We know that adjusting to the new working environment may be tough. It’s even more challenging when you have to collaborate with people located in different offices around the world. We both experienced such a demanding situation and want to describe a few problems and suggest some ways to tackle them. We hope to help fellow professionals who are at the beginning of this ambitious career path.
In this article, we want to elaborate on working in multicultural, half remote teams and main challenges related to this. To dispel doubts, by “half remote team” we mean a situation in which part of the group works together on-site when other part/parts of the crew work in other places, single or in a larger group/groups. We've gathered our experiences during our works in this kind of teams in Europe and the USA.
It’s nothing new that some seemingly harmless things can nearly destroy whole relations in a team and can start an internal tension. One of us worked in a team where six people worked together in one office and the rest of the team (three people) in the second office. We didn’t know why, but something wrong started to happen, these two groups of people started calling themselves “we” and “them”. One team, divided into two mutually opposing groups of people.
Those groups started to defy each other, gossip about yourself, and disturb yourself at work. What's more, there was not a person who tried to fix it, conflicts were growing, and teamwork was impossible. The project was closed. One year later, we started to observe this in our another project. In that project situation was different. There were 3 groups of people, a larger group with 4 people, and 2 smaller with 2 people each. We had delved into the state of things, and we discovered the reasons for this situation.
One of the reasons was the information exchange. The biggest team was located together, and they often discuss things related to work. Often the discussion turned into planning and decision-making, as you can guess, the rest of the team did not have the opportunity to take part in them. The large team made the decision without consulting it, and it really annoyed the rest…
What was done wrong, how can you avoid it in your project? The team should be team, even if its members don’t work in the same location. Everyone should take an active part in making decisions. Despite the fact that it is difficult to achieve, all team members must be aware of this, they must treat the rest of the team in the same way, as if they were sitting next to them.
Firstly, if an idea is developed during the discussion, a group of people must grab it and present it to the rest of the team for further analysis. You should avoid situations where the idea is known only to a local group of people. It reduces the knowledge about the project and increases the anger of other developers. They do not feel part of the team, they do not feel that they have an impact on its development. What's more, if the idea does not please the rest, they begin to treat authors hostile which create conflicts and leads to a situation where people start to say “we” and “them”. Part of the team should not make important decisions, it should be taken by the whole team, if a smaller group has something to talk about everyone should know about it and have a chance to join them (even remotely!).
Secondly, if a group notices they are discussing things which other people may be interested in, they should postpone local discussion and create remote room when discussion can be continued. Anyone can join it as if sitting next to them.
Thirdly, if it was not possible to include others in the conversation the conversation summary should be saved and made available to all team members.
The second reason We found was an integration of the parts of the team. The natural thing was that people sitting together knew each other better, thus, a natural division into groups within the team was formed. Sadly, this can not be avoided… but we can reduce the impact of this factor.
Firstly, if possible, we should ensure the integration of the parts of the team. They have to meet at least once, and preferably in regular meetings not related to work, so-called integration trips.
Secondly, mutual trust among the team should be built. The team should talk about difficult situations in full composition, not in local groups over coffee. And if a local conversation took place, the problem should be presented to the whole team. Everyone should be able to speak honestly and feel comfortable in the team, it is very important!
Language and insufficient communication
Another obstacle is a different culture or language. If there are people who speak different languages in the team, they will usually use English which will not be a native language for a part of the team… Different team members may have different levels of English speaking skills, less skilled team members may not understand intricate phrases.
It is very important to make sure everyone understands the given statement. If you know that you have some people in your team whose English is not so fluent, you can ask and make sure they understood everything. Confidence should be built inside the team, everyone should feel that they can ask for an explanation of the statement in the simplest words without taunting and consistency. We have seen such a problem many times in teams especially multicultural. A lack of understanding leads to misunderstandings and the collapse of the project. Each of the team members should learn and improve their skills, the team should support colleagues with lower language skills, politely correcting them and communicating that they use some language form incorrectly. We recommend doing it in private unless the confidence in the team is so large that it can be done in a group.
