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David has enjoyed success using agile and lean techniques at several companies near Washington DC and San Francisco. He joined his first startup in 1999, and helped scale it to a 13 million dollar acquisition in 2006. He now brings entrepreneurial thinking into large organizations so that disruptive innovation can emerge. David is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 30 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

7 Ways to Humanize the Distributed Team Experience

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If you are involved in a distributed software team, chances are you know just how difficult it is to create personal connections. This is especially true in larger organizations where team members are geographically dispersed around the world and rarely (if ever) meet face to face in person.

I placed the emphasis this problem recently during my talk on distributed agile. My audience received, perhaps unexpectedly, a heavy dose of organizational culture from me instead of “here’s the 1000 different tools you can use” speech.

My message was simple, team members are not resources or metrics, and we should not treat them as such.

I felt the need to build upon that talk. As a result, here are my 7 tips for a sustainable and healthy distributed team experience:

1. Use Video Chat - It is much easier to create a personal connection when you can see one another. Facilitation relies a great deal on body language, and with today’s cheap video technology there aren’t many excuses on why you cannot use it. Involve stakeholders so they can put faces to their team.

2. Establish Trust With Retrospectives – These are a great way to lay a foundation of trust with your distributed team. It can be difficult to pull everyone together as a cohesive team image, but these will help tremendously if held on a regular basis. You can mix them up and have fun with them by using a product like Innovation Games.

3. Refrain from Jokes – Snarky comments and jokes, while funny you to, do not translate well to other cultures. It is best to keep these to yourself when communicating with your distributed team.

4. Organize Team Outings – It can be difficult to secure enough money to fly everyone in for a get together, so instead try to organize events close to your team members. For example schedule a bowling night for each location.

5. Split Up Lengthy Meetings – Distributed teams often have smaller windows of overlap with regards to office hours. Be aware of this and split the day long planning sessions into multiple parts over a few days. Yes it’ll slow things down a bit, but you won’t be keeping team members from their families.

6. Try Virtual Pairing - Team members often produce great software when they physically pair on a computer. Just because you are in different locations doesn’t mean you cannot pair over the web. Skeptical? Go read up on the efforts over at Industrial Logic.

7. Avoid Metric Obsession- Distributed teams risk being perceived as a faceless velocity viewed through agile lifecycle management software. Continue to stress the importance of the people behind the metrics to those who miss out on the team interactions.

Unfortunately as more companies offshore/nearshore software development, it is an emerging trend to treat people in a very inhumane manner. We need to be aware of the people behind the screens, and hopefully by using these techniques we will help humanize the distributed team experience.

Published at DZone with permission of David Bland, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Nicholas Lemay replied on Fri, 2010/08/20 - 10:01am

Here is a great talk Cory Foy gave on tooling for distributed teams at Agile2010 that might be of interest to those interested in the subject of distributed teams

David Bland replied on Fri, 2010/08/20 - 4:08pm in response to: Nicholas Lemay

Ah very cool thanks.

This post was inspired by the take-aways from my Distributed ScrumMaster talk at the conference as well:


Will check Cory's out.

Rick Buitenman replied on Fri, 2010/08/20 - 5:08pm

Maybe it's just me, but I find "refrain from jokes" extremely condescending.

My first reaction is "oh, the author must be American" (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of that prejudice). Refraining from normal human interaction (of which humor, in all it's cultural diverisity, is a very important part, especially when it comes to bonding as a team) isn't a replacement for being culturally sensitive. In most cases, it actually comes across as exactly the opposite.

David Bland replied on Sat, 2010/08/21 - 7:01am in response to: Rick Buitenman


 Certainly wasn't mean to sound condescending. I've seen culturally insensitive jokes tear a team apart, so perhaps I should have narrowed in on that instead of generalizing.

 Yes I'm American btw.


Emma Watson replied on Fri, 2012/03/30 - 5:57am

I think we must understand cultures and personalities before embarking upon potentially offensive humor, I think humor and sharing a personal side of yourself is one of the ways for a team to bond. It may not be appropriate to tell a joke at a meeting, but sharing a personal side of yourself with your remote team members can foster trust and friendships. Perhaps sharing photos or becoming friends on social media sites would help for people to bond at a more personal level.


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