April 2015
By Alyssa Fox

Image: @ Wavebreak Media Ltd/123rf.com

Alyssa Fox is Director of Information Development and Program Management at NetIQ Corporation in Houston, Texas. Alyssa is a member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) and the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA). She is also a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and is currently serving as the STC Secretary. Alyssa speaks at numerous international conferences about various management, agile, and technical communication topics.


alyssa.fox[at]netiq.com
www.netiq.com


 


 

Building and managing a successful distributed team

How can we build an environment in which global technical communicators can be successful? Face the challenges head-on to keep your team energized, innovative, and productive.

Managing a team is difficult, managing a team that is distributed around the world even more so. Building and managing a cohesive global information development team requires the right people, the right systems, and the right tools. So how can we get these components together?

Challenges for information development

Information development teams often face a number of challenges in an organization. These include:

  • Other members of the organization donít value the work of information development teams. Some colleagues might even imply that information developers ďcopy and pasteĒ or ďpretty upĒ what someone else has written.
  • Information development teams might experience reduced clout. This is due to the fact that people donít understand what these teams do and therefore donít recognize their value.
  • Information development might not be included in planning and estimates, or is brought into a project too close to the end of the release cycle. This results in multiple projects that need to be handled at once and daunting workloads.

These challenges make it all the more important that information developers are thorough in what they do within their teams and present a united front across the organization.

Creating distributed teams

Distributed teams can be created in several ways. First, you could inherit team members through mergers and acquisitions. When you inherit team members from other organizations, take some time to understand their history and the way they manage processes.

Secondly, you can build a team from scratch. This type of team creation is most common with startups and growing companies. Setting the tone for the team and establishing consistent standards is particularly important with newly created teams.

Finally, the most common way to create a distributed team is through growth and hiring. When hiring, look for candidates who are flexible and self-motivated, as these are important qualities for distributed team members.

The challenges of managing a global team

There are more and more distributed teams around the world. Modern businesses are set up globally, and we all benefit from solutions to address the challenges associated with this global model.

Us vs. them

If two teams are joined as a result of a merger, people often fall into an ďus vs. themĒ mentality. When you have larger teams in two locations, itís easy to forget that the team in the other location is part of your global group. Consider the following to address this attitude:

  • Have a ďbuddy systemĒ where a team member from one location is matched up with a member of the other group to have regular calls and discussions on work challenges, ideas for projects, etc. The goal of the buddy system is to build relationships and to help team members get to know each other. A solid team foundation helps coworkers to be more comfortable when asking for help from other team members, and to strengthen the overall team. It helps to give team members a particular topic, if they donít feel comfortable about starting off the discussions.
  • Hold quarterly global team meetings to discuss what the team is doing and where it is heading. Itís important that everyone on the team feels like they are in the loop on team initiatives and team decisions.

Time zones

Time zone differences are an obstacle you canít get around. The most important thing to remember in this area is to be fair.

  • Alternate meeting times so that each group is meeting outside their normal work hours. Asking one group exclusively to give up their evenings does not share the burden and can cause resentment towards the other group.
  • Be responsive outside of normal work hours. You donít have to check your email ad nauseam throughout the evening, but itís a good idea to check it at least once, so if someone needs urgent help, you can supply it without the team member having to wait until the next day.

Consistency in standards

It can be difficult to keep standards consistent around the world. A groupís previous practices and interactions with other project teams can impact how well they keep team standards. Since information development teams typically have writers working on multiple projects, consistent standards across the organization are important to reduce process-learning times as people move from project to project.

People are the top priority

Managing a team is about people. The success of a global team strongly depends on knowing your team members, understanding how they work, and helping them adapt to a distributed team model.

Getting to know individuals

Having a general understanding about your team membersí lives and cultures helps you understand how they interact with others and how their daily personal lives intersect with work. Some cultures are more hierarchical, others less. Understanding how they interact with managers and colleagues helps you guide them in a way that works for them. It also gives you a better understanding of how things are generally handled in their office, e.g. at meetings.

Knowing how your team members have worked in the past might help you understand their resistance towards new methods you are trying to implement. You might then be in a better position to show them how your new work approach can benefit each team member. Everyone handles change differently. Some are quite open to it while others are rather reluctant. Adapt your message to show each team member the benefits of the change you are proposing.

