Maximizing International Working on Complex Software Projects

22 Apr 2020

Why do some distributed teams work effectively and others fail miserably? Here are some points to consider when maximizing international working on complex software projects.

Working with a remote team can be a challenge. Lost communication, lack of engagement, cultural barriers, time zone differences and many other factors add more complexity to an already complex often international software development project. After working many years from both hemispheres I have had the chance to experience working different locations, and from both sides of the team, first being a part of a remote team for American and European companies, and second, leading teams of software developers located thousands of kilometers away. Along the way I was part of successful teams and highly dysfunctional ones, which got me thinking: why do some remote teams work, and some others don’t?

Internatioanl Working Article

Ask most team leaders and they will generally tell you they would rather have their team sitting next to them, communication can be more fluent, it can be easier to help them and see what they are doing. But there are many reasons to hire people in a different location including cost access to high skill professionals and ensuring productive environments for individuals so they often end up having to lead remote workers.

So, why do some distributed teams work effectively and others fail miserably? Here are some points to consider:

Consider cultural differences

Like it or not, we are the products of our society. Where we grow up has a big influence on who we are, what we like and what drives us in life. While generalization might be a politically controversial subject, and a dangerous one when used by the wrong people, we cannot deny that different countries have different cultures, and that different cultures have different values.

A very interesting study in this subject was performed by the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede in the late 60’s using the results of IBM employees surveys around the world. More than 100.000 employees from 40 different countries completed the survey and a model was built using the replies. The model ended up having four dimensions:

  • Power Distance: in high power distance societies, the less powerful individuals accept that power is distributed unequally. The organisations in those countries are highly hierarchical and the power is centralized. Subordinates expect to receive orders from their bosses and won’t feel comfortable contradicting them. In contrast, when the power distance is small, subordinates and bosses consider themselves as equal. Organisations are flat and subordinates expect to be consulted before decisions are taken. Status symbols are frowned upon and the salary range is small. The index is topped by Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, the Philippines and Mexico while the Nordic countries, New Zealand, Israel and Austria rank at the bottom.
  • Individualism: In highly individual societies ties between individuals are loose, each one is expected to look after himself and immediate family in contrast with collective societies where individuals are integrated into groups which protect them and provide them with support. In a collectivist society the relation between the organisation and the employee resembles a family relation where the organisation provides security in exchange for loyalty, while in an individualist society this relation is seen as a calculated contract in the labor market. High individualist countries are: The United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Netherlands and New Zealand, while highly collective countries are Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and Guatemala.
  • Masculinity: Here, the name selection might be a bit misleading. A masculine society is one that gives high value to material success, assertiveness and toughness. A feminine society gives higher value to qualities such as modesty, tenderness and quality of life. A candidate interviewing for a position in a masculine society will most likely oversell herself while one from a feminine society will undersell herself. Conflicts in feminine societies are resolved by negotiating and compromising instead of fighting. The work-life balance varies between the two societies, while masculine ones “live to work” the feminine ones “work to live”. The most masculine countries in the index are: Japan, Hungary, Austria, Venezuela and Italy while the most feminine are: Costa Rica, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: is the need of a society for rules to avoid unpredictability and avoid unknown situations. In high uncertainty avoidance societies, employees look for stable jobs and are willing to stay for longer in the company. Employees feel more comfortable in structured environments where there are written and unwritten rules. In high uncertainty avoidance cultures, people feel the need to work hard and always be busy, leading to high levels of anxiety. In contrast, in low uncertainty avoidance cultures people don’t have the urge to be in constant activity and like to relax. This index is topped by Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay and Belgium while Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore appear at the bottom.

A fun game is to compare how different countries are positioned in the different rankings, which can be done with a tool provided at the Hofstede Insights website, for example here is a comparison between Sweden, Greece, United States and Spain:

International Working Chart

When working with a remote team it is a good practice to learn about their culture, Hofstede's cultural dimension should just be a first step in this process. If you are coming from a country with high power distance you might need to adapt your leadership style when treating with people from low power distance countries, and not take it personally when they question your decisions.

Ensure everyone is engaged

Were you ever in a situation where production was down, all the clients were calling since they were not able to do their work, and at the same time the remote team was extremely relaxed and passive? For them, everything is abstract. They don’t get the frustrated client phone calls, they don’t see the users cursing at their screens or how operation was interrupted. Heck, they probably never even met the users.

The truth is it is very hard to perceive a sense of urgency when you are so far away from the action and all interactions are virtual. That’s why I believe it is important for the remote team to meet the user / customer, see where they work and how they operate. This, in turn, will create a sense of obligation towards the user by making him human and not just a concept, delivering better project results

Now, engagement goes both ways. You cannot expect your team to be engaged and give the best of themselves if you are not willing to do the same for them. Working in a distributed team adds an overhead and it is easy to neglect the people in a distant location and just focus on the ones sitting next to you. While it is easy to have informal conversations with your colleagues while waiting for the elevator, it is not the case with remote workers. Each discussion calls for a meeting, so why bother?

Tailor communication to the team’s needs

I believe this is one of the hardest obstacles we face in international distributed teams. Having a communication channel where people feel comfortable enough to express themselves is essential. A daily meeting is a very helpful tool, an opportunity to gather the whole team for a few minutes a day, hear what each one is working on and what they are struggling with. Though it should be kept short, having few minutes of informal talk can help create a more relaxed atmosphere in the team. It is important that every member feels comfortable expressing their thoughts and can raise alarms when they believe things are not going well (a deadline won’t be met, a plan is unrealistic, a technical choice is wrong, etc). Beware of the “they know better than us” and “we just do what they ask” attitudes, make sure no location feels this way.

Having people from different locations probably means English is not a native language for most of them. Some people might be brilliant developers but just struggle with spoken English. Even if the level of English is good, accents can be a challenge. In those cases people might feel more comfortable with written communication instead of video calls, probably a considered mix is right.

Finally, remember to treat everyone equally. Give everyone the same opportunities, no matter where they are from or located. Encourage the remote location teams and individuals to question what you ask them and don’t treat it as a sacred command. Try to learn about their cultures and lives, and if you can, pay a visit and have a beer with them, which is more effective than a hundred meetings.

Working with a remote team can be a challenge, but if done well can really deliver for the business, employees and customers. I am pleased to say Lemonade is a great example of the later.

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Written by Lionel Ferder

Project Leader at Lemonade