At SourceSeek we’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to be an offsite developer. Not surprisingly, the most common complaint from offsite developers – and the farther away, the worse it gets – is that they feel detached from the internal team, leading to malaise and eventually lower output. Software team motivation can be an expensive problem, but fortunately, it’s not that hard to mitigate.
Most clients understand the importance of keeping their overseas teams happy and motivated, and many try to handle this by having frequent video meetings and sending occasional gifts or bonuses. Those things are valuable, and will help to keep your team connected, but a team meeting still feels like “work.” Sometimes there will be a few wisecracks or tangents, but it’s not going to build strong connections with individual team members.
What really brings true software team motivation is to truly get personal, and give the team an opportunity to know their clients and feel a personal bond with them. This is easy to do if you can invest just a bit of time, and will invariably deliver results in the form of a more cohesive, motivated team.
Creating A Virtual Water Cooler
An offshore team has almost no opportunity to get to know their clients. In many cases, they just barely know what their clients look like. The reason is that the distributed team doesn’t have a shared water cooler, elevator, or hallway to chat in. They never run into each other in the parking lot or at the coffee shop downstairs. To the developers, the client is reduced to a sort of avatar consisting of an email signature, a skype ID, and occasionally a talking head on video chat. It’s hard to feel emotionally connected to a talking head.
So, how do we add this casual interaction or spontaneous socialization to a distributed team? There is no secret to it. You just budget some of your precious time to interact with your developers individually, and exclusively about non-work topics. As little as 10 minutes can cause an immediate boost to the morale of a team member – and we all know that morale and employee motivation is contagious so that can be 10 minutes well spent.
A 10-Minute Software Team Motivation Boost
Once you commit to the 10 minutes, start either with your most important developer or one of the team leads. It’s important to ensure that these are natural, comfortable interactions and not awkward or forced. One simple way to bond with team members is via instant messaging. It’s easy, spontaneous, and doesn’t obligate someone who’s not fluent in English to handle a potentially stressful voice call in English with their client. It’s easy to keep an IM session upbeat, fun, and casual. Next, when I want to connect with a team member, I just wait for an ordinary business interaction, then throw out something non-business:
“It’s incredibly cold here, does it snow a lot in Kiev?”
“I heard you were sick last week, are you feeling ok now?”
“Did you ever work with any stacks other than .Net? What did you think of them?”
“Is it true that in Minsk you guys are crazy about hockey?”
“I have to go shop for a gift for my wife’s birthday. Are you married?”
“Did you see this crazy video on YouTube? So funny!”
“I have always wanted to come to Vietnam (or wherever) for a visit”
“How did you learn English so well?”
The conversation will almost always move easily into the personal realm, and you can get to know your team. Don’t forget to share things about yourself; this has to go both ways. The goal is simply to get to know each other and turn yourself from an avatar to a real person in their eyes.
How Much Bonding Is Enough?
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of teams, and I’ve come up with a rule of thumb for the absolute minimum degree to which you need to know your team in order to maintain software team motivation. If nothing else, try to be able to do the following for each team member:
- Pick them out of a group in a photograph
- Know if they are married and how many kids they have
- Know at least one interest that they have outside of work
These tips aren’t revelations, but it’s amazing how many clients forget to follow through. It’s easy to forget that the external group needs to be on the team, too, and if they don’t know you at all they aren’t going to feel that way. Most good managers know this and spend a few minutes chatting with a tech lead; they can usually get better ROI than they’ll ever get from a Christmas bonus alone.
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