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The reality and challenges of working with offshore teams

By Marina van Wyk

Having recently gone through a round of interviews in search for my next contract, I noticed how often I was asked about my ability to work with offshore teams and stakeholders.

Distributed project teams are becoming more common, as organisations look at cutting the cost of running their business.

These days project resources, stakeholders and subject matter experts no longer need to be in a single location, and can be anywhere. Our teammates can be just down the road working from home or thousands of miles away and in a different time zone.

No matter how close or far they are, there are some common daily challenges working with remote project teams, such as:

  • Communicating an idea without being able to just swing by a colleague’s desk and using a pencil and paper to draw a quick diagram to help their understanding
  • Solving problems over a conference call riddled with background noise, while trying to understand a complex technical options discussion in a foreign accent
  • Scheduling and running meetings with attendees turning up in their local office just as you finish your day due to the time zone differences
  • Receiving a meeting invite for an important meeting on a day when it’s a public holiday where you are.

As much as technology can help us overcome these challenges, the reality is it can only go so far to enable us to truly connect.

Video conferencing is great, but you need good bandwidth and it has to be supported by all the other dependencies – rooms, devices, microphones, headsets or speakers.

Conference calling is a good substitute to emails and lengthy documentation to validate a requirement, but has its own challenges. Does this sound familiar? “I can hear you, can you hear me…?”

Collaboration tools for managing project artefacts and share information, which are stored in the cloud, allow us to easily update and manage project timelines, document requirements and manage defects. But they need to be set up or structured properly and utilised effectively.

However, even with regular contact and the best use of technology, one major challenge remains – how to really to know the person on the other side of the line?

A good way to get to know fellow team members, whether they are remote or at the next desk, is to create a personal map of each person.

I discovered this technique from a presentation by Jurgen Appelo at a recent Agile Auckland event. A personal map is similar to a basic mind map, but you start with the subject’s name in a circle in the centre and with radiating lines and bubbles representing their hobbies, goals, aspirations and personal circumstances. This system can be great for any team set up, as a way to visualise people and connect beyond work problem solving.

For business analysts, who are often at the centre of requirements discussions, the best way to overcome the challenges of working with distributed teams is to do what we do best:

  • Be flexible and open in your communication,
  • Stick to structures that are familiar to the other party,
  • Use visual techniques as much as possible, such as screen mock-ups and  diagrams,
  • Be clear in communicating messages and ideas, and, of course, frequent follow ups.

The one golden rule when working with remote team members is of course to leave no room for ambiguity.

No matter what role you play on a project, there’s no shortage of daily challenges when working with offshore teams. But since it’s become a reality of the modern world, we may as well embrace it and try and do our best to stay connected and bridge the distance, time and cultural divide between us and our remote teammates.

Marina van Wyk is a senior business analyst with 10 years’ experience in software development projects. She offers insights from her involvement in various IT projects at Spark, Vodafone, Auckland Council, Vero Insurance and others. 

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