Challenges of a Distributed Team

By definition, Distributed Development is difficult due to the ‘tyranny of distance’. In fact, in the early days of Agile adoption, some purists believed that Agility and Distributed Development could not coexist, going by this principle - “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is via face-to-face conversation”. Distributed Development is a reality today and in most cases, a necessity due to some very convincing reasons. Despite all the advancements in technology related to communication and collaboration of virtual teams, Distributed Development still faces challenges, as people are ‘not in the same room’. Let us examine some of these challenges listed below.

Common barriers to Communication and Collaboration and their potential solutions:

a) Culture

Distributed Development often involves teams spread across nations and continents. As we all know, cultures vary widely across the globe. When people are ignorant of the culture, even an innocuous gesture, or the lack of it, can cause ill-will among people.

An example will illustrate this point. In some countries, it can be quite uncomfortable for many people to directly say ‘no’, whereas, in others, it is perfectly acceptable to say so, and also expected, rather than getting a mixed response. One can imagine the awkwardness on a telephone conference call when there is a long silence or an incoherent response when the person actually means to convey a ‘no’. Such situations could potentially create major misunderstandings and can impede the building of trust, and impact software delivery as well.

Potential Solution: Implement cross-cultural training program

Cross-cultural, or multicultural training to help people overcome cultural challenges and learn how to effectively communicate and listen better. Since every distributed team is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all cross-cultural training program, but you should have a plan in place that fosters multicultural understanding and learning for your diverse team. During onboarding of new employees, host fun ice breaker video conferencing sessions and invite team members to share their favorite regional foods, customs and stories.

b) Time Zone

Distance between teams not only inhibits face-to-face communication but poses additional practical challenges as well. If teams are working in vastly different time zones, e.g. San Francisco (US West Coast) and Pune (India), there is a challenge in overlapping working hours. Either or both sides would have to start work early or end work late, and this can lead to another problem, one of resentment.

Potential Solution: Find overlap work hours for synchronous communication. Use non-overlap work hours for all asynchronous work.

Try to choose meeting times that are during everyone’s typical daytime work hours. For some, this might be in the morning while for others, it’s the afternoon or early evening. The daytime work hours overlap will also let you know when you can expect quick responses from remote members of your team. For teams that have vastly different time zones, you need to get creative. Record the video conferencing meeting for those who couldn’t attend the live meeting so they can still view the meeting at a later time. In addition, you can maximize productivity by planning ahead. Ensure your remote team members that work opposite hours have everything they need to effectively work on their tasks before the end of your workday so you can return to work the next day with the tasks completed.

c) Language

Another situation that often characterizes distributed teams is when both teams are from different parts of the world, and their primary language is not the same. A team in China, that speaks Mandarin, finds it difficult to communicate with another in Brazil, that speaks Portuguese. These teams would have to use a language common to both, say English. Given that it is not the primary language of either team, the ability to communicate clearly and crisply, while keeping a neutral accent, is challenging.

Potential Solution: Combat Language Barriers with Trainings, Using more Visuals

  • Language Training.

  • Using simple language.

  • Speak slowly and clearly. Repeat and summarize. Regularly check for understanding

  • Hire a Translator or an Interpreter wherever needed.

  • Use Visuals - Words often fail us and using visuals can really make a difference when it comes to understanding concepts. Utilize infographics, photos, and diagrams to help people grasp what you’re trying to convey. Encourage your employees to do this in presentations and emails so that everything is as clear as possible.

  • Remind Employees to Be Respectful - Language barriers can often be frustrating. Sometimes, they can even lead to conflicts between the parties. While this is inevitable in a multi-lingual environment, remind your employees to be as respectful as possible.

d) Lack of the ‘Big Picture’ View

This challenge typically occurs when the Product Owner (PO) and Business Analyst (BA) are in separate locations from the rest of the delivery team. While they may conduct a ‘big bang’ session to provide the big picture view, their conversations around the big picture may get ignored, and most of the team members might just get to see limited pieces of the puzzle. The problem is further aggravated when the team's work is directed from a remote location.

Potential Solution: Do share actual business scenarios with the team and have regular brainstorming and clarification sessions. Record sessions so that the team can refer later at any time.

e) Requirements Misunderstanding

Another challenge arising from the distance between the PO/BA and the team is that opportunities to elicit and clarify requirements are rare. This can naturally lead to higher documentation for communicating requirements, and clarifications did over the phone. This poses a huge risk of requirements being misunderstood, especially if there is no common primary language.

