How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Remote Team

Outsourcing can save money and speed up the pace of development — in theory. But the theory often breaks down in practice because it can be very hard to manage a remote team.

It’s easy to be frustrated or even threatened by remote teams; some find it challenging to coordinate across time zones and cultural differences, while others might question the need for remote teams in the first place. Especially when it’s crunch time, the process of managing external teams can seem to be more trouble than it’s worth.

But remote teams, when they are engaged and managed effectively, are worth it: Great external development groups are equally good at code writing and project management, which can be a huge asset to internal teams of all sizes. But how can a company ensure that it partners with a great remote team, not just an everyday outsourcer?

Here are three strategies:

  1. Engage a team that focuses on managing your project, rather than checking off task lists. Think about the most valuable members of your internal team. These tend to be people who think creatively to solve problems, keep to the timelines they've promised and communicate effectively about each stage of a project.

    This can be particularly important when engaging a remote team to help with urgent projects that crop up unexpectedly and can’t be resourced very easily with an internal team alone. Although an external team might be stepping in just to pinch hit during a particularly intense time, it should approach the project strategically. Time constraints should bring out the best thinking in good project managers on a remote team, rather than restricting creativity or quality of the end product.

    Similarly, you want external team members who hold themselves as accountable as your internal colleagues — and who think in terms of project management, not just project specs. When selecting a remote team, look for partners with a track record of delivering end-to-end work and who adapt to changing priorities easily, rather than sticking religiously to a spec. Ask pointed questions about how they adapt when things change, and ask the same questions of their customer references.

  2. Ensure a cultural fit with your internal team. Everyone knows a story about an outsourced development project that fell apart because the remote team seemed too, well, remote. It’s easy to blame this on time zones; after all, Eastern Europe is at least seven hours ahead of the Eastern U.S. time zone, and India is more than 10 hours ahead.

    Given that most reputable outsourcers address this challenge head-on by working in shifts according to customer needs, time zones aren’t likely the main issue but shorthand for the larger problem: a cultural mismatch.

    Take for example a U.S. company that makes portals for public libraries to enable customers to borrow e-books, manage their accounts, request books, etc. A remote team that is unfamiliar with using public libraries would have a much steeper learning curve than a remote team with a stronger cultural reference point.

    Some companies tackle this problem by “nearshoring,” hiring external resources within their home country or region. But that doesn’t guarantee a perfect fit either. Ultimately, the fit comes down to the people, and the best people could be anywhere in the world. It takes extra effort to ask smart questions in order to assess cultural fit, such as:

    • What are your team’s core values?
    • When you encounter problems, what do you do?
    • Who is the project leader? When will I meet him or her?
    • How do you measure results and success?
    • What do your customers say about you?

    These kinds of open-ended questions can expose problems before a project is even off the ground, enabling an internal team to address cultural issues before they turn into project roadblocks.

  3. Demand great ideas, not just good code. The best remote teams are just like the best internal teams: They treat each project as vital to business success. These kinds of teams generally include an experienced senior project leader whose skills go far beyond code writing.

    It’s well worth seeking out teams that can take a strategic view for three reasons. First of all, the quality of work is almost always better — strategic thinking leads to creative solutions. Second of all, strategic thinkers tend to be good problem solvers. When challenges crop up in the development process, as they always do, a smart remote team will identify problems early and offer ideas for new approaches before the need for rework emerges.

    Finally, remote teams that can think strategically deliver more value, helping the project make good financial sense. The reality is that cost savings remains the biggest criteria by which outsourced teams are judged, so understanding both the cost savings and the marginal value of a potential partner is absolutely vital.

    Identifying a remote team’s ability to think strategically can be tricky — it’s not as easy as simply asking. Who wants to admit they don’t think strategically? But here are a few tips for separating the tactical from the strategic:

    • Check out the case studies on the team’s website. Customer stories should show that the team is capable of delivering solutions that are mission-critical to their customers’ businesses, not just window dressing. If the stories aren’t available, ask to speak with existing customers.
    • Revisit the problem-solving question. As outlined above, asking a remote team about how it solves problems can speak volumes about its ability to think strategically. For example, if a spec needed to change midproject to address new requirements, a strategic team would be open to discussing the new spec, but also ask why the changes matter so that the team can reframe the solution according to the problem. A purely tactical team would talk only about how the new spec would change the price and timeline of the deliverables.
    • Ask for a conference call with the project lead. Remote teams should be led by someone with both technical expertise and management acumen. No matter how strong a team looks on paper, you can’t really tell how strategically your project leader can think until you speak with that person one to one about the project. Ask for a call early in the process in order to “screen” a new remote team leader just as you would screen an internal candidate.

An exact recipe for remote team management doesn’t exist, but these strategies help to reduce the risks — and the worries — that come with many outsourced engagements. Smart development teams, ultimately, should hold their external partners to the standards they would hold internal staff. Critical thinking, a business-centric view, and creative problem solving are at the heart of any good internal development team — and they should be the defining characteristics of a good remote team, too.

Be sure to read the next Project Management article: How To Build Your Own Dashboard on the Trello API