For Cefalo and our customers, managing distributed teams has always been a crucial part of our business. Simply a reality when most of our clients are in Norway and all our developers are in Dhaka – always in a different time zone and a full day's trip away.
Through the pandemic more people have had a taste of what it is like to work together, even though they are not located in the same place. Most of us have experienced being on distributed teams, from our home offices. In this reality Bangladesh is not that far away after all.
Where your employees are located is no longer as important. As long as they do their job and the team delivers as planned, it doesn't really matter where their work is being done. The same goes for management. Managing developers who work elsewhere can work just as well as those being in the same room as you, as long as you follow some important principles.
Here are our 11 tips for success.
- Have daily meetings on video
- Be clear and present (even from afar)
- Create trust and security
- Have smaller milestones along the way
- Evaluate and provide feedback
- Celebrate all wins – even the little ones
- Stop using "us" and "them"
- Use a local team lead
- Use the right (digital) tools
- View the time difference as an opportunity
- Be aware of the cultural differences
Let us take you through them step by step.
1. Have daily meetings – on video
Prior to the pandemic, skepticism was high when it came to working with video as the primary way to meet. But since March 2020 we have seen huge development in digitization and the experience for most has been positive. Video works!
But – when you do not have direct, daily contact with your team, you cannot guide in the same way as before. You generally have reduced access to information, and the problem goes both ways. It's harder to know what's going on at any given time.
The team will not always know what is expected of them and their deliveries. And you as their manager might find it more difficult, as you are not there hands-on to follow the challenges as they unfold. In other words, you need more clarification and you need it more often.
The solution is to have regular, daily meetings on video. And when working with distributed teams, you need to provide a little more time in these meetings. They should be to the point and effective yes, but leave room for them to be more than ten minutes long. Up to half an hour should be set aside for this daily meetup. When working from afar, the need to share a little of everyday life with colleagues is still there. We recommend starting with some easy social talk to build a bridge and create a sense of belonging. Laugh at weird news, share daily chores and weekend activities planned. Both Norwegians and Bangladeshis appreciate it.
CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE: Petter Irgens Gustafson isthe CTO at NHST and has used distributed teams from Cefalo for a number of years. He has worked with management distributed teams for over 20 years and points out that the quality of audio and video is extremely important when managing a team from afar.
– Poor quality of audio and video simply means poor quality of the meeting. This applies no matter where in the world the team is located, whether it is in Oslo, Norway or in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was nervous when all the consultants in Dhaka were sent to a home office, because they do not have the same quality online, or the same conditions at home as we do in Norway. Fortunately, everything has gone smoothly and surprisingly well, all things considered. We have great sympathy for the consultants and the work they do from their home offices.
2. Be clear and present – even from afar
There really is no magic trick when it comes to management from afar versus “normal” management. At least that is our experience. The biggest challenge is found in communication. It is important to be very clear, on the verge of over-communicating. Managing expectations is especially important. It must be obvious what is to be prioritized and what is expected of the team.
Project work is team play and just like in sports, it is smart to clarify each team player's role and responsibility. Ownership of milestones and partial deliveries must be clearly defined. Everyone must have a good understanding of why I am involved in the project and what my contributions are for us as a team to succeed.
If you are in the final stages of something, you need to be very clear on what should be done by tomorrow. Explain all the criteria you have for a task to be considered solved. It may seem hard and cold, but it makes it easier to deliver – and manage. You need to know that the team is working without you seeing them, and they need to know that you are close. Remote management becomes misleading in that way, because the whole basis for success is that you have to be anything but remote. You need to be close and present – from a distance.
– To succeed, you must be very present in all your communications with the team. You have to be as close-up as if you were sitting at the same desk, in fact. It is more difficult to manage a team from a distance, and therefore presence is even more important, advises Petter Irgens Gustafson at NHST.
3. Stop with "us" and "them", it is "we" that counts!
If you have a distributed team that is completely outside your own organization (like in Bangladesh), you must first and foremost move away from the belief you may have about "us and them". You need to treat your offshore team as if they were your own employees. What would you do if you got a brand new team in place at your Norwegian office?
– Avoid creating an "us and them" relationship. Look at the team as a distributed team, but still your team fully and completely, mutually dependent to succeed, says Petter Irgens Gustafson at NHST. He has 20 years of experience with distance management and admits to having made several mistakes over the years – and fortunately something right as well.
– If you choose to use offshore consultants simply to save money, your focus is off. A distributed team in Bangladesh works great, as long as you have the right person in the right place. Availability of competence is critical, so my advice is to be crystal clear on what competence you are looking for. With the right expertise in place, the savings and efficiencies are great, says Gustafson.
If you have good onboarding routines, this can easily be transferred to a distributed team. If not, take the opportunity to establish such a routine. You will benefit from it when you hire locally as well. Cefalo's experience is that a good onboarding program plays an important role when it comes to minimizing cultural differences and communication challenges. This ensures that everyone involved has a common understanding of what the goal is (and how to achieve it). And then the results often follow. Therefore, we also facilitate onboarding for our clients:
– Cefalo takes the lead in the onboarding process and pulls you through that part. They have also done excellent work with the organization in Bangladesh so that it understands what it is like to work with Norwegians, which obviously has made it all easier, explains Petter Irgens Gustafson.
