Distributed product development = no communication problem

How my development team and I have managed to communicate with each other and keep building our app although all five team members were located in different places and time zones.

Distributed working and “home office” has become more popular than ever and a lot of different teams here at XING are spread all over the continent. We have offices in Vienna, Barcelona, Munich, Zurich, Boston and our headquarter is in Hamburg. Also a lot of teams are working together with agencies that are located in other cities such as Madrid, Krakow and London. Therefore I see the company skilled in terms of working with distributed teams. It is nothing new to us that we don’t see our colleagues in person every day.

But two weeks in the last summer I felt like I didn’t have one face-to-face conversation at all. What happened?

We are a team of five. One developer, one QA, one designer, one project manager and myself as a product manager. Usually we work from Hamburg and London (sometimes Berlin). But in those two weeks it turned out that we had to work from five different countries and three different time zones because the majority of our team went to their hometowns to work from there.

Hamburg, London, Thessaloniki, Jerusalem and Beirut

The workflow didn’t stop during that time, it has just changed. A lot. We still had our daily standups and our meetings like usual. The only thing that has to change was the way of how we have communicated with each other.

As you can see in the following diagram our communication paths did change from one virtual and three face-to-face connections to ten virtual connections. Therefore the greatest challenge we faced during that time was to keep everyone in the team on the same page.

To solve this dilemma we established a few patterns which might seem really trivial to you: We already used Skype as our main communication channel for a while. Therefore it was pretty obvious to open a group chat with all team members. If then someone shares knowledge which might be interesting to everyone he adds it to this chat. If there is a specific issue which needs to be clarified with only one team member we wrote direct 1:1 messages. Pretty basic so far. If we faced issues that needed a deeper discussion, we set up a Skype video call. For demoes and all sort of other meetings the direct face-to-face call has been a great solution as well.

You might ask why we use Skype these days. Sure, there are other and better collaboration and work-related communication tools on the market like Slack, Azendoo, Hipchat and Facebook at work. But in our case it was and still is the perfect fit to our needs. First, we had to get used to the new situation but after a few days it worked really well. Most of the Today’s communication between Hamburg and London is still the same way.

If you ever face the challenge of working in a completely distributed team you should keep the following difficulties in mind:

  • The way of communication will change. If you are ready or not.
  • It can have a huge impact for your collaborative work if all team members meet in person. This means travelling between the different locations is not an option. It is essential for developing a great team performance over a longer time period.
  • Even if we have a lot of smileys and stickers today, the non-verbal communication does have a different quality then face-to-face.
  • If you are in various time zones the communication and meetings has to happen during a specified time frame.

Do you have experience with working remote or in a distributed team? Please let us know what tools you use and how you master the situation in the comments.




Founder of Beyond, PM Library & Riptide, Ex-N26

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Alexander Hipp

Alexander Hipp

Founder of Beyond, PM Library & Riptide, Ex-N26

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