In 2011 I was contracting for a big Canadian Media company. We were outsourcing part of the project in Asia with around 10 hours of timezone difference. If it wasn’t for our provider asking his employees to work late at night to synchronise with us, we would never be working at the same time, effectively eliminating any possible direct communication.
Every week, we had a meeting in a big conference room where we would discuss the project, and the remote team would usually report of the latest advancements on their side during this event. The room was not built for meetings, ironically, like most meeting rooms, and so there was abundance of echo in all the directions. At the centre of the room, on the table, was a conference phone; one of those special devices with multiple microphones spread in all the directions, and a speaker at its centre. This is how we could speak with the remote team.
The sound quality, with the echo, and all the noise, was so poor that we could not hear properly what they were saying. Aggravating the already poor communication, the mix of accents was broad, and it was sometimes impossible to understand anything at all. I recall how, on many accounts, our Project Manager would end the meeting by asking politely: “That’s very good, thank you! Please send us a recap by email.” It was the only real way we could know what they had done.
Splitting a team across multiple timezones, cultures and languages can be very damaging for the quality of communication, deteriorating and limiting the capacity of the team to work effectively. This is without even consideration of the hard truth, that most of the time, we were sleeping while they had questions for us, and vice versa.
Working in the same location, in person, makes a great deal of difference. One that could determine your very capacity to achieve a successful outcome for your project with your team.
The best practice, if you have no choice but to have people working in different places, is to form a different team for each location. Mixing permanently remote workers with a team located in a office is also very un-ideal since the remote person will miss out on so much communication happening face-to-face. Ultimately, if remote work is the only option, a set of agreed upon tools for communication, including video, voice and chat, can reduce the impact of the distance on the communication, but it won’t work well if a portion of the team is colocated together.
That’s something to have in mind the next project you start. Have you had bad experiences working with a team scattered in different locations?