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6 best practices for managing projects in a distributed team

Written by Jochem Poesen on 15/07/15

In 2013, AMPLEXOR opened its satellite office in Cluj, Romania. We soon started working on our first projects in cooperation with our new Romanian colleagues, which meant virtual meetings across countries, time zones and languages.

We had to leverage our previous experience with this kind of team work. Our company has a flat structure with self-managed teams, which builds a strong but distributed network, as opposed to a centralized network, where team members report to a single point of contact.

Visualization of centralized versus distributed teams

In the case of a mixed team with junior and senior team members, everyone can help each other. Learning from those we work with is much more efficient than any kind of central organised system.  

How do you make a distributed project team work? Based on what we've learned, here are 6 things to take into consideration when managing a distributed team:

  1. Create insight into the critical success factors of the project;
  2. Define tasks as clearly as possible;
  3. Communicate because you can’t not communicate;
  4. Use tools that enable and facilitate distributed working;
  5. Do not rely exclusively on written communication; and
  6. Create flexible self-managed teams.

Lesson 1: create insight into the critical success factors of the project

Everyone is aware of the fact that he is to deliver within scope, time and budget, but an additional understanding of a customer's goals leads to a better end result.

Imagine that your customer explains personally to your team why he initiated the project; this  is a great starting point.:

  • Invite everyone at the beginning of the project to sit together! Even if this happens only once, it is a solid foundation for the rest of the project and it creates mutual understanding.
  • Give a specific objective to a sprint at each sprint meeting or increment.- the whole team is striving to get to the objective.

Lesson 1: create insight into the critical success factors of the project

Lesson 2: define tasks as clearly as possible

Define a task in a sprint clearly and  with actionable pointers. The definition of "done", where you specify which subtasks are always done before signaling a task is completed, is quite common already, but the definition of "ready" is as important as the definition of done.

Having a task ready to develop implicates that the team member has all information available through various channels to have the insight to make a successful result.

Define tasks as clearly as possible

Lesson 3: communicate because you cannot not communicate

Share all aspects of the project with the entire team to ensure that everyone follows the project’s progression and potential issues. Transparency creates involvement, even at a distance, so everyone feels committed.

Communication is a motivating factor. But even more so, a lack of communication can be very demotivating for the team: it will bring problems to the surface later than usual and therefore often with more impact.

Lesson 2: define tasks as clearly as possible

Lesson 4: use tools that enable and facilitate distributed working

We share project content using our own SharePoint platform as an extranet. And the project site is shared with our customer. Besides document sharing and project tools like an issue-tracking tool, and a wiki, we use multiple chat platforms like Slack or Skype for Business.

Those tools work brilliantly,  and certainly in combination with a noise reduction speakerphone - a small investment that made conference calls a lot more enjoyable. The tools are used with team members, but also during interaction with our customers.

Having the opportunity to use private chat and group chats facilitates direct communication within the project team. This content can  vary from helping each other with a quick chat, initiating a peer review and small talk, which is essential to create a team spirit.

If you need some inspiration for tools you could use, read this blog post by Ghost: 11 Tools That Allow us to Work from Anywhere on Earth as a Distributed Company.

Lesson 5: do not rely exclusively on written communication

Emailing, texting and all other forms of written communication are certainly important, but avoid overusing it as a standard form of communication. Written communication often lacks the personal touch necessary to develop a good working relationship.

Use video conferencing instead! Communication at a distance is always more difficult than being in the same room, but by also  using video conferencing this allows more nonverbal communication to be seen and understood  (someone might look tired or have a Movember mustache …).

Lesson 5: do not rely exclusively on written communication

Be aware of the fact that from time to time, everyone is lost in translation. We continuously work in multilingual, multidisciplinary teams where the bridge language is English, but no one is a native English speaker. Sometimes information or nuances are lost – you have to deal with it in a positive constructive way.

If possible, use opportunities where distributed teams can join each other: at a conference or at a company event for example.

Lesson 6: flexible, self-managed teams

Working in a distributed team does not require that everyone works 9-5. Even in near shoring there can be one to two hours of time zone difference.  As such, it is certainly necessary to create recurrent moments of consultation, such as a daily stand-up meeting, a sprint meeting and a retrospective.

A continuous open line creates a group spirit to achieve the requested results, because throughout a working day members of the team need to be available for each other.  When the whole team is in the same office, it is much easier to just go to a colleague and ask a question, as the respective colleague cannot actually ignore you, or if he does, then it’s probably a different type of problem.

Lesson 6: flexible, self-managed teams

On the other hand, when having written communication and you work on a task, responsiveness becomes a big issue if that colleague doesn’t check his messages, doesn’t open up his email, doesn’t pick up his phone (or whatever other communication channels might be established for the project)  then, it definitely results in frustrations and probably in prolonging the work in hand.

Conclusion: Make the invisible visible for team members

Consider these 6 lessons whenever you're working with or managing a distributed team. By checking if all communication lines are open and used frequently, using all tools at your disposal to facilitate team work and by making sure everyone understands what the end result will look like, you'll avoid miscommunication and be one step further in your progress towards project success!

Checlist for distributed teams

These 6 lessons help to make the invisible, visible for team members. A distributed team is most effective when all its members are focused equally on both their formal tasks and their personal relationships. Eventually, this will become a part of everyone’s DNA. And it will be at the core of the organization’s culture and value system.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like the post by my colleague, Dimitri, about digital project planning and the warning signs that your project might not be on track.

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Digital Strategy

Jochem Poesen

Written by Jochem Poesen

Jochem Poesen is Project Manager at AMPLEXOR. He is based in Belgium.

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