Orchestrating the Distributed Teams

Distributed teams vary in geography, size, demography, and many other aspects.
However, there is one word that says for all of them — the distance. Physical, mental, or cultural, it can easily tear a team apart, leaving behind a muddle.
Building and shaping the distributed but tight-knit team and then carefully orchestrating it all way long is a challenge for every product manager.
But the thorny path is still a path, and you just gotta make it through.


Create the Team

The co-located teammates see each other throughout the day, talk, drink coffee together, hold meetings, have the team building activities, with a nearly absolute transparency over who is doing what and who is available and when.
Things are different with the distributed teams, and the distance does its bit.
Your job here is to unite people and make them feel like they’re one.

Identify the values your team finds important, the goals you want to achieve together and the personal professional goals of every member of your team, their strengths and weaknesses, and the obstacles that you as a team are likely to face working together.
Let people better know each other, come up with the understanding of why they are doing what they are doing and how they can turn their cooperation to be mutually beneficial for achieving the intended goals.
For this, you may want to use a framework designed to contribute to the team alignment, building the team spirit, and increasing productivity — the Team Canvas.

Set the Rhythm

Structure the way you work together to ensure the harmony and synchrony of your orchestra playing a piece.

Make it so that everyone knows who is available and when:

  • Share calendars.
  • Use availability indicators in messengers.
  • Use auto-responders in the mail clients when on holidays.
  • Greet the teammates when you’re on, and say goodbye before heading home.
  • Days off should be no surprise for everyone: public holidays, vacations, sick days, etc. One of the best options here is to track those in the shared calendar.

Simulate the work in the same office:

  • Opt for the video calls. Facial contact is not for just seeing each other, it’s also a powerful cognitive channel.
    And remember to watch your facial expressions and body language when in a video call.
  • Questions asked in one-to-one chats are a priority and should be answered ASAP, as if someone came to your desk.
  • Questions asked in the group chats but with the personal mentions (e.g. @andrew) are as important as the above, while they also carry the information of some interest for the entire group.
  • Questions asked in the group chats with no personal mentions, or by e-mail, are no emergency, and can be answered later.
  • Work with the time zone overlaps to make sure there’s an intersection in the daily schedules for everyone.

Socialize in and out of the work context:

  • Set up the channels in messengers serving the not-related-to-work stuff: jokes, news, etc.
  • Encourage people to attend relevant webinars together, so they’ll have another chunk of things to discuss outside working hours.
  • Arrange the knowledge sharing sessions.
  • Consider having a Hackathon once in a while.
  • Use the art of small talk at the start of the meetings with your team to warm up.

Establish ceremonies: daily standup, requirements grooming sessions, planning, retrospectives, etc.

Ensure Transparency

  • Share news about the product with your team.
  • Make the big picture clear to everyone.
  • Configure the shared task boards, dashboards, and/or reports allowing for visualizing the current state, progress, critical issues, etc. So that the team understands where they are at every point of time, where they are heading, and what the current challenges are.
  • Make sure the team has access to all crucial information about the product.

Respect Personality

  • Work with cultural differences.
  • Overcome emotional barriers and foster the emotional intelligence in your team.
  • Set up an internal portal for your team members to expose some personal information like photos of them, their families and pets, short bio, hobbies, interesting facts, stories, etc. This allows your team members to lift the veil on their lives outside of work and get to know each other better.

Motivate

  • Value the contribution of everyone.
  • Encourage enthusiasm for the craft.
  • Build the trustful and healthy relations in your team.
  • Ensure the team members feel free to express themselves.

I’m all for Motivation 3.0, which is the concept based on the intrinsic motivation with the idea being that giving the right amount of autonomy, promoting mastery and defining a purpose are a key to building the high-performing and self-organizing team.
You may want to read more on that in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink.


The foregoing demonstrates that building a team requires a multifaceted approach and the strong attitude towards the challenges of working with people. But being done well, this job yields great rewards.

Screw the distance, go ahead and do your best to unleash the power of synergy in your team!