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[Top 3] Time Management Habits of Highly Productive Distributed Teams

The traditional work model, 9 to 5 in an office with the whole company face to face, is going the way of the dodo bird. For a number of businesses thriving in the 21st century, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As the CEO of a rapidly growing software development agency in San Francisco, Spiral Scout, that builds powerhouse tech teams for businesses in need of custom software solutions, I regularly work with distributed technical teams and clients located around the world. 
A group of software developers, designers, project managers, and quality assurance specialists all working on the same project but logging on from six different time zones could make a client trepidatious.
With good time management habits, however, I have learned that distributed teams can be tremendous assets and actually improve productivity and speed of development while lowering costs and communication confusion.
Help your distributed team become more efficient, productive, and communicate better with these 3 top time management tips:

1. Improve Your Meetings

“The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.” - Tim Cook
According to Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, poorly organized meetings will cost U.S. businesses a jaw-dropping $399B in 2019.  Both meetings that are called unnecessarily as well as meetings that lack a clear action plan and strong facilitator cost businesses big time in both time and resources.

It’s vitally important to structure your meetings to avoid endless chit chat, small talk, and tangents that can derail the topic at hand and bore others who aren’t a part of the conversation. So how exactly do you make the most of virtual meetings? Try these tips:
  • Lock down a set time for meetings each week that works for everyone. Ideally, you want to have at least a minimal overlap during your day with your distributed members where everyone can sign on and give an update. 
  • Communicate a clear agenda before the meeting with participating attendants so they can prepare. And most importantly, stick with your agenda during the meeting to make sure you cover everything you need to and avoid the squirrel factor.
  • Have one person lead the meeting who can guide the conversation according to the agenda. A leader helps keep things on track and can nip side conversations in the bud before they become a time vacuum. 
  • Get to brass tax quick. Start meetings off by saying something like, “I know everyone is busy, so let’s get started speaking about XYZ,” or “Let’s start where we left off last time and discuss ABC.” 
  • Use visual aids. Research has shown that visual aids can help keep meeting attendees engaged and on task.
  • Hold video meetings so attendees can see who they are speaking with face to face. Not only are people more likely to pay attention, but video conferencing adds a helpful layer of accountability too.
  • When possible, limit your meetings to 30 minutes or less. If additional topics come up, note them in the minutes that get emailed to participants, and schedule separate follow-up conversations as needed.
Remember too, for distributed teams that are spread out remotely and don’t share a central office, meetings are critical fixtures in both day to day operations as well as in promoting a connection between employees.

Pro Tip: If you want your team to feel like they have time to connect on a personal level, incorporate 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning or end of a weekly meeting devoted just to that. A good ice breaker for this type of group connection time is asking everyone to take 30 seconds and share their high point and low point for the week. 

2. Choose Your Tools Wisely

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
— Thomas A. Edison
Well-organized and highly productive distributed teams rely in part on project management and ticketing apps, real-time messaging tools, and cloud-enabled solutions that allow them to work remotely but remain in frequent contact.

The right tool can be a huge time-saver helping to improve productivity and make your workers far more efficient than if they were managing projects solely through email and spreadsheets.
Sometimes, however, new tools can consume loads of valuable time, especially when they have a steep learning curve, they are not well-liked by your team, and when they don’t thoroughly address common communication and project management hurdles.
Not all tools will be a perfect fit for every team, so choose yours wisely with these tips:
  • Get everyone’s buy-in on the products you select for team collaboration. You want to make sure everyone is comfortable using them (and will therefore maximize their use of them).
  • Make sure the tools you choose allow you to assign responsibility to specific people and notifies them accordingly (both immediately and also as a follow-up when a task isn’t completed within a designated time).
  • Find at least one go-to platform that provides quick facilitation of video calls and screen-sharing for group meetings among your distributed team. The Zoom Conference app, TeamViewer, and GoToMeeting are good places to start.
  • Pick tools that work together, i.e. like a messaging and collaboration platform that integrates with Google Drive plugins.
  • Look for tools that make it easier to communicate and collaborate in real-time across time zones.
  • Ditch the tools and products that don’t work for your entire team. Just because it’s the latest app disrupting the project management or development space doesn’t mean it’s right for your group.
My company’s distributed teams specifically employ an Agile methodology of software development which means we need to be nimble, responsive, and able to pivot quickly as our customer’s plans evolve.
We have found that tools like Jira, Confluence, Google Drive, Rocket.chat and Skype/Discord are especially helpful in both planning and driving collaboration and development as well as helping us track and record essential communications.

3. Be Proactive

“Recast your current problems into proactive goals.” - Suze Orman
The best way to save time is to plan ahead. When you have organization and direction, you can prevent many of the common problems that develop among distributed teams and lead to time mismanagement, i.e., inefficient communication, workload imbalances, and toxic company culture.
Take two engineers, for example, who are working together (but from different locations) on a frontend portion and a backend portion of a website. The frontend engineer finishes what he needs to do and moves on to a new task or different project.
The team member working on the backend, however, takes longer and eventually needs to call the frontend engineer back to help close up the project. If the frontend engineer is tied up with new tasks and can not be brought back immediately or respond to questions, the development cycle can get stalled, and the release date for the project might get pushed back.
Proactivity can help prevent this type of scenario by encouraging team members to stay one step ahead.
From the example above, knowing his portion was going to take longer, the backend developer could instead estimate a date for finishing his ticket and proactively schedule a meeting with the frontend developer to close out the project together.
Or, the frontend developer could plan in advance to set aside a small amount of time each day to check-in and see if the backend developer needs assistance.
It’s also important to make sure that any roadblocks team members encounter are addressed in meetings and ironed out before people shut down their systems for the night.
When you have groups of people on opposite sides of the world working while the other is sleeping, it is critical that bottlenecks are alleviated before the next team signs on so there is no delay in their progress. 
Use proactiveness to your team’s benefit with these quick tips:
  • Implement the foundational scrum practice with your team that involves regularly sharing what, if anything, is blocking progress. Then work out with your team what can be done to help unblock that person.
  • Plan ahead with clear instructions and frequent check-ins to make sure that people are not blocked nor waiting for others to provide help.
  • Visualize in an easy-to-read chart or other aid exactly which people are working on which aspect of a project and share with the entire team. Include key details like when respective team members expect to be done with their tasks, what the next steps are after they complete that task, and if they need another team member to assist them.
  • Encourage team members to take up their own reins and move forward on their own to the next job at hand without having to be guided every step of the way.
When it comes down to it, time management is best served by a team that trusts one another and has the resources to excel, no matter where they are located when they work.
A practical approach to meetings, the right tools, and a proactive mindset will go a long way in keeping your team efficient, happy, and successful.

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