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Working in a Distributed Team – How to Make It Work for You

Are you about to work remotely? Want to make the most of it? Here’s a quick-start guide.

For all sorts of reasons, moving to a remote work style has become more and more popular. But if this is your first experience, it raises a few questions:

  • If you’re a PM, how do you keep everybody on the same page?
  • If you’re a team member, how do you communicate when you’re thousands of miles apart?

Let me answer these questions from my 6 years of experience.

Set yourself up for success

Since you won’t bump into each other at the office when working remotely, before you start a project, you’ll want to plan how you’ll communicate and how often you need to meet during the project. Some agile teams run short stand-up meetings daily, some two times a week, and some once a week. There’s no set requirement. What’s important is that meeting intervals are frequent enough to execute the project smoothly.

In my experience, it’s harder to execute daily stand-up meetings when a team is distributed across time zones. Instead, we meet two or three times a week to give members who are joining early in the morning or late in the evening a bit of a break. We also have established a stand-up channel where we can discuss daily tasks and blockers at any time.

Having a clear and well-defined scoping document helps to mitigate risk. I highly recommend you ask your team members to go through it at least once and that you’re aware of the overall milestones and deadlines, so there are no surprises.

If you’re new to taking on a remote PM role, you may be worried about keeping all your ducks in a line so to speak. After all, it’s ultimately you who has to make sure the solution product is shipped on schedule, within budget, and of high quality. 

But what happens if one or more teammates are not pulling their weight, are slow to respond, or are constantly arguing with you or other team members? 

These are valid questions and I actually was concerned about this when first taking the remote role. While the above situations can happen in-person just as much, there’s a different dynamic when working remotely. You cannot just tap someone on the shoulder and say “Hey, what’s going on with such and such?” or take everyone to lunch and smooth over personal differences.

Fortunately, Gigster has established a pivotal position known as the Engagement Manager (EM) which is a fail-safe if things are going south on your project. The EM is someone from Gigster who oversees various projects and has a direct line of communication with the client and your team. If you’re having any team issues, you can reach out at any time and rest assured that you have support to get things back on track. In a worst-case scenario, appropriate replacements are implemented. EMs also help ensure that clients provide necessary input in a timely manner so that there are minimal client-side delays or issues.

The key lies in technology

Technology is our friend. It’s the only reason why we can do distributed work. The days of conference calls, long email threads, and choppy video calls are coming to an end. Technology allows us to communicate so efficiently that it’s easy to forget we’re working with someone over five thousand miles away.

In the past year and a half, I really can’t think of a time that a work video call dropped or was cutting in and out. This reliability has helped make distributed work easier. And screen sharing is almost better than meeting in person, especially for software projects that have a strong design focus.

If you or a team member are in a place where the internet connection just isn’t good enough, you have a few backup options, such as your Slack channel. You can even comment directly on your issue tracking board, which requires lower bandwidth. And in those cases where showing is easier than telling, it’s easy to take a screenshot or screen recording from your smartphone or PC and upload it from there.

Gigster has established a general tech stack to help PMs and their teams succeed at working globally. From Git repo to dev environments, cloud storage, team messaging, and issue tracking, a lot of this is already set up, so you can get off the ground quickly.

It pays to be flexible

When working with a distributed team, keeping a flexible mindset is essential. Most of us naturally want to create and keep a fairly consistent routine because it feels more comfortable. But when working in a distributed team, it’s good to be open because team members that are spread across the world don’t have their 9-to-5 work hours at the same time you do. And people from different countries and different cultures will have different holidays that should be taken into account. Also, remote workers like to travel, which is natural, since they aren’t tied to a desk.

At Gigster, there are no specific restrictions against traveling during a project, as long as you can maintain your level of output. This means that time zones can vary and conditions may change. One team member might want to take the early morning to snowboard in the Pacific Northwest, and another might want the afternoon to snorkel in Maui. These are actual examples from a previous project.

Instead of complaining about changing meeting times, when someone asks to reschedule with suggested times, it’s better to focus on the optimal time we can all adjust to. I just ask team members when they request a schedule change that they ask 48 hours in advance, so schedule changes aren’t too last minute.

Working in a distributed team doesn’t have to be scary. Exactly the opposite. Just taking the simple advice above into account will help smooth your transition, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you and your team can accomplish from around the world.

Jared Fullwiler
Jared is a Tokyo-based American Product/Project Manager helping to build world-class software worldwide. He is known to run a morning stand-up meeting, order sushi lunch in Japanese, and deliver the winning pitch at a Hackathon—all in the same day.

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