Smashing Boxes | 05.10.17 | Insights

Building Success Across Teams and Timezones


  • augmented development
  • project management

In our own work spaces, we get used to coworker’s voices and mannerisms, norms of the office, and nuances of our company culture. Keeping up with relationships in your own office can be tough enough, let alone trying to maintain a steady connection to partners in another location. So when your company signs a contract with another team of developers across the country, how can you set everyone up for a successful collaboration?

Set Expectations Up Front:
There is nothing more frustrating than getting weeks into a project and still feeling confused as to what your team processes are. Instead, use a project kick-off meeting to determine things like when you want to schedule recurring meetings, who can be contacted after hours, and who’s responsible for buying beer after each successful demo (the last idea is not essential but highly recommended.) I was part of a bi-coastal team that really struggled with scheduling meetings around different timezones; but once we set up some guidelines around when we could meet, everyone felt more comfortable, and nobody was being asked to attend meetings after-hours unless there was an emergency.

I strongly recommend setting up a team agreement at the start of a project or any time a new team is formed, as well. Having an agreement in place that was made by the team for the team provides an unbiased source of truth that is meant to keep team members accountable. Of course, the agreement can always change or evolve when the team feels it needs to.

In fact, one way to keep your team on track and accountable is to hold regular retrospective meetings with both your team and the client’s. In the scrum process, retros are held at the end of a sprint and allow the team to reflect on what things were good during the sprint, what things were bad during the sprint, and how they can improve moving forward. Retros give internal and external team members an open platform to speak up about pain points they are experiencing, and then allow the group to discuss how they can alleviate that pain together.

Get in Some Face Time:
Limiting your interactions to daily phone calls just won’t work. If you really want to be successful, do whatever you can to foster meaningful face-to-face time between your team and the other. This can take the form of merely using a video chat each day instead of solely a phone call, or even worse – only communicating via email!

If the team you are pairing with is in close proximity geographically, plan to have regular meetings together. If at all possible, all sprint plannings, groomings, and other essential meetings should be done together. If you are not physically close, plan for your team to meet in-person at some point early on. If your partner resides on the West Coast but you’re on the East Coast, for instance, try to fly their team out to you or vice versa.

PM to PM:
As a PM or a PO, you should be connecting to whoever oversees the partner team on a daily basis. It is your job to keep up with what is going in on in their company, what your fellow manager thinks of project progress, and how you both plan to get this thing over the finish line.

In my personal experience, it’s beneficial to plan a weekly check-in between you and your augmented managerial partner to go over your thoughts and concerns. Once again, use this opportunity to get in that much needed facetime! At the end of a successful project, you should both feel like cohesive teammates, even though you come from separate companies. It’s essential that although you may have different business goals, you can find the common threads between your teams and create a killer product.

Use the Right Tools:
Tooling isn’t always something that’s in your control, but if you have the choice make sure you choose tools that will boost team communication. Here at Smashing Boxes, we use Slack to instantly communicate. It’s faster and more natural than email, and the extensive emoji library and gif integration capabilities makes daily communication less formal.

Using the right tools can also help create a sense of community among augmented team members. When two teams come together over Slack, they form a series of inside jokes and start to communicate through gifs and emojis. This may sound unprofessional to some, but at the end of the day we’re all human. If team success means bonding over a ‘YAS QUEEN’ gif sent when a deploy goes smoothly, then so be it!

As far as project tracking goes, go for tools that will allow maximum transparency. I love using Jira for this reason. Depending on how you use it (it’s highly customizable), your team will be able to see the work teammates are doing and track how quickly the work is getting down. There are many other good tools out there though, such as Trello and Basecamp.

Make Team Health a Top Priority:
Deadlines and budgets are very important, but so is the health of your team.

What’s the morale like on your augmented team? Is there open communication, or do individuals only speak within their respective Slack channels? Do team members have what they need? Is everyone generally happy?

Company cultures can clash and miscommunications in online conversations are easy to come by. As the team’s fearless leader, it’s important for you take a break from emailing and hosting meetings to take your team’s temperature.

Here in Durham we mean business, but we do have a pretty relaxed culture where our work mates feel like family. Recently, I worked with an augmented team on which there were several instances of strong opinions being given over Slack from the external group, and my internal team took offense to them. Instead of internalizing these issues, I was able to meet with the respective PM on their side to discuss the issue without causing embarrassment to either of the employees. After that, we as a whole team got together and discussed how we could prevent these types of issues in the future.

Talking to your developers as an augmented team and as your own in-house team is important to understand any concerns they may have and how to overcome them. If an issue does arise, take time to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution; don’t let important issues fester! You may think that problems will reveal themselves, but oftentimes individuals keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, which can manifest into greater complications down the road. If the entire team can come together as a whole to mend issues as they arise, they will form a collective mindset, which is vital to the success of an augmented project. When a blended team can talk about themselves as ‘we’ instead of ‘us’ and ‘them’, you know you are on the path to success.


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