Trust and the Distributed Team

Travel Restrictions and Offshore Development – 10x Software Development

Steve McConnell’s writings about software projects and teams is well known. This post is specifically about offshore teams and the impact that travel restrictions (because of economic issues) has on teamwork and project outcomes. From my point of view the same applies to a domestically distributed team, albeit with less impact because of fewer cultural and communication barriers.

McConnell’s main point is that trust among team members is essential, and trust can only fully be established by face-to-face time:

The problem is this: Offshore development is challenging enough when you do everything right. Face-to-face time is an essential part of successful multi-site development. Video conferencing, web conferencing, etc. are all useful supplements to face-to-face time, but there is no good substitute for meeting the people you work with in person, meeting their families, having dinner and drinks together, playing soccer together — that is, getting to know the other people as human beings.

I’ve worked remotely for 4+ years, and in that time I’ve developed relationships with some of my coworkers that are as strong as when I was office-bound with my previous company. The time to develop those relationships did take time – I didn’t meet any of my coworkers face-to-face until I’d been working for 15 months – but in that time I communicated with many of them on a daily basis on a fairly social (and professional) level.

Since then, I’ve seen a good number of these people at least once a year, sharing hotels at conferences, meals and downtime during meeting weeks. It isn’t always enough, but it suffices for us to refresh our friendships and relationships. Add that to our regular phone calls (I’ll talk to one most every morning, before everyone else is awake and online and working) and although we’re separated by geography, our non-work lives are shared and open to one another.

Where my situation differs from what is described by McConnell is that myself and my other remote coworkers (and the ones in the office, as well) have professional histories that precede our current friendships – many of us have been in Macintosh development circles for many years – and with that history comes an implicit trust into each other’s abilities and experiences when applied to our shared projects. I can trust that the code will be well written, that designs are based on good methods and that a decision on any part of the project is made with thought. The professional trust I hold extends directly to the personal level – I find them to be a very good group of people.

Would my experience be different if I was thrown together with other people? Most likely – and I’d certainly want to establish levels of professional and personal trust as soon as possible in a project. I would say that it is absolutely vital in the knowledge worker’s environment to be able to count on not just the work of others (as if we were on an assembly line making widgets) but the thought process behind their work (as when we are designing said widgets). Trust is that basis.

I can’t say that my experience has been wholly easy, as there have been bumps in the work relationships, and it isn’t achieved without attention and care, but my overall experience has been enriching.

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