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A successful Remote Team working – Step #1 – Structure


Settle a successful remote team structure is a key factor nowadays. Here follows some simple steps to kick off the operation with the right foot.

Some days ago, during a PMSE discussion, I felt compelled to share some lessons I learned (the hard way) around working with remote teams. Working with remote teams is something quite common nowadays, and I’m on it – at different levels – since 2007. My initial idea was to give an overview of the steps I followed to structure my current team. Turns out that, as I write a lot, it became an acceptable mini post that I could share here… so here it is. Hope you like it! I organized the Structure into three main aspects, that will be discussed in details as follows: The Knowledge Structure, the Team Structure and the Task Distribution Structure. All these three structures are intertwined, and having them clear from day one might save a lot of work – and sleep nights, hopefully. Also, I’ve drilled down into a key factor to organize the remote team – if there’ll be a remote leader at the other side or not. Believe me, having – or not – a true leader on the remote team completely change the approach to be used. So, here we go!

1. Knowledge structure

With leading people in each location:

Having people understanding in deep the culture of the company / project definitely boosts the long-term performance of team. The leading person(s) will be key for the project success as they’ll define not only the work to be done, but how the work is done, what’s important and what can be done when there’s a spare time, the expected quality of the work, the concepts like ‘done’, ‘delayed’, ‘blocked’, ‘critical’ that vary from project to project, etc. Therefore, the commitment of such lead must be above average. This person will need to nurse from zero a new team while the main location will keep the project progressing… and it may be extremely frustrating to face this if the lead is not prepared in advance.

With leading people only in the main location:

As previously stated, starting up a new team from scratch ‘in loco’ is not an easy task. Doing this remotely, is that kind of challenge that will teach you a couple of lessons for life. The lead needs to keep the project pace with the local team at the same time explaining to the new team how the company works, the development phases, the company culture, how to proceed with a silly task as starting up a tool… well, it’s simply hard and requires a massive amount of patience. On the other hand, the team on the other side must match more rigid criteria to really fit in such a structure: it’s simply not realistic to expect someone with a lead 200km away to have the same productivity as someone 20 steps away. “Oh, but there’s video chat!” Trust me, if you need to teach something from scratch, video calls will help you (a lot!) but the value of the side-by-side experience needs to be compensated by above the average doses of:

  • Pro activity
  • Independency to take decisions
  • Capacity of overcome problems by themselves
  • Clear Training path
  • Clear Guidelines (dev cycle, testing cycle, project culture… as much as better!)
  • Clear expectations (for both sides!)

2. Team structure

Sub-teams (silos) by location:

If you have leads on each location and / or you really trust your remote team, you can pinpoint a remote task lead to coordinate the tasks to be carried by the remote team. The local lead just sends to the remote lead the task package that is expected to be carried by the remote location without entering in micro managing of the remote team (as the remote lead will be managing the remote team). Take into account that this lead will not only be the person to distribute tasks but also the focal point to clarify any question / requirement from the remote team. Instead of meetings with the whole teams from both sites, there’d be meetings by locations with their respective leads and then a separated meeting between leads. It’s definitely the most powerful structure, but also the one that requires more knowledge and experience. My personal suggestion is to pick up this option only, and if only, the lead on the remote location can coordinate a team by himself, otherwise it’ll be a waste of efforts from both locations.

Peer to Peer:

In case there’s no expert on the remote location, the best approach is to have a peer-to-peer structure between locations. This way, one person on the remote site will have a direct contact person on the main site to clarify questions, to share tasks and to do any peer to peer activity (like pair programming, cross code review, etc). The advantage of this approach is that the level of knowledge required from new team members is relatively lower to start being productive. The most obvious drawback of this structure is that the throughput of the team will not increase as expected (well, it’ll increase as expected based on the new members’ knowledge and experience). Also, it’s likely that the unique team lead will have a hard time to coordinate a bigger team. Example: You have a team of 5 persons in one location that produces X. If you have in the remote location another 5 persons with an expert lead, the productivity will tend to 2X. On the other hand, if you’re using P2P, the productivity initially will be (being optimistic) 1.5X.

3. Task distribution structure

Tasks distributed evenly across sites:

If you have a lead in each location and silo structure, then you’re ready to share the tasks evenly across locations. As previously stated, that’s the best team structure and works quite well, but require more efforts to have the team productive and relies a lot on the leads (especially, on the remote lead).

Complex tasks in one site / simple tasks in other site:

If you don’t have a lead on each location and a P2P structure does not work for you for any reason, you can have the remote location to carry on with the less complex tasks whereas you keep the tuff ones for the team near the knowledge / client. Yes, if the word ‘offshore’ comes to your mind, you’re not alone. All in all, if you succeed making a remote team sky rocketing, you’ll do a huge step ahead on your career. But before taking this step, make sure you know where you are (with docs, training, tasks) to define where you want to be (namely, expectations!). Unless you have at least a star on the remote location, making a remote site productive is a job that will consume you for quite a lot of time. Success!

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