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Book Series on Managing Remote Teams

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Oct 09, 2014. Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |

In the book series the art of managing remote teams authors share their experiences and provide advice on establishing and working with remote teams. The books are intended for people who are about to setup an offshore or nearshore team, or people who are already managing a remote team and want to improve.

The books in this series are written using a crowdsourcing project. In each book there are chapters written by three to five authors, whom each give their view on the particular topic. The first book How to not screw up when managing a remote team can be downloaded free of charge (registration required).

InfoQ did an interview with Hugo Messer, editor of the book series and global staffing specialist, about collecting stories for the book series, how to improve outsourcing, managing communication and cultural differences in outsourcing and future topics for the book series.

InfoQ: What made you decide to publish a series of eBooks on outsourcing?

​Hugo: I have been in the global sourcing industry for about 10 years now and I have read almost every book or blog that exists. The thing I have not found is a 'how to guide' for offshoring. The main challenge people engaged in offshoring cite time and again is 'communication'. It's tough for people to change their habits from working with local colleagues to remote colleagues. Many people struggle and many projects have difficulties because of communication. I have developed a method to make remote collaboration more smooth and want to share that knowledge now to help others.

InfoQ: How do you gather stories for the books and select those stories that will be included in the books?

Hugo: To add different experiences and methods to my own, I decided to write the books with a community of experts. Until now we have 25 authors that contributed their experiences to the book.​ I seek out experts, who have worked with remote teams either as a consultant, as a 'buyer' (either operational or strategic) or as a 'vendor'. Each person contributes an article of about 5-8 pages. The articles are practical, down to earth and pragmatic stories. No theories, but 'how to's'.

InfoQ: The three books that have been published cover managing remote teams and organizing offshore and near shore work. Can you describe what companies can do to improve the way that they do their outsourcing with examples from the books?

Hugo: One of the themes ​that all authors write about is 'building a cohesive team by travelling and meeting each other in person'. Although this seems obvious, many people believe that with modern technical tools, everything can be done through a PC. But nothing replaces having a dinner or beer with each other, knowing each others personal background. Companies need to invest in this. I think Amanda Crouch's article 'making offshore collaboration work' provides a strong framework for developing this team-spirit.

Another point repeatedly made is to use Scrum as a process. While most software development used to be in a waterfall like method, scrum provides much more flexibility, communication and shared responsibility to build great software. In a distributed setting, the many 'meetings' improve the team spirit as well as the results from the development team. One of the meetings that helps in improving the communication is the retrospective. Instead of working for months on the delivery of a piece of software, a team reviews the way they work (not only the results they produced) every 2 weeks. The team discusses what went well or not in the way they work. If you keep this rhythm, there is much less chance that people work inefficient, that delays keep coming, that people can free ride in a team. Especially in a setting with an 'invisible' part of the team (the remote team), such meetings provide understanding and cohesion in the team. Two articles to read on this subject is my own 'working together, sitting apart' and 'setting up a distributed agile team in India' by Abhilash C'.

InfoQ: The fourth book in the series will be about cultural differences when managing offshore or near shore teams. Can you elaborate what those issues are and what you can do to deal with them?

Hugo: Many books have been written on this subject. I think that by reading them all, things may get more confusing than clear. By thinking a lot about cultural differences, you might overdo it and focus too much on the differences instead of the similarities.

From my experience there are 2 important things:

A. You need to embrace the cultural differences and accept that there are differences. People love to travel, see new things, meet different people: use that same curiosity in an intercultural collaboration. Based on this acceptance, you'll find ways to organize around them

B. Look at the individual. Although culture has an impact on every person's behavior, it's not the only thing. Look at the strengths, weakness, interests, particular behaviors of every person and then distribute roles and tasks. This way you get a real team spirit. As you would do it locally.

InfoQ: Communication is important, both within teams and between team members and the stakeholders. Can you dive some examples what remote teams can do to improve communication?

Hugo: ​The thing that brings about most change is a 'meeting rhythm'. Teams should establish a fixed schedule of weekly and daily meetings, which is a central part of Scrum already. As described above, it's helpful to add one meeting to the Scrum meetings: a weekly meeting of process managers (including a project manager or higher level executive onshore). In our company we also add a daily standup in our delivery office between the team, the scrum master and the process manager (this is independent from the daily meeting with the onshore product owner and/or scrum master)​. The process manager acts as a coach to the team members and helps them to communicate effectively with the onshore team members.

On top of this, it's valuable to schedule personal development meetings with each individual team member. We do this each quarter. Each month, we ask our customers to provide feedback on the behavior of each individual (on 5 factors, established in collaboration with the customer and depending on what's important for each member). This feedback is collected each month and in the personal development meeting, we use this to develop a personal plan for the next quarter. The feedback we generate this way, enables each team member to adjust behavior to what the team and the collaboration needs.

The team should also think carefully about the tools they use in the communication. One thing I have learned is that using email as a tool of communication can be effective but it can also cause trouble. When used to communicate about requirements and status of a project, often, long threads are created that lead to mess. Besides, emails get lost or ignored. To avoid this, project management tools like Jira, Basecamp or Redmine can be used. Face to face communication is also vital. Many technical people prefer to write or chat. I have seen that collaboration becomes more effective once people have met in person, supported by regular Video calls. Skype works very well for this purpose; as webex and advanced videoconferencing hardware can enhance this experience.

InfoQ: What can stakeholders do to improve communication with remote teams?

Hugo: My view is that 'the team' consists of people located onshore and offshore (even in a client-supplier collaboration). The mechanisms implemented are best viewed from that angle: it's one team and everything is planned involving both shores. As soon as the teams are seen as separate, the danger of an 'us versus them' mindset exists. So the communication measures I described in the question above are what can help a team. Some meetings like the offshore daily standup can enhance the communication and can be planned separate from the blended meetings. ​

InfoQ: Can you give us a sneak preview on the topics of future books in the series on managing remote teams

Hugo: We've just finished the book on culture, which has be launched in the first half of September.   We've got an article from a seasoned culture trainer, specialized in Indian-Dutch collaborations. And we've got a very insightful (and funny) contribution from Ged Roberts, a Brit who described the differences between the Dutch and Indian cultures from his 'neutral' perspective. The next book will be about Communication and number 6 about people. In communication, there are some articles that dive deeper into the above mentioned meeting rhythm and what tools to use. In people we look at developing a self-managing remote team and developing trust among remote team members. For both books we're still looking for more contributors, so if you have experience in managing a remote team and you want to share your article, I would be happy to receive an email (h.messer@bridge-outsourcing.nl).

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