Ensuring High Productivity Even With Distributed Engineering Teams

The traditional workspace has been witnessing an overhaul. From traditional cubicles to the open office concept to the standing workspace… new trends to increase employee productivity arise every day. One such concept, a fundamentally different way of working when it arrived, has now cemented its place in the industry – that of the distributed teams. Successful implementation of a distributed workforce by companies such as Mozilla, GitHub, MySQL, Buffer, WordPress, and more are a testament to the fact that geographical boundaries cannot deter employee productivity and accountability. In fact, WordPress has over 200 employees distributed all across the globe and contributing successfully in their individual job roles.

Having a distributed workforce has definite advantages. It brings more diversity in business, provides new perspectives to problem-solving, opens up a wider pool of trained resources, and reduces operational costs. Further, a study conducted by BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management showed that well managed distributed teams can outperform those who share an office space. However, ensuring high productivity of a distributed engineering team demands ninja-like management precision.

In our experience of years working in a distributed setup with our clients, we realized that one of the greatest benefits of having such a workforce was the immense intellectual capital we had harnessed. We now have some truly bright engineers working for us. Our client’s teams located in the United States and our team in India successfully collaborate on software projects without a hitch. Let’s take a look at how we make these distributed engineering teams work productively, focus on rapid application delivery and produce high-quality software each time.

Have a Well Defined Ecosystem

First, it is imperative to have a well-defined ecosystem for a distributed team to work and deliver high-quality applications in a cost-effective manner. You need to have the right processes, knowledge experts, accelerators, continuous evaluation of tools and technologies in use, strong testing practices, etc. Along with this, it’s key to establish clear communication processes and optimal documentation. Leverage business communication tools and dashboards for predictability, transparency, to avoid timeline overruns. Further, it is essential to have all the important project stakeholders such as the product owner, the team lead, the architecture owner etc. together at the beginning of each project to outline the scope and technical strategy for a uniform vision.

Have Designated Project Managers In Each Location

Distributed teams demand a hybrid approach to project management. It helps, but may not be essential, to have the stakeholders shouldering lead roles such as the architects and the project managers to be in the same location or the same time zone as the client. Along with this, it is also essential to have a lead who will serve as the single point of contact and will be the local team’s spokesperson to streamline communication, help the team stay on track and avoid delivery delays.

Appropriate Work Allocation and Accountability
Appropriate work allocation is an essential ingredient that can make or break distributed engineering teams. Instead of assigning work based on location, it should be assigned based on team capacity, skills, and the release and sprint goals. Having cross-functional teams that can work independently with inputs from the product owner help considerably in increasing team productivity so that work can be redistributed in the case of sprint backlogs. Giving each team member ownership of a feature can also increase accountability, measurability and ultimately the productivity of the entire team.

Have a Common Engineering and Development Language
At the onset of the project, it is essential to establish the engineering and development language for project success. Having clearly outlined development procedures, code styles, standards, and patterns contributes to building a strong product irrespective of the teams’ locational distribution as the code merges and integrations are likely to have much fewer defects. It is also important to have aligned and standardized tools to avoid spending time understanding or troubleshooting tool configurations or properties. Having a team buy-in regarding the engineering methodology (are you going to use TDD, BDD or traditional agile etc.?) helps in eliminating subjectivity and ambiguity regarding the same. It is essential to also have clearly outlined coding standards, technologies of choice, tools, and architectural design to avoid misalignment of values and engineering standards.

Such relevant information should also be published and maintained in the shared community (a virtual community across the distributed teams that serves as a single information source) using tools and dashboards that provide comprehensive information at a glance even for the uninitiated.

Leverage Time Zones Optimally

In order to ensure the same level of communication in a distributed team as found in a co-located team, there has to be impeccable time zone management by establishing some overlapping work hours. By doing so it becomes easier to involve the key stakeholders in sprint planning, sprint review, daily stand-ups, retrospectives etc. In the case of a distributed team, it makes sense to break down sprint planning into two parts – one, which determines what each team is doing on a high level and develops the understanding of Sprint backlogs and dependencies. And two, for detail clarification and breaking down of stories into ‘tasks’. It is also important to have a remote proxy for Sprint review to establish what each local team has completed.

Testing is another important aspect that can impact the productivity of distributed engineering teams. Since most distributed teams leverage ‘Follow the Sun’ principle, activities such as testing can be passed on to the other time zone. So, by the time the development team is back to work, the testing work is already done. This can significantly improve the productivity of the engineering team.

Have An Integrated Code Base

When working towards ensuring the productivity of distributed engineering teams it is imperative to have a single code repository to ensure that everyone checks the same code base. Ensuring that all teams have access to the same CI server to ensure that all builds and tests are run against any iterations prevents build breakages and the eventual productivity loss. Along with this, it is also essential to have a hot back-up server in each location to battle adversities such as server downtimes, power outages etc.

Along with all this, there is another critical ingredient that helps in making distributed engineering teams more productive…trust. It is essential for the distributed teams to trust one another and function as a single cohesive unit. Understanding cultural differences, respecting time zones, and having clear communication between team members are few things can build trust within team members, foster collaboration and contribute towards creating a highly productive distributed engineering team. That’s ours- what’s your story about distributed engineering teams?

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