Potential Solution: Have regular virtual sessions with the team to discuss and refine requirements. Documentation is good. But that should not be the only means to communicate requirements to the team - as that will lead to wrong interpretation.

f) Lack of Trust

Building trust between team members is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. When people are separated by distance, there needs to be greater trust between them, to work collaboratively. And trust cannot be built between people unless people connect in person and spend meaningful time together. Absence of trust leads to a ‘throw over the wall’ mindset and finger-pointing when things slip or fail. In this situation, there is a very high risk of negative feedback being given or taken in the wrong spirit.

This is an important challenge when teams are distributed and have a high level of dependencies between them. Imagine a day when a team in Pune (India) leaves behind a broken Build as the other team in San Francisco starts the workday. This will result in a loss of productivity for the team in San Francisco. Even if there is every reason to believe that this was an inadvertent slip from the India team, it could cause resentment in the US team, thereby leading to an increase in the trust deficit.

Potential Solution:

  • Create clear guidelines and measurable goals

As a manager, it’s important to have clearly defined guidelines in writing for how all members of your team should work. These guidelines may include which meetings all team members should attend, required response times to issues, hours during the day all team members should be online, quality of work standards and other specific expectations. Additionally, creating measurable tasks with a due date for each member of your team will ensure everyone is contributing to the team’s overall goals.

  • Foster a video-first culture

Video conferencing helps strengthen distributed teams by allowing coworkers to communicate face-to-face, similar to in-person interactions. Unlike chat-based communication or audio only calls, video conferencing makes it easy to read facial expressions, body language and other nonverbal cues that are essential to effective communication.

g) Lack of Visibility

While working from a remote location, it is quite difficult to get good visibility of work happening in other locations, as radiation of information across locations is a huge challenge. This can lead to ‘multiple sources of truth’, which can result in misunderstandings and unpleasant surprises.

Potential Solution: Invest in good team communication & collaboration tools

It is imperative that distributed teams use appropriate tools for communication and collaboration, with the aim of getting as close as possible as face-to-face. These tools should facilitate both individuals as well as group communication and collaboration and should allow for as much online communication as possible.

Do your research in order to find the tools that will work best for you and your team. Research shows that the average office worker has 5 or more apps open at any given time, so it’s important to choose wisely to avoid creating even more app fatigue or confusion concerning where employees should go to look for information.

h) Low Morale

This is typically seen at offshore locations when onshore has a superiority complex. When onshore team members carry the belief that the work done by the offshore team is relatively low value as compared to their work, they seldom appreciate the other team members. This can lead to a feeling of being taken for granted and result in low morale.

Potential Solution: Reward good performers and have more team building and bonding sessions

  • Reward good performers regularly to keep their morale high.

  • Since regular in-person get-togethers are not an option for most remote workers and distributed teams, find other ways to have your team bond outside of your regular team meetings. One option can be to host Virtual Happy Hours - where Employees can have light-hearted casual conversations about their work and personal lives, play fun-virtual games, post pictures of their families or pets and share personal success stories through video conferencing while working remotely.

  • Try to host in-person get-togethers with your entire team at least once or twice a year. This may be challenging and expensive, but the benefits of having your team connect in-person and foster better working relationships far outweigh the travel costs.

i) Lack of Collective Code Ownership

Collective code ownership means that no single member of the team owns a piece of code, it is owned by the entire team. This means that the code is up for refactoring to all team members. Implementing this in a distributed environment poses two major challenges. First, unless appropriate tools and a Version Control System is used, maintaining collective code ownership can be difficult across locations. Second, the lack of trust between team members can lead to highly negative consequences like blaming each other.

Potential Solution: Have a common understanding on the processes and tools to be used. Setup the communication model, approval process at the kick off of the project.

j) Risk of Unpleasant Surprises when ‘Everything Comes Together'

When multiple locations are producing work that needs to be integrated at some point, there is a huge risk of things falling apart, unless Continuous Integration is practiced rigorously. Inconsistencies between locations in types of tools used, an unsuitable Version Control System and a lack of common quality standards can become major impediments towards achieving ‘surprise-free’ integration.

Potential Solution: Have a common understanding on the processes and tools to be used. Setup the communication model, approval process at the kick off of the project.


When it comes to distributed teams, CONSISTENT & CLEAR COMMUNICATION is the KEY. It is the root cause of most of the challenges a team could face. These are not insurmountable. With patience and perseverance one can achieve high-performing distributed teams.