Make Managing Remote Teams Easy: 3 Pitfalls, One Win
Remote working isn’t just the norm for tech-startups or small businesses. In fact, due to a shortage in programmers growing by the year in the US and the EU, more companies engage with remote software development teams because there’s an abundance of talent outside their own countries. Finding programmers elsewhere on the globe becomes easier with marketplaces like Stackoverflow and Upwork, but managing remote teams can still be a challenge. There are some major pitfalls to avoid, and one important skill to make things work.
Blindingly obvious pitfalls when offshoring or nearshoring development?
Us Versus Them’ Or ‘Parent-Child’ Mentality
A clear indication of this mentality arising is when you hear your onshore team say ‘those Indians didn’t do what we asked them to do’ or ‘they don’t listen to us’. The other thing you’ll hear is ‘we are the client and pay them, why don’t they just do what we ask?’. When people have this in mind, you don’t have a team, you have ‘two sides’. The only way for remote collaboration to work is when there are no sides and the team is ‘one’.
The problem with this mentality is that people get defensive and get less willing to work together. The cause is usually that the project deliverables are not what the onshore team expects. Underneath that is miscommunication (and probably cultural differences). If this situation persists for a longer period of time, the divide gets bigger and offshoring will fail.
A similar thing happens when people act in the paradigm of ‘parent-child’, grounded in a narrow understanding of a client-supplier relationship. ‘Because we are the paying client, we expect them to stick to their deadlines and deliver quality!’ is what you’ll hear. With this attitude, there is no real partnership, which is what we need for long term success in offshoring. We focus on managing uncertainity and stand out in quality
What I learnt is embracing a fully distributed team requires a revamp in how to deal with the employees. In How to Overcome Cultural Differences When Managing Offshore and Nearshore Teams (you can have your FREE copy here) you’ll get a better idea of our CEO Hugo’s experience in how to effectively manage disutributed teams in spite of cultural and communication barriers.
Not Enough Preparation
I see companies spend a lot of money on RFP’s, country selection, talks with vendors. They see this as the important preparation part. But when they start to work, they assume they can work the same way they’ve always done with their local developers. They believe that the vendor will show them the way based on their experience.
My experience is that both sides need to invest time to prepare the way they’ll work instead of just jumping in and getting things done. Other cultures have different expectations of leadership and hierarchy, and neither the vendor nor the client can expect that the next steps to follow are clear to the other. Check for understanding and have an agreed upon process for translating goals into actions.
The Black Box Approach
Most outsourcing relationships are started (or remain) with fixed price contracts. A company finds a provider and starts with a project that takes 2-3 months to complete. They make requirements, documents, send them over to the provider and ask them to make an estimate and planning.
In my view, this process is hard with a local supplier, but with a remote supplier it is five times harder. For any software project, it’s a challenge to understand upfront what needs to be built. With that, it is more demanding to estimate how much time one needs to build the software (people tend to underestimate everything). Even though developing software is unpredictable, if a project is estimated to take a month’s time, analyze from where the number comes from because we’re usually flawed in both describing what we want the software to do and in estimating the time needed to build it, ‘extra work’ appears.
As we all know, multitasking and timelines tend to conflict even if we account on every time consuming factors. Discussions on what is ‘extra’ between a client and supplier might put the relationship under pressure. The client will assume everything was already specified (maybe because it was or because they had this in mind but didn’t write it down). The provider didn’t understand that this feature needed to be built, so they assume it wasn’t included in the offer. If both sides are very well equipped to handle this discussion, things may go well. But in many cases the pressure on the relationship leads to downfall. According to Accenture’s survey, contract-controlled, power-wielding approach and high expectation from clients, providers consistently feel under pressure.
Empathy: Key to Managing Remote Teams
In every example above, the key element missing was empathy. The ability to listen to others and understand their point of view is always important in business, but even more so when working with a team that’s geographically distant, with a set of culturally determined, almost unconscious expectations about how business should be carried out.
Empathy is important even before beginning the project. It’s a good idea to select your team based on who the team is – that is, begin by building relationships with them so you understand them better later. Instead of sending requirements to a provider and expecting good results, start with interviewing the people that will do the work. The principle to follow – the remote team members become ‘remote colleagues’. They should feel like an essential part of your organisation, whether they’re employed by you or your partner company abroad.
While empathy is often hard to find with technical people, it’s important that you have as many people with empathy as possible, especially the person onshore managing relationship and projects must be empathetic. It’s important to stimulate empathy on several levels:
- Create more understanding between the team members, which leads to higher performance
- Motivate people to accept cultural differences and from that point organize around the differences
- Understand what vision and values drive the company
- Get a deeper understanding of the products that the organisation builds, why people use it and how it makes money
Leverage Your Remote Team’s Performance
Success of high performing remote collaboration, begins with getting the right people both onshore and offshore. Get as many people on your team who are empathic, as they go an extra mile understanding others, culture, company and products. Keep in mind, investing time on your communication blueprint is essential; discuss how you’ll work before you get to the work.