7 dos and don’ts for working with offshore agile teams

The history of agile methodologies has its roots in collocating multidisciplinary teams, managing sprints with stickies on whiteboards, and opting for self-organizing dialogues over rigid practices. Agile coaches shaped these best practices, though many large enterprises have long histories of running offshore agile development with their service providers or at captive centres.

I shared my recommendations on cocreating with offshore agile development teams in my first book, Driving Digital and followed up with many of my transformation leadership stories in my new book, Digital Trailblazer. I answer questions like how offshore teams can run standups and how to manage the collaboration between product owners, business analysts, and technical leads who aren’t in the same location or time zone.

Many more organizations shifted to hybrid agile models during the pandemic, including operating globally dispersed scrum teams. Devops and tools have matured to help teams communicate, document collaboration architectures, manage priorities, and deliver quality code. Many organizations and IT leaders are open to offshore development because of the challenges of finding all the technical skills needed to innovate, modernize applications, and support ongoing enhancements.

There’s much to learn if you’re new to working with offshore development teams or helping geographically dispersed teams adopt fundamental agile practices. Below are some recommended practices and things to avoid as a delivery manager, technical team lead, or teammate when running agile with offshore teams.

Do design a fair way to assess technical skills

The first question technical team leaders ask is whether they want a devops engineer on their team, but standard approaches to interviewing candidates and testing technical skills may not work very well with a remote candidate, especially if there are language barriers.

Marko Anastasov, cofounder of Semaphore CI/CD, says, “You can teach a talented engineer any framework in six weeks, but you can’t make a talented engineer in any amount of time. To assess the technical skills of your candidates, nothing replaces a short 40-minute live coding interview. Don’t discriminate by technology, so let candidates use their favorite language and IDE.”

If you’re hiring many developers, consider third-party tools such as Coderbyte, Codility, TestGorilla, or Turing to assess and interview candidates.

Don’t limit the work to tactical functions

If you have a team of offshore or outsourced developers, you might question what type of work to assign them. Many organizations start with lower-risk development areas and tasks, but the more progressive devops organizations also collaborate with offshore teams on innovation or when technical skills such as cloud engineering, test automation, or dataops are scarce.

“As the amount of outsourced developers increases, the nature of development that is being done outside the United States continues to evolve,” says Abhinav Asthana, cofounder and CEO of Postman. “While this talent was historically utilized primarily for side projects or integrating applications, we now see entire product suites being led by this talent pool. These global teams must increase their alignment and alignment to succeed cross-functionally and drive greater business results.”

Do craft non-financial incentives to acknowledge contributions

Taking a successful team out for lunch or giving gift cards to top performers are options to reward employees and onsite contractors but may not be feasible offshore. If you work with a service provider, you’ll have to check what types of rewards they allow, and when your business has a captive center, you’ll have to ask about local options.

Cory Hymel, director of blockchain at Gigster, says, “One of the hardest but most influential things you can do when working with offshore or distributed teams is to create incentive drivers for positive behavior beyond monetary compensation. There are a number of ways this can be done but it’s often overlooked, as pay is the easy, standard status quo.”

Sometimes, the best reward is acknowledgment, which can be done by saying thank you, declaring a kudos of the month, or announcing when someone achieves a personal or learning milestone.

Don’t ignore planning for a crisis or when the team is less accessible

Many companies create business continuity plans to manage a crisis around key business operations. But these plans may overlook specifics for small offshore development teams or not account for intermittent disruptions to internet, power, or other resources that impact an offshore team’s safety, health, or productivity.

“If you’re working with a global, distributed team, you need to accept the responsibilities that come with supporting your workforce—whether they are across the world or seated two desks away,” says Andrew Amann, CEO of NineTwoThree Venture Studio. “This means having a plan in place for when a global crisis limits your team members’ ability to work.”

Amann offers several recommendations for developing a practical plan. “Cross-train employees, build relationships with development agencies, plan for difficulties with offshore payments, and make sure you stand behind your distributed teams when they need help,” he says.

Do extend a culture of empathy to remote teams

Vishwastam Shukla, CTO of HackerEarth, recommends that tech team leaders and offshore development teams share their cultural practices with each other. “It’s important to lead with empathy because cultural and geographical differences can breed ‘us versus them’ mentalities,” he says. This can even happen with employees in the same geography but working remotely. “

Shukla suggests, “One way to navigate this is to provide alternate forums for non-work discussions that foster bonding.”

That requires learning more about your offshore team’s interests. It might be cricket instead of baseball or biryani rather than pasta. Gaining appreciation of people’s interests and lifestyles can go a long way to extending culture and developing camaraderie.

Don’t overcontrol offshore teams

One of the most important aspects of collaborating with offshore groups is avoiding micromanaging software development teams and other command-and-control management tactics. It can be challenging to develop trust, avoid overly structured development tasks, and establish reasonable key performance indicators, especially if there’s a strict service-level agreement with a service provider.

Here are some suggestions to avoid micromanaging offshore teams.

  • Roger Valade, senior vice president of engineering at G2, says, “Our model is to make each local team as self-sufficient as possible to reduce cross-time-zone dependencies. Weekly cross-team coordination meetings ensure we have time to sync as needed, and all work is recorded in project tracking software to maintain visibility within and across teams. We don’t require teams to be methodologically identical but do align on core principles: two-week sprints, retrospectives, and road maps driven by our V2MOM (vision, values, methods, objectives, and measurements).”
  • Shukla adds, “Empowering remote teams to embrace local decision-making goes a long way, and moving from monitored teams to empowered individuals should be the norm. Teams need asynchronous communication when not everyone is available to answer things immediately. It’s also important to set expectations and stick to working hours.”
  • Patrick Jean, CTO of OutSystems, says, “To build a high-performance development team and overcome the challenges of working with geographically dispersed developers, focus on building a culture of autonomy, efficiency, and localized support. When this is done, developers are empowered to become superheroes in their organizations by building business-critical applications more quickly than ever. IT leaders can drive innovation and keep the energy high in a highly distributed, global model as long as teams are given autonomy to execute, understand the mission intimately, and are clear on how they are delivering value to customers.”

Do select tools that foster real-time collaboration

Selecting collaboration technologies and guiding teams on how to use them can help organizations develop long-distance partnerships and avoid tools that reinforce micromanagement tendencies.

Grzegorz Tanczyk, principal software engineer at Appfire, says, “As the world becomes accustomed to a more permanent distributed work environment, organizations must adopt tools that create a collaborative space where individuals can work together in both real time and asynchronously.”

Tanczyk offers this suggestion for tool selection. “Look for tools that eliminate unnecessary manual work by supporting instant data transfer, the population of the tool with existing tasks, and access to reusable processes in template libraries.”

Tools can improve productivity, foster a collaborative culture, and avoid creating scenarios where offshore teams feel they are second-rate citizens.

“Companies must provide their offshore employees with a truly exceptional work experience, or they will feel disconnected from the ‘mother ship’ and have low productivity and high turnover,” says Nadir Ali, CEO of Inpixon. “An employee experience app can streamline communication, support disparate teams and their projects, and perhaps equally important, it can help build and maintain company culture.”

Tools connect teams across oceans, but if you really want to develop a partnership culture, consider these reasons to visit your offshore teams. You can learn a lot by seeing their working environment and breaking bread with the people working with you.

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