Building an Effective Team Across Multiple Locations
Consider our situation: Travel agencies in more than 130 countries use the Travelport platform daily. Travel agencies’ needs vary by region—rail transit is important in French markets, for example, while in Asia we have to support a growing number of low-cost airlines that are establishing operations. Our product team spans multiple regions to help us stay abreast of the demands of our various market segments.
Our product managers focus on the more strategic elements of the Pragmatic Institute Framework, while product owners focus on execution and functional delivery. Our 10 product managers and owners are located across five time zones, interacting with a delivery team of more than 100 spread across an even larger area.
Using an agile-based software development methodology, collaboration among our product and delivery team members is imperative. And making that happen requires far more coordination than it would if we were in a single location. Over the years, we have learned many lessons and have adopted several practices to enhance our teamwork and productivity, including organizational adjustments, the effective use of communication tools and maximizing limited meeting time.
Assess the Challenges
Distance creates a number of challenges, including:
Challenge #1: Information silos. Because there are limited casual water-cooler conversations or ad hoc group discussions, communication must be deliberate and strategic; information must be shared explicitly. Without well-coordinated and planned communication, information silos can develop. Our team has three main office locations in different parts of the world. Within each office, team members work closely together. They attend meetings in person and interact inside and outside of the office. Team members know what is happening within each location. But sometimes people may not be comfortable communicating outside of their own location. As a result, information can become common knowledge in one location and not others. These information imbalances can lead to confusion on large projects.
Challenge #2: Email volume and calendar overload. When you’re in the same office, it’s easy to pop over to someone’s desk to ask a quick question; but when separated by borders and time zones, the first instinct often is to send a quick email. With enough “quick” emails, the overwhelming volume can mean that inbox management replaces meaningful activities. In some cases, scheduled meetings replace ad hoc discussions, and calendar management becomes—in the words of my co-worker—like “playing a hopeless game of Tetris.”
Challenge 3: Time zone limitations. Spanning multiple time zones is the greatest challenge for remote teams, as opportunities for direct communication are limited. Our two largest offices are in Denver and London, which are seven time zones apart. There is just one shared hour (the “golden hour”) of regular office hours between the locations. If the right stakeholders are not available at the right times, issues can take days to resolve through email or other scheduled meetings.
Adapt Your Organization
Making the best of a globally dispersed team takes strategic planning and communication. These common-sense best practices are making a difference:
Organize by time zone when possible. The most effective way to overcome the challenges of multiple locations is to organize teams by time zone. For agile delivery teams, working closely with the product owner is a key factor for success and effective workflow. When these teams can be online and available at the same time, they can make decisions faster. This requires strategic planning because you need skilled specialists spread across locations, allowing you to build deeper teams in each region.
Plan workshops and in-person gatherings at least once a year. Bringing team members together in person from all of our locations requires a significant effort. However, it is vital that remote teams have the chance to meet face to face for working sessions. This allows for necessary relationship building and helps geographically dispersed teams bridge cultural or spoken communication barriers. While the travel expenses can be substantial for a large team, we have clearly seen the payoff in improved communication after the meetings. (And we’ve seen the opposite for teams who have not yet met in person.)
Express roles and responsibilities clearly. Product management teams become the one-stop answer desk for questions from across the organization, and in a global team it can be difficult to get the right question to the right owner—it defaults to whoever is nearest or online at the time. A clearly defined and published set of responsibilities made available to all stakeholders is key to ensuring that the right questions are directed to the right people every time.
Use Communication Tools Smartly
On any team, effective communication is a must. Distance can add a layer of difficulty, but if you have the right tools in place, you can mitigate those challenges. Consider these ideas:|
Take advantage of screen-sharing meeting tools. The ability to easily share your screen with remote team members is critical to a collaborative environment. We also often conduct sessions with customers using screen-sharing tools when in-person meetings are logistically prohibitive. They are great for webinars and product demonstrations as well.
Store key documents where everyone can access them. With any large organization, having a place to share information is key to minimizing avoidable questions and confusion. But this becomes even more important when working across multiple locations. We use platforms like SharePoint, OneNote and Trello for communication both within and beyond our team, and we are always looking for new tools. The time we invest to maintain these resources is a wise investment. We avoid unnecessary questions, we agree on which version of various documents to use and team members are on the same page. Publishing documents such as product roadmaps or release plans in known locations so that they are available for anyone at any time also minimizes questions that take time away from more meaningful activities.
Overcome distance and accents with instant messaging. An instant messaging system helps bridge the distance between team members far better than email, as it facilitates immediate communication. It’s also helpful during phone calls when team members of different nationalities have issues understanding one another because of accents or other barriers.
Record presentations and demonstrations. Our product team members regularly demo new features or walk through concepts for our extended delivery team and stakeholders. But with a global team, this means scheduling multiple sessions or missing audience members for live sessions. By recording these demos and presentations and making them available on our SharePoint site, we can enable countless views from just one recording.
Use email as a last resort. Given the challenges of communicating and scheduling across the globe, email is often seen as the easiest method for resolving questions. However, this can lead to an unmanageable inbox volume. While some email traffic is unavoidable, our team carefully looks for questions or repeated topics that could be handled through the improved use of tools like FAQ documents. Reduced avoidable email is the return we see on the time we invest in updating these sites.
Make the Most of Limited Meeting Time
Avoid the “golden hour overlap” when scheduling. There is high contention for those few time slots that are convenient for all. To minimize this, our team avoids scheduling recurring meetings such as daily standups or weekly team meetings during this time slot to leave them open for more pressing discussions.
Moving out of the mutually convenient times does mean that some team members are pulled out of a normal schedule. Our Denver team members routinely join calls well before sunrise, and our product manager in South Africa attends a weekly demo session after everyone else in the office has left for the day. To minimize this, we have had some success scheduling specific days of the week where all teams extend their overlapping time to make the inconvenience more predictable and limited.
Utilize video conferences. Video conferencing adds depth to virtual meetings and helps keep remote team members connected. Video aids in the mechanics of conference calls, too, reducing interruptions and simultaneous commenting. It also adds nuance that can be lost in a large conference call. While our company does have large video-conferencing rooms with centralized scheduling, we have found equal or better results by using laptop or portable webcams and connecting them to our meeting software.
Go Global with Ease
Managing the complexities of a global team takes effort, but our experience has shown that with some practice and careful attention, you can create an effective team environment that spans well beyond the boundaries of a single office.
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