Working with a remote team has its challenges, but if you approach it the correct way the payoff far outweighs the effort you need to put in to make a long distance collaboration work. The main challenges have to do with communication, differences in working culture, visibility, and of course the language barrier.
Time zone differences can also be considered a challenge but this can also be leveraged as a benefit depending on your company’s strategy. The benefits, such as lowering costs while boosting your development capacity are obvious, so as a project director I am going to focus on giving you advice on how to tackle the challenges of working with remote teams as well as a few project management tips.
It is important to begin by discussing working culture, because the framework you work with will also affect how your teams approach communication. At Pentalog we approach this in a pragmatic way, by creating a mutually agreed upon environment that suits both groups.
Basically what I do in my projects is set up a collaboration framework which is set up in the first 1-2 weeks of each project. During this period we define the project’s concrete objectives, come up with a plan on how to achieve them, and define the KPIs that will measure success on both operational and management level.
It is also important to decide on the frequency of deliveries and to make sure they match up with the strategy of the client company. However, this is more of an overall framework, we also need to define how our developers will work on an operational level.
Pentalog suggests using Agile methodologies for both the remote team and the client’s team. If any particular client is not well versed in Agile methodologies then the Project Director and the Scrum Master on the team will help them learn how to be more Agile.
Agile methodologies are perfect for remote collaborations, they focus on making fast deliveries which allow the client to easily track progress and make comments. They are also flexible and can function in many scenarios, so the client can decide on the team location, size, and even on tools to use and we can set this all up within an Agile framework.
Overall, what we think works best is to combine our means and methods to create a new working culture for each remote collaboration. Both teams (local and remote) will end up with the same goals and objectives, will use the same tools, and will operate in the same way, becoming one single team rather than one in-house team and a remote team. During all these years of managing projects with clients around the world Pentalog has been fine tuning this process with every new collaboration.
The question of language falls between working culture and communication so I am going to talk about it in the middle here. Overall it is a fairly simple question. I look at it like this, if my team members can speak my client’s language then we will work using their native language.
I have team members than can work in English, German, French, and other languages. Otherwise, we will use an intermediary language which usually turns out to be English, as everyone from Pentalog can speak English and most companies who are looking to work with a remote team are also able to speak English. Language barriers are no longer much of a problem when it comes to remote cooperation as business becomes increasingly globalized.
Time zone Difference
Depending on where your remote team is located, time zone differences will either be negligible or create challenges. If you pick a nearshore partner and have 4 to 6 hours or more of common working time there is no real challenge to coordinate your activities. It can be more difficult to work with an offshore partner if they have almost the opposite working hours of your home office.
However, this time difference can be used as an opportunity, some companies actually search for time differences to complement their business strategies. It allows a company to extend their office hours, sometimes to the point where the company is operational 24 hours a day, it also helps a company cover more calendar days as everyone will have different public holidays. This just requires that there are strong lines of communication put in place so all teams know what they need to do and what the others have accomplished each day.
Strong communication is the key to success in any project. It is impossible to cooperate without communication so creating a strong communication framework from the beginning for a project is very important. Usually there are two levels to this framework, the operational level and the management level.
The operational level of communication is coordinated by the Scrum Master. This consists of typical Scrum meetings where the team talks about shorter term goals, stories, tasks, problems, and progress, as well as release/version related meetings. Here we are able to discuss the project more broadly and set up the objectives and the backlog for the next several sprints.
Of course operational communication is more than just Agile related meetings. The remote and client teams need to stay in constant contact with each other. There is Skype and a hundred other programs make long distance communication and organization easy, when my team is working with a client it is like we are just an extension of their team in another building.
However it is not just the in-house and remote developers that need to keep in close contact. I need to ensure close lines of communication with my client’s management team and I need to ensure they have all the information they need to make strategic decisions.
To do this there are two types of meeting I hold with the client. There are steering committee meetings, held monthly, that are used when working on a single project, and governance meeting, held quarterly, that are used when I am working with a client on multiple projects with multiple remote teams at the same time.
Steering Committee Meetings
The goal of the first steering committee meeting is to define KPIs and objectives, which is part of creating the collaboration framework as defined above. Further than this, it is important that my team and I understand the interests of all the different stakeholders. There are more people affected by the project than just those who directly participate, and we need to find out what type of information and data all of the stakeholders need in order to manage their other projects/line of business. We will also use the first meeting to define risk and risk tolerance as every company defines risk differently.
The overall goal of a steering committee meeting is to give a clear overview of the project and to give the client all of the information they need to make good decisions.
During these meetings they will be able to see clearly if deliverables are being provided with speed and quality, if the team is making progress with the backlog, how the budget is being consumed, how the technical debt is being managed, and all of the other information that is needed to run this and other company projects.
Governance meetings are pretty similar to steering committee meetings except they focus on the portfolio rather than the project level. The goal is to give our clients an overall view of all projects, allowing them to see on a portfolio level what cannot be seen on an individual project level. Overall they will be able to single out projects that need improvement, find the projects that are working well and try to replicate them, and refocus budgets if necessary. Again it is about giving our clients the information they need to make decision not just on the projects we are collaborating on, but on the company as a whole.
Achieving transparency is the end goal of communication. It is in Pentalog’s DNA to share all the information we can with our customers, and not just about things that are going well but risks, challenges, and even failures. Visibility even goes further than the project’s situation, we also make the client aware of the conditions of our local human resources market at any given time in Romania, Moldova, Vietnam, and Uruguay. If our competitors are driving a strong recruitment campaign, we will make our customers aware that is may be difficult at this time to ramp up the team and that we can help them come up with strategies to get the extra people they need, such as splitting the team across multiple cities, adapting the calendar, balance between sites, etc.
Overall, our goal is not to be a hidden away service provider that you send a list of tasks to. We want to collaborate, we keep things human sized and create a relationship with our clients where we usually end up learning from each other.
We don’t just look through a list of processes and apply them blindly to each project, we work directly with our clients and set up a framework that will work best for their project and their business strategy as a whole.
This is also why we believe in doing onsite visits, both to our clients offices and our offices. This helps establish a sense of cooperation and really helps to create what will become one cohesive team rather than two separate entities.
Speaking of communication, if you have any specific questions about what it is like to work with a remote team, feel free to get in contact with me. I would be happy to answer your questions.
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Also Read: Will your dev team deliver on time?