Managing and working with any team has its challenges… Now, take away the proximity and face to face aspect from this equation, and it can get a whole lot harder right? Yet this is the reality of today’s working environment.
Whatever the reason, competition, economics or maybe even the need for a readily available talent pool , more and more companies either have to or choose to work with off-site and off-shore teams.
Working with an off-site or off-shore team has its own challenges. Differences in culture, work ethics and expectations, language, time difference, religious or public holidays and work experiences to name just a few. These complexities create a minefield of challenges to be negotiated by project/programme managers. Effective tools to assist with this task are difficult to come by, which is why I have put together the list of tips below that I hope will make this process a little easier, and of course productive.
Awareness of differences within the team
Many years ago HSBC ran a couple of amazing advertising campaigns, “Points of view” and “World’s Local Bank”. These advertising campaigns show just how easy it can be to misinterpret or misunderstand just about anything.
HSBC advertising campaign – “World’s Local Bank”
As an example, in the advertisment, we can see two distinct gestures that were brought up that may seem normal to one culture but not to another. One of them is the trusting of the palm and the other is putting your bare feet on a table. The trusting of the palm with fingers pointing outwards is commonly seen as a gesture to symbolise a stop sign. However, in Greece, this gesture is highly offensive and pretty much equivalent to giving someone “the bird”. Similarly, showing the soles of your feet is an utterly rude gesture in Thailand, however not quite so in the rest of the world.
So what exactly do I mean being aware of differences? On the offset you would imagine that this means just cultural differences but as shown in the HSBC adverts, this is not always the case. I have had many experiences over the years with off-site or off-shore teams I have worked with where I have been presented with an array differences. By differences I am referring to all and every kind – cultural, languages, preferences, likes/dislikes, flexible working hours, full-timers, part-timers, life experiences, work experiences – the list goes on and on.
Understanding the differences between all team members is important to maintain good relationships within this globalised world and will take you far in terms of productivity, and visibility into where the project stands (working with off-site and off-shore teams, as with in-house teams, to ensure success we also need to be constantly mindful of the individual personalities within the whole team). This in turn can then assist with figuring out how best to work with the team individuals and the team as a whole moving forward.
Setting clear expectations
Ascertaining objectives, requirements and roles/responsibilities can be the corner stone of an effective beginning to a project. A great place to start with setting all project expectations from the off-site or off-shore teams would be in a kick-off meeting involving everyone, perhaps incorporating teleconferencing system. In my experience, being able to visually see who you are working with is one of the most powerful aids to success down the track.
Every detail required for project success should be explicitly stated and documented in the first instance. Extensive and detailed design documentation should be prepared for the off-site or off-shore teams as unclear expectations often leads to undesirable outputs. In addition, ensuring we ask for input from all team members with items that relate to their work at all times ensures that there is full understanding, and buy-in from them constantly. Finally briefing back with the team to ensure expectations are understood and confirmed will avoid confusion and ensure all team members are on the same page.
What are the project objectives? What is everyone doing? Who are individuals working with? Who are the team reporting to? What are the acceptance criteria that will determine project success? These are a few of the important questions that need to be addressed right from the start. They can be answered in an array of documentation but they also need to be addressed more personally, no-one can always assume that all project documentation is even read!
In addition, all off-site or off-shore team members must be made clearly aware of their roles and responsibilities in the project right from the start. A useful way to ensure delivery and maintain a grip of what is going on may be to assign an on-site team member to lead the team. With your assistance you will both be able to monitor the activities and requirements of the off-site or off-shore team on a daily basis.
Minimise any misunderstandings
Working with any off-site or off-shore team, equates to a complete lack of interpersonal experiences and this can impact perceptions, how the requirements are being understood and how the team works together. It is vital that all project concepts are fully understood through the provision of concise documentation, and providing an environment where questions can be asked at any time by anyone. It is important for the off-site or off-shore teams to understand the requirements, project direction and status at all times. Useful tools for this (and covered in the next point in more detail) could be to conduct meetings with the use of teleconferencing facilities and sharing desktops to allow a good visual grasp when walking through concepts, requirements and such like.
Good communication in project teams is the key to everything! A common misconception is that everyone in the project needs to know absolutely everything; this is not the case and may only add to confusion however this is also down to the individual’s role and their needs. So in this scenario, the concept of a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix could work wonders, this keeps track of all stakeholders (everyone in the team) and analyses who needs to be aware of what (or who wants to be aware of what), how they contribute and basically tracks communication throughout the project.
As communication is so important, the use of tools to assist with this (but not limited to) is shown below:
- Desktop sharing (TeamViewer, WebEx, LogMeIn etc)– this is a fantastic way to show off-site or off-shore team members exactly what you mean by observing the information real time and as the team discuss/work on it.
- Teleconferencing (WebEx, Skype, GoToMeeting etc) – as mentioned previously, this is a great way to see and interact with the team, very different to being in person but a solid compromise.
- Document repositories (Sharepoint, Basecamp, Dropbox etc) – it is critical that this is defined upfront; this will allow everyone to have access to necessary up-to-date documentation.
- Issue tracking systems (JIRA, TFS etc) – provides the ability to log tasks, issues, stories etc and can be shared with the off-site or off-shore team and the local team to create one big picture for everyone.
- Electronic boards (Kanban boards, JIRA etc) – the use of these tools provides complete visibility into what any team member is doing at any time regardless of their location.
The need for frequent status reporting is imperative with the off-site or off-shore team, this can form part of the issue tracking system where updates and current snapshots can be accessed and viewed seamlessly in addition to other ways of obtaining the status. I would also include the use of 360 feedback reviews throughout the project, and regular retrospectives. What we are trying to understand is both the project status and the team status and vibe. In addition, as the team is off-site or off-shore, it is a great way to monitor morale, pick up any issues early on and have greater visibility into all the positives.
To summarise, working with an off-site or off-shore team needn’t be mission impossible, following the guide that has been presented can make the experience very positive, productive and enjoyable! Most importantly, following these steps could very well make the distinction between project success and project failure; I for one know where I would want my projects to sit…