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Working Without Borders: Tips And Tools For Building Effective Distributed Teams

If you’re in the process of implementing remote work for yourself or for your team, you have come to the right place. In the last article, we focused on demystifying what makes work efficient and the conditions for quality relationships in the workplace. Here, we’ll provide tools and practical advice to leverage the new context that distributed teams offer. Instead of trying to replicate the traditional office, let’s look at how to use new conditions to improve the overall work experience for both businesses and individuals.

1. Working around the clock

One of the first questions that people think about when setting up distributed teams is a time schedule for work – who is available and when depending on their time zones and preferred working hours. Having people join the team from different locations can be approached in two different ways. One is expecting that everyone will adjust to the prevailing majority or to the boss’ working hours. Another one is to discuss everyone’s working hours and preferences during the hiring process. Instead of expecting that the hired team simply adjusts to the project owners’ preferences, it is fairer and more useful in the long-term to discuss everyone’s working preferences and style of work during the hiring process.

Here are some factors to consider during this process:

The advantage of having people in different timezones is being able to implement relay style of working. One can continue working on the project from where the previous person ended. Some project management styles e.g. Kanban use this kind of working system to improve efficiency.

Trust and mutual accountability enhance the process with everyone taking ownership of their tasks and helps others achieve their tasks.

Team members can agree on alternating shifts to make sure that a particular person isn’t continuously disadvantaged due to their timezone. This builds the sense of collective gain through collective pain, instead of concentrating the difficulty on either of them.

Most of the communication in the team can be done through calling and instant messaging. Modern communication tools have been designed to be fast and flexible, which often makes them replace email or physical meetings.

You might have come across work messaging services such as Slack, HipChat or Discord. In a physical office, these often prevent people from having to get up from their chair to discuss issues in person. But for distributed teams, it’s a different story. Creators of messaging tools realise that today’s workforce is moving away from company headquarters and that people are moving closer to wherever life’s happening. Hence we have communication tools that support precisely this shift.

Tips for handy apps for distributed teams

Wherever you are on your journey to effectiveness through collaboration, an unlimited set of tools and technology designed to improve remote work have been trending recently. We would like to share a few of our favourites with a hope that you might find them useful:

Project management: Trello, Asana, Jira, Basecamp

Communication: Slack, Zoom, Hangouts, HipChat, Discord

Design: InVision, Mural, RedPen

Software development: Atlassian tools, Github, Gitscrum

Virtual whiteboards: Real-time Board

Copywriting: Penflip, Google Docs

Time recording: Toggl, Hours

2. How can milestones help everyone?

As a business owner, imagine that you only pay people when they deliver the agreed outcome. As a contractor, imagine knowing exactly what you’re being paid for and focusing on just that. Days of pointless sitting in the office just to clock some hours are long gone.

Paying per project encourages people to be highly motivated, with less procrastination. This helps people to get work done effectively and then they can move on to other things.

The milestone approach has the potential to increase the quality of work delivered and save precious resources. Working on the basis of project/milestone fees allows workers to become better acquainted with the velocity of their work. It helps them to better estimate the cost of their time. A set sum of money paid at the end of the accomplished task, or in several installments paid upon delivery of sub-tasks, gives them a sense of security, which may not be common in freelance work. Yet in some relationships, parties prefer to engage on an hourly basis or they use a combination of milestones and hours. This makes sense particularly with tasks and roles that cannot be precisely measured in chunks of output, e.g. advisory and management roles.

3. Establish your team’s purpose

It is important for any team to clarify purpose and everyone’s roles. In the previous article, we discussed the need for clear communication. In distributed teams, it is imperative that everyone knows their role and isn’t left hanging, on their own. That could cause alienation and hinder progress. Defining team purpose and the individual’s role in the team is actually a brilliant opportunity for everyone to know that their contribution is vital. Working on purposeful tasks helps to increase productivity and engagement within the team. Having a clearly defined role will come handy when tracking and evaluating performance and helping people grow and optimise team composition and processes.

4. A small team is a good team

The effectiveness and efficiency of smaller teams need to be cultivated. As teams get larger, the focus on each individual gets divided. Some may think that more people working on a project is better for collaboration. But the opposite is true for teamwork. Decision making, collaboration, and communication are at the centre of an effective work environment, and smaller teams are the best to promote this.

Here are some important factors to consider when forming teams:

The two pizza rule for teams is brilliant for maximizing the effectiveness of teams. The idea is to limit the size of the team to a size where you can feed them with just two pizzas; limiting the size to within eight members or less.

When teams get too large, you face the danger of groupthink and other factors that act as an impediment to effectiveness and freedom for individual contribution.

In remote work, we have no room for further alienation from our team members because we’re already far apart from each other. That’s why we need to work in a way that brings us closer, not further. Therefore, having a small team is the way to go.

Numerous studies that date all the way back to 1931 (The Ringleman Effect) up to recent times (The LEGO Study) show that smaller teams make for more efficiency than larger ones.

Working from home, working from the comfort

Many speak about the work-life balance. But to create a balance means to compromise between two seemingly competing sides of a spectrum. How can we do so with work and life literally merging in our homes? We may spend our free time replying to work emails and our time in the office browsing social media. This trend has been growing during the last two decades as technology has taken such a leap. This has brought us to the place where we must rethink how the two can coexist seamlessly, feeding off each other, rather than competing against each other.

It’s not natural nor healthy to divide ourselves into work and life. Years ago, when the industrial age came into full bloom, we drew a line between work and personal life and we associated work with lots of negatives like the regime, obedience, control, and mistrust. As we isolated working hours and the workplace from the comforts of our home and our personal time, we moved into cities, and even closer to artificially built industrial zones. That’s how it remained until today.

Studies cited by Harvard Business Review and Forbes prove the benefits of working in a place that we enjoy and where we can also pursue other activities that are fulfilling to our lives – such as socialising with family and friends, exercising, and spending time outdoors. The benefits are mainly in the domains of efficiency, productivity, mental and physical health, and wellbeing.

There isn’t however much proof of daily commute being beneficial to our lives, or the four corners of an office being particularly stimulating or inspiring. In fact, these are certainly negative factors that keep us from productivity in our work.

Many of those who have adjusted their way of living, including reimagining why, how and what they work on, benefit from working on things they enjoy in places where they feel comfortable. They are able to both produce valuable work and live their lives. It’s not a surprise that often these are closely intertwined.

Find more inspiration about leadership, management, and wellbeing in the creative age visit BizTreat’s Youtube channel and our website