Split Teams Don’t Have To Give You A Splitting Headache

Working on a team that’s split between two or more locations can pose many challenges and can be made worse when management doesn’t recognize the inherent problems introduced.

Split teams aren’t simply one team in two locations; they are essentially two teams with different work cultures that happen to have the same goal.

The problems

It’s well known that having teams overseas can be problematic, but even stateside split teams can pose many of the same problems. Some of the most common issues I’ve seen:

  • The ‘us vs. them’ syndrome. It’s very easy to blame people in a different location for all the problems in a project. Realize that they’re saying the same thing about your team.
  • Issues that would take 5 minutes to resolve locally can take days.
  • If you are in the U.S. and work with a team in distant country, at a minimum expect a 24 hour turnaround from the time you report an issue to when that issue is finally accepted as resolved.
  • Even a split team with a time zone difference of just two hours experiences a decrease of four common working hours.
  • Simple disagreements can quickly turn personal.
  • Complex concepts are hard to explain over the phone and misunderstandings are often not worked out for days.
  • The culture of overseas teams can often be very different and subtle issues of communication may arise. There are some well-known, not-so-untrue stereotypes about certain cultures tending not to tell you things are going bad until it’s too late.

Actions that help

What to do about these issues? Make communication your #1 priority. Ninety percent of human communication is non-verbal and the root cause most of the issues above is poor communication. Most people, especially in the technical arena, do not fully appreciate that email and instant messaging don’t fully capture the breadth of human communication. Taking the following actions can help:

  • Prefer phone conversations over email when practical. The ability to quickly ask someone for clarification when they’re explaining something can be much more efficient over the phone compared to text communication, depending on the subject. Additionally, subconsciously being able to detect inflections in someone’s voice is surprisingly important.
  • Schedule video conferences at least once a week. There’s a social aspect to communication that only visual interaction can provide.
  • Have members of each team visit the other site as often as reasonable. There’s nothing that fosters trustful communication and breaks down the ‘us vs. them’ barriers than actually interacting with people face to face. Meeting someone in real life really helps remind everyone that you all are really all on the same team trying to achieve the same goals.
  • Over-communicate in emails and instant messages. Text strips out a lot of information from communication so it’s better to err on the side of over-communication than under-communication.
  • Be a little more polite in emails and instant messages than you would be face to face. Again, because text strips out so much information normally conveyed in face to face communication, you want to continually reinforce that what you’re trying to say is respectful.
  • Make an effort to understand cultural differences. For instance, some cultures are entrenched in the ‘boss is always right’ mentality and never want to be the bearer of bad news. In cases like these make it explicit how much you value honesty and openness.

I’m not attempting to suggest that email and instant messaging aren’t effective, essential tools in communication; however it’s important to realize their limitations.

Split teams really can work, but you’ve got to take the problems seriously

I’ve been on several projects where management hasn’t recognized the unique challenges that split teams pose and the projects ended up suffering for it. Don’t make the same mistake. Once you recognize and take seriously the fact that managing split teams is much different than managing a single team, you can take active steps at improving communication and that will greatly improve chances of project success.


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