10 tips for working in decentralized teams

When project team members are spread across various locations, it can make teamwork more complicated. A few game rules can help.

10 tips for working in decentralized teams
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The new work movement, the idea of balancing family and career, and the discussion surrounding the right to have a home office have contributed to an increasing number of projects, in which people who are not always in the same place at the same time work together. In companies of all industries and sizes as well as in agencies, cooperation with freelancers, external service providers and part-time employees has been the rule rather than the exception for several years now. There are many external interfaces, especially in IT and digital projects. But how can this teamwork be structurally optimized to ensure no one is cut off from receiving important information or is uncertain about the current status of a sub-task?

There is no all-round solution for this, because every team and every project is different. However, these ten tips can help you if you adapt them to your own situation.

1. Concentrate on the team:

Especially at the beginning of a new project, a team comes together. Managing the team from a distance, however, demands more from both sides than in the usual office environment with a full-time presence. Especially those team members, who constantly work from a distance, should be asked whether they are sufficiently informed and integrated. If you are the external team member, clearly communicate any project-relevant resources and information you are lacking.

2. Communicate clearly and regularly file project resources:

Especially if employees are not always available because you work with freelance service providers or part-time employees, everyone should know where to find certain information and which data is where. Develop interdepartmental rules for this and keep these rules in a central location. A project management tool can be good for this, because it allows tags and deadlines to be assigned and is therefore more powerful than a conventional folder storage or tree structure on a server.

3. Adapt the meeting culture to your situation:

Hold meetings online as well. Tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts provide an excellent technical foundation for this. What many companies neglect, however, is the hardware. A conference telephone is sufficient for smaller groups, but larger meeting rooms should include several conference microphones, which still offer sufficient selectivity between the voices even with background noise. A smartphone or notebook microphone, on the other hand, is unsuitable.

4. Without good project management, nothing works well

No matter whether you rely on Asana, Monday, Trello or Basecamp. You can read here which tools are basically suitable for which team and task structure – and the CMO of Asana also told us a few tricks that could help you in an interview. But don’t overdo it with tools, because software solutions must follow actual work processes and are not a means to an end. If you are using software or a cloud service to handle certain processes in the interest of all internal and external team members, make sure the information is not additionally collected elsewhere (as before). New tools require letting go of the old Excel spreadsheets.

5. Agile structures simplify location-independent collaboration:

Scrum and Kanban are excellent agile methods for location- and time-independent task distribution. Ensure that responsibilities and roles in the team are clearly defined and that appropriate stand-in and fallback solutions exist. The project manager or Scrum-Master has a particularly important role in this context.

6. More pull, less push:

Rely on communication tools that allow team members to retrieve up-to-date information when they need it. In particular, do not use email as a chat substitute or coordination medium with more than two or three participants. Even the issue of deciding who to put in cc can be tricky. Some team members or managers want to be informed about every step, while others do not want to have to read about every little issue. Chat systems like Slack and project-based tools that sort tasks by topic are more efficient than the flood of e-mail. But beware: Only professional solutions really ensure that older messages or file transfers can be searched for later. Free accounts quickly restrict the respective workspace.

7. More personal responsibility:

The freedom of decentralized teams also necessitates communicating what you do within the team. Unlike in a shared office environment, not everyone is aware of this. But it also requires a willingness to ask questions in the event of ambiguities. To do this, you should talk about the processes and ask for feedback in a meeting that is taking place anyway for other purposes. This should be carried out more often in the first few weeks and sporadically later on.

8. Ensure that all work resources are available remotely without problems and at a high level of performance:

When production tools can only be provided to external team members via a slow server, database access is constantly interrupted, or CRM systems cannot be reached through the customer’s firewall during a meeting, this all slows down and inhibits teamwork. You should therefore invest in services that work without problems. Otherwise, you will pay with the time of your employees and that is naturally more expensive than an IT resource.

9. Provide your team with access to relevant monitoring tools:

Project status, sales figures, access figures or other current management KPIs should all be made externally accessible. This is not only a sensible incentive, but also ensures that your team members are informed when they are not working in the office.

10. Maintain contact with external team members:

An important and yet informal part of everyday office life includes informal conversations in the kitchen or at the water cooler. External partners or service providers who are not on site lack this option. Your company can basically institutionalize a team lunch, an after-work event or a similar semi-official meeting that takes place on a certain day of the month, for example. Such an event is good for keeping in touch with a mom working from home, a freelance graphic artist or an SEO expert you only sporadically meet face-to-face.

The bottom line: Understanding change as an opportunity

The challenges that a decentralized way of working poses to everyone involved are serious. They range from changes in processes and tools to the entire meeting culture and interpersonal differences. In the future, however, managers will have no choice but to see the changes in the world of work as an opportunity. After all, it has never been easier to combine flexibility and a healthy work-life balance, while also meeting the multiple requirements involved.

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