The Pros and Cons of Distributed Teams

I got this article recently, called 5 Reasons Distributed Teams Suck. This is an answer to another article that argues that distributed teams are great and gives us 5 reasons for that. The funny thing is that using the same arguments both authors come to different conclusions. For example:

Reason Number 5:
Pros: It saves energy. While you work at home you don’t waste time and effort for traveling.
Cons: It wastes energy. When you have to travel, you waste a lot more than if you worked in the same country and in the same office.

Where is the problem? Why these guys think so differently upon the same situation? My answer is very simple. The very definition of the “distributed team” they use is different.

When I ask myself the question “What does a distributed team mean?” I divide it into the following questions:

1. How distributed is the team? If the team works in the same town and they don’t work constantly in the office but instead they work at home I believe it really saves money and energy and this kind of distributed team works effectively because they don’t spend time traveling, they use their own computers and they only need a good internet connection to do their work (especially if the team doesn’t need any other special technical equipment). But if the team is disbursed through the globe then it might not be cost-effective at all. Especially if there are long time differences and there is a need to meet face-to-face frequently.

2. How often do they need to meet? It depends on the nature of the project. If the project is a more R&D-oriented then it would require more frequent meetings, which is not good if the team is dispersed. On the other hand, if the work is more routine and there aren’t much things to discuss, it wouldn’t be a problem that the team members work at different locations and meet rarely. But nobody said that the structure should be fixed all the time! If you are allowed to play creatively with the budget, you may find that the best way is to gather the team for a short time in one place, do the brainstorming and the research, make all the decisions and then split them back so everyone can work from their location for the next period. Later, you can bring them back again if necessary. You just have to make your calculations and to judge the effectiveness of the team working together and working from their homes or local offices.

3. How urgent is the project? If the project is some kind of a “Death march” it is obvious that the distributed team wouldn’t be able to handle it right. You need your team to be with you all the time so you can keep their motivation and work energy at high volumes. But if the project is well-planned and it allows people to work with a normal pace, a distributed team may be a more effective solution since it wouldn’t require a “management pressure” on the team members.

I strongly believe in the effectiveness of the distributed teams where the people are not far away from each other and the nature of their work doesn’t require them to meet too frequently or to respond urgently to user requests. It is difficult to manage such a team but if you do it smartly you can make your project more profitable. but before you decide should your team work at one place or at different locations, ask yourself these questions and judge carefully.

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