Probably the most helpful way to keep in tune with your team members is to have frequent one-on-one meetings. This regular contact ensures that team members donít feel left out, even if they are far away.

Visit your distributed team members personally, especially in the early days after a merger or acquisition. We have great technology today that helps us communicate easily with people around the world, yet itís hard to beat face-to-face communication. It makes a big difference if you can visit your team members around the world regularly. Another option is to gather as many team members as possible for a few days of meetings or trainings.

On the social side, keep something like a ďWhoís WhoĒ page that helps team members to associate faces with names and get to know each other. Sharing things like hobbies, favorite books, or birthdays helps team members to see more personal aspects of their colleagues, thus facilitating teamwork and reducing location-based friction. Another way to encourage your teamís social interaction is a social area on your intranet, where people can chat, post their favorite recipes, recommend books, post family snaps, etc.

Team expectations

Holding the entire team to the same expectations is vital. Showing favoritism one way or the other hurts the team. Even if the team in one location is more senior, guide them all with the same expectations. It shows respect and faith in them.

Treat everyone fairly, not equally. Give each team member what he or she needs to grow. Remember that coaching that worked well for one team member might not work for another. The idea is to tailor your feedback, guidance, and support to each team memberís personality.

If needed, support everyone on the team by pushing back their projects if you feel their workload is overwhelming. Often, technical writers get pressured by developers. Itís our job as managers to show team members that itís okay to say ďNo, Iím not putting that in the documentation and hereís why,Ē or ďI canít get that done by tomorrow, but I can get it done by Tuesday.Ē

In my organization, we use a job ladder to clearly describe what is expected of each member in a certain role. This also shows all team members what skills they need to acquire if they want to move to the next level. The job ladder includes major areas like functional expertise, technical expertise, product knowledge, usability, quality, communication, teamwork, and leadership skills. It offers two paths: one towards management, and one towards a higher-level individual contributor. Having team expectations clearly stated reduces competition among team members, and encourages people to refine their skills based on the ladder, rather than on where they think they are compared to other team members.

Having weekly management meetings with the global managers ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations.

Evaluating and tweaking processes and tools

All team members should use the same standards. This might be an issue when two teams are joined through a merger and various groups are doing different things. When determining how to move forward, see what you can use from both sides rather than just assuming that your preferred way is better. This shows your respect for all team members as well as your dedication to creating a truly global group. In addition to knowledge sharing, ensure that your team leaders are distributed equally and do not all come from one location.

Global team trainings help the entire team understand a particular tool or process the team might be adopting. Having various team members from each location conduct these trainings keeps the knowledge flow active. Consider having a ďshow and tellĒ session at quarterly team meetings, where team members talk about their projects or recent accomplishments. This might provide others with inspiration for their own projects.

Consider having leadership teams in each location. Especially if you have to juggle many different projects at once and there are not enough people to handle them, you might get overwhelmed and lose the connection to the team. Team leaders might be able to assist here. Have regular meetings to allow your team leaders to fill you in on how their respective teams feel or anything else that needs to be addressed. You can also enlist the help of your team leaders when rolling out new initiatives. The leadership teams from all locations can meet regularly to compare notes and support each other in maintaining consistency and encouraging the entire team.

Having sub-teams based on various interests and needs helps to share knowledge as well. For example, we have a tools team and a video team. People can join whichever team they like. All teams have members from all of our locations Ė another opportunity for people in different locations to work together, get to know each other, and share information.

Working with project teams

One of the best ways to get people to know each other is to have people from different locations work on projects together. This approach is not always feasible or desirable but, if itís possible, itís a great way to consolidate teamwork. In addition, itís important to have lead and senior team members around the world. Even if you have a team that is stronger in one location, or more senior, try to find ways to encourage and promote leadership based on position or role in each location.

Communication

Communication is key in global teams. Too much information is better than not enough information. Frequent one-on-one meetings and group meetings are important to keep the information flowing. Using various chat tools, conference calls, and video conferences helps to keep people in tune with each other. In particular, video conferences, by providing live images, make the team feel closer.

Use email as a last resort. It has its place, but doesnít offer the real-time aspect of other types of communication. Plus, itís less personal than chatting with someone on Instant Messenger or talking on the phone.

Whatever form of communication you use with your global team, focus on collaboration and conversation. The best teams work together to take the team forward. We, as managers, are here to coach, support, and encourage. Remember, if you take care of the people, the rest will fall into place.