In the last decades, the way we work has changed. Teamwork has a much bigger focus these days. In addition, teams were mostly seen as working in the same physical location, while nowadays the concept of distributed teams seems to be becoming more popular, especially in software development. This can be explained by a few observations: (1) restricted availability of personnel, (2) high cost of hiring and the (3) growing quality of remote conferencing technology.
Several countries face the fact that skilled software developers are hard to find, for instance countries in central or northern Europe. While in other countries, the percentage of educated IT personnel is higher and cost of hiring is lower, such as India or in Eastern Europe. Companies therefore often take the approach of off-shoring or near-shoring, or even set up foreign subsidiaries.
Consequently, companies pay a price for this of long distance communication, which is discussed below. In any case, in today’s time of globalisation, development teams are more and more comprised of people with different cultural backgrounds. Culture is a broad term that includes social behaviour, norms, societies and partially religion. It sets a context for individuals working in a team. Leaders need to be aware of this and actively use this to improve the potential of their teams.
In my experience, teams with a diverse cultural background can be more successful than other teams, but not only that. Team members can have a better working relationship due to the experience of other cultures. This requires a certain degree of openness towards other cultures, but it offers a richer experience of being a team.
Generally speaking, teams can be set up in one of the following ways:
(1) All team members are collocated; everyone is working at the same location, close to each other
(2) All team members are distributed among different locations, nobody is physically near any other team member
(3) The team is distributed, but some team members are collocated groups.
While (1) offers probably the most efficient form of communication in the team, thus giving the team better conditions for succeeding, it is nowadays less likely. (2) implies the least efficient forms of communication, but offers companies highest flexibility, scalability of teams and cost savings (potentially). (3) or any variation of it is a good alternative which offers flexibility and scalability, and at the same time it allows better communication of the collocated parts of the team.
Remote communication tools
Although contradictory to the above claims, there is a tendency towards distributed, remote teams. Distributed working location and the resulting need for remote communication have the problem that communication is done mostly on an auditory channel, with a reduced visual channel. Most other forms of communication - in particular non-verbal communication - are reduced more or less severely while communicating remotely. In order to give teams the best possible conditions for communication, adequate communication tools are required.
This means: a fast, uninterrupted internet connection, a good microphone that is adequate for the room, a camera with sufficient resolution, a proper TV or display and easy-to-use remote conferencing software. Often, at least one of these conditions is not met. A typical situation is parodied here.
In the most optimistic case, you can see every person on the remote side, you can hear them well, but it is still it not the same thing as physically being in the same room. Why is that? Perhaps it can be explained by face-to-face communication seemingly being more natural, or simply by connectivity problems causing delays due to latency and people inadvertently interrupting each other.
Remote conferencing also often results in less attention of remote attendees, unless being in a group setting locally. Listening is a mental activity that draws energy. If somebody speaking remotely is not audible, it will become very difficult to pay attention, especially if different accents and less-than-optimal room acoustics come on top. Generally speaking, face-to-face meetings are the favoured option, but if that is not possible, the second best option is remote conferencing under the aforementioned best-case conditions.
At the same time, regular day-to-day communication with other team members working remotely can be achieved with a variety of tools such as Skype, Slack, HipChat, Zoom, Hangouts, join.me, just to name a few. Same as the above, it reduces and slows down the communication of team members. If team members use any of these, they should try to use at least 3 forms of communication: Written text (which is by far the least efficient), speech (more efficient, but still missing many social context cues) and video (allowing more non-verbal communication to come through).
Meet in person
Bringing the team physically together in regular intervals is another option that might help moulding the team. Though it incurs the cost of traveling, the benefits are manifold and long-term. More importantly, meeting in person helps building up an understanding of each other, understanding the cultural contexts, understanding how the other team members “work”. With a person you have never met before “in person” you do not have this contextual information. When meeting in real life, it is much easier to associate something with the other person, which helps tremendously in communication.
In the next five to ten years, the way we work will change. A growing number of software development teams are more likely to consist of individuals working remotely and having different cultural backgrounds. In order to benefit from the full potential of teams, we need to understand the importance of an enabling structure that takes culture and communication into consideration. Distributed teams, working remotely, need to make sure to have the best possible remote working environment. Regular meet-ups in person also help building up an understanding of each team member’s cultural background and context, which helps communication.
Furthermore, it might be interesting to deep-dive investigate the savings from direct, face-to-face communication with people you know well, compared to the losses incurred through mistakes and misunderstandings, caused by lack of communication.
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Blogs and other media
50 Best Team Collaboration Tools for 2017 https://www.wrike.com/blog/best-team-collaboration-tools