Communication can also lead to misunderstandings, at the beginning of our careers our language skills were not the best. Our statements were very simple and crude. As a result, sometimes our messages were perceived as aggressive… We did not realize it until We started to notice the tension between us and some of the team members. It is very difficult to remedy this, after all, we do not know what others think. Therefore, small advice from us - talk to each other, seriously and try to build a culture of open feedback in the team, address even uncomfortable topics. Even if you have a language problem it is sometimes better to try to describe something in 100 simple sentences than not to speak at all...
Let’s focus on one more challenging difficulty that may cause a lot of troubles while working in half-remote teams. While working in teams distributed over a larger area of the world, the time difference between team member’s locations might cause an issue that is very hard to overcome. We have been working in a team where team members were located in the USA (around both eastern and western coasts), Australia and Poland. As per our experience, it is nearly impossible to gather all team members together because of working hours in those locations. We have observed some common issues that such a situation may cause.
Team members working in different time zones have limited capabilities of teamwork. There is often not enough time for team activities like technical or non-work-related discussions over a cup of coffee that build team spirit and good relations between members. It is impossible to integrate distributed teams without cyclic meetings in one place. We have seen how such odds and ends lead to team divisions on “we” and “they” mentioned before. It is also a blocker when it comes to applying good programming practices in the project like pair programming and knowledge sharing.
Distributed teams are more difficult to manage, and some of the Agile work methodologies are not applicable at all, as it often requires the participation of all team members. In the case of our team, Scrum methodology did not work at all, because we could not organize successful planning sessions, sprint reviews, retrospectives and demos on which everyone’s input matters. It was a common situation where after planning team members did not know what they are supposed to do next, and at first, they needed to discuss something with absent teammates.
If we take a look at distributed team performance, it will usually seem to be lower than in the case of local teams. That is mainly because of inevitable delays when some team member needs assistance from another. Imagine that you start working and after an hour you encounter a problem that requires your teammate’s help, but s/he will wake up no sooner than in 7 hours. You have to postpone task you were working on, and focus on some other - what usually slows your job down. Of course, it is a sunny day scenario, because there might be more serious issues where you cannot do anything else in the meantime (i.e. you have broken all environments including production, backup was “nice to have” on planning - and your mate from Australia is the only one who can restore it). It also takes more time to exchange information, process code reviews and share knowledge about a project if we cannot reach other team members immediately when they are needed.
On the other hand, distributed teams have some advantages. There are many projects or professions that require client support for 24/7 - and in this case, it is much easier for such time coverage. It can save a team from on-calls and other inconveniences.
We have learned that there is no cure for all the problems that distributed teams struggle with, but the impact of some of them can be reduced. Companies that are aware of how time difference impacts team performance often offer possibilities to work remotely from home in fully flexible hours. In some cases, it works and it is faster to get things done, but it does not solve all problems on a daily basis, because everyone wants to live their private life as well, meet friends on the evening or grab a beer and watch TV series rather than work late at night. Moreover, team integration and cooperation issue could be solved by frequent travels but it is expensive and the majority of people do not have the possibility to leave home for a longer period of time.
To sum it up, multicultural half-remote teams are really challenging to manage. Distributed teams struggle with a lot of troubles such as information exchange, teamwork, communication, and integration - which may be caused by cultural differences, remote communication and the time difference between team members. Without all this, there is just a bunch of individuals that cannot act as a team. Despite the above tips to solve some of the problems, it is hard to avoid the lack of partnership among team members, that may lead to divisions, misunderstandings and team collapse.
And while the struggles described above are real, we can't forget why we do it. Building a distributed team allows a company to acquire talent often not available on the local market. By creating an international environment, the same company can gain a wider perspective and better understand different markets. Diversification of the workforce can be a lifesaver when it comes to some emergency issue that may be a danger for a company that the entire team works in one location. We at Grape Up share different experiences, and thanks to knowledge exchange, our team members are prepared to work is such a demanding environment.