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Facing Your Fears: Partnering with Distributed Teams


Kari Boots
Portfolio Manager - modifly

Distributed teams.  It’s all the rage these days.  A quick Google search will return millions of results (3.3 million to be exact); articles, blogs, tips and tricks and even scientific studies analyzing the effects and impacts of a distributed team model.

Regardless of the buzz around distributed teams and their advantages, companies today are faced with the dilemma — can we achieve the same success when choosing a partner with a distributed team? The reality is that you have a project or an initiative that you are pushing, you need a partner that will deliver and the idea that your new partner is everywhere but in your office makes you a little…. anxious, shall we say?

As with any new concept, it’s always helpful to do a reality check – a gut check so to speak– separating fear from reality and setting a few parameters that alleviate those fears to ensure success. Let’s go through the exercise together:

Fear: The work isn’t getting done. Or it’s not done well.

Reality:  There is a preconceived notion when working with distributed teams that out of sight is equal to out of mind.  Those fears aren’t unfounded; distributed teams aren’t always successful. Truth is, distributed teams are hard to get right.  But in reality, having your partner occupy the same geographical space as you won’t provide any more control over the situation — you just feel like you have more control because you can see them. In fact, an Aon Consulting Report found that virtual teams saw a 43% gain in productivity, with supporting studies suggesting that well managed virtual teams outperform in-office employees.

Interestingly enough, the steps you would take to monitor progress with your in-office teams are the same exact steps you would take when working with a partner with a distributed team model.  In order to find success with a distributed team, you must take the time upfront to clearly outline your expectations around project communications (i.e. the who, the what, the when).

Set the frequency of project status updates, if it needs to be weekly progress check-ins, say so.  Clearly defining the success metrics you care about the most can help your partner tailor your status updates to provide you insight on the information you care about.   Most importantly, be available when you are needed. Chasing people and information down is counterproductive, so take the time to answer their questions and provide the feedback they need in a timely fashion (actually, this goes for in-office teams too).  Delays in response times can really hinder progress for a distributed team since they don’t have the option to catch you in the hallway or drop by your office.  To ensure your timely response, and protect your sanity, carve out 30 minutes each day for office hours where people can call in and ask questions on the fly or you can return those waiting emails in your inbox.  

Fear: We’ll lose momentum or energy if they aren’t on-site with our team.

Reality: Ehh. Actually, it could be quite the opposite. In fact, having your partner on-site long-term could be draining and actually work against the momentum or energy you are looking to build. Research shows that individuals who are successful in distributed teams are organized, self-motivated, and independent. Their best work comes with clear communication and expectations and a fair amount of freedom.

That being said, there are situations in every project where face-to-face interaction is valuable.  Consider being purposeful with your requirements for having your partner on-site and limit mandatory on-site visits to important project milestones such as the project kick-off.  Have the distributed team visit your location, meet your teams, get a feel for your culture and explore your technologies.  Scheduling other visits throughout the project lifecycle as needed for mid-project touch bases can go a long way in building relationships and easing the fears caused by distance.  This may be an added expense to the project, but the benefits of building trust through in-person interactions far outweigh the cost.

Fear: Our brand/project initiatives can not be understood from a distance. You really need to be present to “get us”.

Reality:  Okay, there may be some truth to this, depending on the project. It is not, however, true in all cases. In reality, scheduling those routine face-to-face visits may eliminate this fear. But, an overall understanding of how your distributed team works may be of equal or more value in alleviating this concern. Depending on the type of project, creative or technical, operational or strategic — in almost all cases, retaining an objective view of your organization is far more beneficial than inundating a distributed team within your culture.

So, when you’re looking for a new partner, don’t be afraid to address your concerns directly by asking the tough questions.  What steps will you take to understand our brand/project initiatives? How involved do you want/need me to be in the process?  How often will you communicate with me?  How will you communicate with me?  We have a few unique traits about our company that we want to retain in this initiative, what steps can you take to ensure those traits aren’t lost in the shuffle? Here are my concerns {name them}, what can we do to alleviate them?

You may just be surprised at the answers. And how helpful your transparency is to your new partner.  

The truth is, having your partner embedded on-site with you doesn’t guarantee value and success.  Focus on how your partner fits the project needs. It’s far more advantageous than it is risky to place emphasis on skills, passion, and commitment to a job well-done, rather than their physical location

And just so you know, we understand your fears.  We operate with a distributed model and we can tell you firsthand there are fears on this side of the fence as well. We address our own fears by being more intentional and thoughtful about our hiring choices because we know the distributed model only works well for individuals with specific traits. We pay close attention to communication within our team. Jane isn’t in a cubicle across the way, so we have to make a concerted effort to talk to one another.  We have to provide the right tools for our team to be successful.  Finally, we hold ourselves accountable for providing the right level of transparency to our clients that promote productivity on both sides.

Over the years, we’ve come to understand that the distributed model works best with clear communication and the right people. You can’t have the right people and zero communication — it breeds frustration.  And you can’t have clear communication with the wrong team of people — it is irritating, at the very least.  

After all, wasn’t it Shaw who said, the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place….