many check-ins for a big distributed team.
- It must enable members to view code changes and give feedback simultaneously at multiple locations.
Examples of such tools are bitbucket, git, git-flow, etc.
Introducing Automation through CI/CD
CI/CD mainly stands for continuous integration, continuous delivery, and continuous deployment. We can use CI/CD to introduce automation at multiple stages during the product development cycle. This method facilitates the development team with the problem of integrating new codes and addresses the challenge of integration in distributed teams, ensuring automation and monitoring during the entire product development cycle from integration and testing to delivery and deployment.
Ensuring Proper Network Connectivity & Security
Network-related issues become showstoppers and pose serious impediments to a distributed team’s proper functioning. These issues get magnified when two organization needs to collaborate in a single environment.
Another challenge for distributed teams is network security. Any security lapses in security can lead to devastating outcomes like the leaking of proprietary source code. Challenges arising from networking should be anticipated in advance by the right network, bandwidth, and access rights for the distributed teams.
Final Wrap-up —
Distributed teams are the future, and to reap its maximum benefits, we must follow globally accepted standard processes, tools, and infrastructure for each stage in the product development cycle.
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