4. Create trust and transparency within your team
Trust is fundamental to setting a team up for success. If your employees trust you – and each other, they will go the extra mile to ensure success. Trust is also crucial to creating safety. If your developers feel safe and secure in their team and their job, they are more likely to dare to report any challenges, issues or even problems. They will also dare to challenge and disagree with you, so that you and the team can find the best solutions.
If such disagreements pop up, these should be discussed openly in your meetings. You can not shy away from conflicts, and especially not when managing a distributed team. You must dare to discuss them directly and in plenary. The team needs to trust you and you should focus on building a culture that makes employees confident enough to speak their mind.
5. Have smaller milestones along the way
With distributed teams, we find that it works well to use a system with smaller milestones and sub-deliveries, rather than having one large delivery at the end of a project or period. With a set of smaller tasks which are delivered step-by-step, having several sub-goals along the way, it is easier to follow the progress and be in control of the full delivery.
It is also an advantage for the team to be able to constantly turn over something, rather than having one big delivery in the end. This also provides more opportunities for evaluation and feedback, which in turn increases the quality of the delivery in the end.
6. Evaluate and provide feedback
Make sure you conduct frequent evaluations and give your team feedback on the deliveries along the way. As their manager, it is your job to inspect and come up with action points if something did not go as expected. In Cefalo, we recommend what we call retrospective meetings – where everyone must mention something that was good and something that was not so good, for example in the last sprint or the last delivery. It often stimulates a constructive discussion, and builds trust and transparency in the team.
7. Celebrate all victories – even the little ones
With many, smaller milestones and partial deliveries, you can celebrate more victories, even if they are small. Wins are one of the strongest motivating factors, both for you as a manager and for your entire team. Even small wins can greatly increase job satisfaction and productivity.
– At NHST we do this constantly. We have a routine for showing our latest deliveries, and celebrating them. It creates pride in the team, and shows that what we create has a lot to say for the rest of the organization, Petter Irgens Gustafson explains.
8. Use a local team lead
If you have the opportunity, we recommend using a local team lead, whether it is on-site in Dhaka or elsewhere that you may have a distributed team. If the team is of a certain size, it is very useful to have a team lead in place with whom you can talk more openly than the others on the team.
When managing a distributed team, it is challenging when things are going on within the team – because you do not have the daily and direct insight into the situation. It can be hard to get a grip of it all, when everyone is sitting together in a video meeting. Having a team lead on the team is an advantage, you can discuss things with the team lead and manage the situation in a better way.
9. Use the right (digital) tools
– To succeed with managing a distributed team, you have to use the right tools, says Gustafson at NHST. – It goes without saying that you can not have choppy video and poor connection, but you also need other digital tools for communication and project management to go as smooth as possible.
At Cefalo we recommend that you use digital tools in order to communicate directly with your team. Slack is a good example, which gives you an open and direct line that everyone can follow and work on in real time. You should also have a good documentation tool and project management tool, such as JIRA or Trello. Then challenges that arise can be solved in a way that is organized and easy to follow.
– By using an issue tracking system like Jira, all tasks are updated and visible to the team. It is important for the developers to be able to see which tasks are in the pipeline, so make sure you include all tasks, Gustafson points out.
– Remember that if you have a bad internet connection, you won't be able to get anything done these days. It can quickly become a relevant concern offshore, because the infrastructure is not at the same level as in Norway. You should facilitate so that your offshore team has access to high-quality networks, says Gustafson.
10. View the time difference as an opportunity
If you are managing a team in Bangladesh, you should be prepared for a time difference of 4-5 hours (depending on the season). You can choose to look at it as an advantage. If you plan well, you have the opportunity to develop full-time, also during the holiday season!
Such a time difference means that your team is at work four hours before you start, and then you have around five hours to work together at the same time. The time your team works "alone" can mean fewer disruptions and increased efficiency. You often have your own local team as well, so in fact you have the opportunity for twelve hours of actual development, as opposed to eight hours if you only have your local team available.
Using a team in another country, with a different culture, also means different holidays and a different approach to weekends and holidays. This is also something you can use to gain a competitive edge. When you and your local team are on holiday, your distance team is running at full throttle.
11. Be aware of the cultural differences
Cefalo has been present in Dhaka for more than ten years now, and we work continuously to prepare our consultants for what it is like to work with Norwegians. Our organization is flat and not very hierarchical, and our employees dare to report errors and omissions. The cultural distance is often smaller than many people think.
– My advice is to do an analysis of the cultural differences in advance, so that you are aware of which cultural dimensions you differ most from each other, no matter where in the world you choose to work distributed. This is important for the whole team to understand; what differences exist and be aware of them. If you are prepared for it you can plan for it. Cefalo does a great job here, so the road is relatively easy to walk. But my advice is to do a good analysis and continue working to close the gap between any differences you find, Gustafson concludes.
Are you curious about external development? We are happy to have a pleasant chat with you by phone, meeting or video.
Post written by Tom Handegård
CTO and Co-founder, Cefalo.