In my first job as a designer I was lucky enough to have a good senior mentor and colleagues who supported me along the way, but I didn’t realise how much easier it was in a company where everybody is in the same room. We had sales teams, product and development teams, which were all readily accessible, whether we were working together or not. I worked mostly with the development team and it was a case of sending off designs and then wandering over to a developer and saying ‘hey let me know if anything is unclear.’ I remember thinking: ‘Is this as far as communicating well goes?’
Fast forward to the present and I’m part of a company with 5,000 people across multiple time zones and countries. This is what I’ve learnt (and continue to learn) about working with different teams across the world.
It sounds obvious but it is often forgotten. Go around the room and update each other on what you are working on. Stand ups demonstrate transparency/visibility for each team member and ensure that any issues can be flagged before they become forgotten problems. Doing this first thing in the morning is a good habit, but what happens if half of your team is in South America? Well, simply put, you have to do two, it could be crucial to avoid any client confusion later.
I was on a project in New York and we did a ‘who’s in the room’ standup, followed by a standup with the client, as they didn’t have time in the morning. But we had another team in Buenos Aires that wouldn’t be awake for a few hours, so we did the stand up without them. What we didn’t realise was that in the client standup, certain technical issues were discussed that we thought were easily fixable. We discovered this in the later stand up with the rest of the team but without the client. This lead to us having to talk the client again and telling them this disappointing news. Not ideal I know! Always make sure the entire team is on the same page. Do internal stand ups first then client stand ups second, also known as a ‘pre standup.’
Build a dialogue/relationship
By the end of a tough lengthy project you often grow fond of your team (at least I do anyway) and it’s a great feeling to know how far you’ve come since the start. But the hardest part is to hit the ground running when you start a new project and to somehow immediately make you feel like you’re all connected, you all get along and you all know what the hell is going on. But we all know it doesn’t start that way especially with multiple teams. I’ve often started a new project with different technical teams and so the first thing we do is set up a group on Slack. This becomes the go to place for any communication and soon enough you’re having a chat about big issues amongst friendly conversation whilst not sounding robotic or forced. Throw in standups on Google hangouts and you’re beginning to understand the way people work, what they expect and how you can deliver for the client together efficiently. You may only have two or three hours a day when all teams are working at the same time. Make it count!
Allow open feedback
Another challenge is managing a client that is based in another country and dealing with the ever growing list of things to make sure they are up to speed with what you’re working on. Summing up what you’ve done at the end of each week helps the client and internal teams but what about multiple stakeholders? When I was working on an insurance project the client team was scattered around Europe. We usually have a core project team here in London with one or two main stakeholders to which we report our work to. However on this project we were dealing with over 20 stakeholders across Europe which meant that any time we shared anything It would have to be through Webex with an enormous audience and this proved difficult in collecting feedback. Thankfully my colleague came up with a feedback form that could easily be shared. Using Google forms she put together a list of questions and the stakeholders were given time to fill in their answers after we had presented back our findings. This prevented uncontrollable disruptions during the webex meeting and allowed people to reflect on what they really wanted to say. It was effective and the client felt involved in shaping ideas and outcomes.
Learn from teams that are used to this
Working with scattered teams will naturally take time to do well but what I’ve started to realise is that there are plenty of people who are used to it already. It’s easy to think that the other teams have their own issues and we should focus on ours but when you’re on a tough project with a tight deadline it’s best to seek advice. On a more recent project which involved redesigning a website and developing a new app we had two design teams. The UK team set the standards for the website and the team in India team were responsible for the app design based off the web standards. In order to align our designs, changes and thought processes we organised two meetings a week with the India team. Naturally though due to the major time differences there would be project progress without the time to discuss changes between the teams. Thankfully the India team created a Google sheets document where they posted questions and we left answers on it as we went along. This solved the time difference issue and left us a living aggregated workspace where we could give real time feedback and ask anything ourselves. It’s important to discuss the best methods to collaborate better because a way that you may be used to might not always work with other parties.
When it gets tough working with remote teams remember the one thing that brought you together in the first place: to complete this project, which if done well, satisfies the client and helps their customers which could then lead to another project.