Distributed Teams: How to Assess Level of Team Performance
Global talent, market expansion and cost pressures are the major drivers that lead to many organizations establishing distributed teams, where all employees are not co-located in one office. The result is that companies have employees that may be working from different offices, adopting flexible working one or two days a week or even working remotely from home full-time.
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Global talent: As business becomes more competitive, organizations are seeking to hire the best talent available. In many cases, there are significant challenges as these employees may not be willing to relocate, there is a prohibitive cost to relocation, relocation is very disruptive to both the individual and the company and the option of a work visa may just not be available.

Market expansion: Companies want to expand and open up new markets to grow their business by either launching into new countries and regions or in some cases acquiring other companies that may already have a foothold in a new market opportunity. This expansion requires the set-up or acquisition of subsidiaries that would usually be characterised by additional office locations.

Cost pressures: Competitive pressures are constantly forcing companies to look at new ways of reducing costs and becoming more cost efficient. This is resulting in companies looking to outsource certain functions, relocate offices to less expensive areas, reduce office footprints or even adopt work-at-home policies in certain instances.

All of these factors are working together to increase the level of distribution of company employees. The higher the level of distribution, the more challenging it can be to build a high-performance team. So what is a high-performance team? The following has been borrowed from Wikipedia

“A high-performance team can be defined as a group of people with specific roles and complementary talents and skills, aligned with and committed to a common purpose, who consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation, that produce superior results. The high-performance team is regarded as tight-knit, focused on their goal and have supportive processes that will enable any team member to surmount any barriers in achieving the team’s goals.”

As you read this you would have noticed words and phrases such as aligned, high levels of collaboration, tight-knit and supportive processes. Clearly therefore, the more that people are distanced from each other, the harder it is to create a high-performance team.

When companies are faced with a distributed team structure, it is critical that they understand how this is affecting overall team performance. It is only with a clear understanding of the existing challenges, that an effective solution can be identified and validated.

Most companies assess the contribution of their workforce on an individual level through competency assessments and annual appraisals but understanding team performance requires a fundamentally different approach. To be frank, based on the fact that almost all key company objectives and subsequent strategic programs are handled on a team basis, this would seem to be something that should already be in place in most organizations.

Sococo Value Pyramid

The starting point for assessing how well a team performs is to understand the degree of connectedness between all members. Connection is the glue that brings people together and promotes both collaboration and cooperation. In the words of Michael Lee Stallard:

“Connection makes people more trusting, more cooperative, more empathetic, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, more creative and better problem solvers.”

Connection can be translated and defined by the level of engagement that takes place between team members. It is critical that the level of communication that takes place in an organisation is NOT taken as a proxy for engagement. Engagement is a personal interaction and in many cases informal and spontaneous, as this is what creates the bonds that are required to create a highly connected, collaborative and supportive team.

What you might see in a distributed team

  • Low employee satisfaction responses and scores to employee surveys
  • Low level of participation in team events
  • Low use of video with most communication conducted asynchronously
  • High level of absenteeism

When you have a well connected team you would expect to see

  • High employee retention rates
  • High levels of personal self-development and course enrolments
  • Easier to hire new talent
  • High levels of internal referrals
  • High level of company advocacy through social media channels

The second area of assessment is to understand the contribution that the team is making. This is really an effectiveness measure and is focused on the quality of the output of the team, from a customer value perspective. It very much borrows from the key principles of the Agile Manifesto. In very simple terms, it is understanding how much of the outcome can be divided into the “valuable to the customer” bucket and how much ends up in the rework bucket. To a very large extent the effectiveness of the team is dependant on how well aligned they are and the extent to which they believe “collective wisdom outshines individual judgement”.

What you might see in a distributed team

  • High % of outcomes that are discarded and never used
  • High % of outcomes that are never finalised and see the light of day
  • High % of outcomes that are subject to rework e.g. quality assurance issue, as in did not meet the brief
  • High % of outcomes that are faulty e.g. quality control issue, as in met the brief but not to the right level of quality

When you have a high contributing team you would expect to see

  • High % of outcomes fully met customer needs and expectations in first instance
  • High diversity of ideas as many more people are able and willing to contribute
  • More innovative ideas as team is more confident is pushing boundaries and trying different things
  • Overall a more satisfied customer base

The third area of assessment is to understand how productive the team is performing. This is really an efficiency measure and is focused on understanding how the same outcomes could be achieved with a lower resource investment. Borrowing from Lean Manufacturing principles, LEAN is centered on making obvious what adds value by reducing everything else for the benefit of the the team. Very simply it is about the elimination of waste. When you are a team, this comes down to how much of your effort is spent on actually doing work rather than just managing work.

What you might see in a distributed team

  • High % of time spent in update meetings
  • High frequency of face-to-face meetings to try and address disconnection issues
  • High levels of travel to support face-to-face meetings
  • High level of asynchronous communication like emails, as not all colleagues connected and attending meetings
  • High % of time expended on status and update documentation to keep colleagues aligned
  • More time than should be warranted expended in searching for content and finding answers to key questions
  • Longer meetings, as time expended to bring colleagues up to speed and level the playing field

When you have a productive team you would expect to see

  • High % of time spent on doing work
  • High level of output that is directly connected to customer value
  • Face-to-face meetings conducted to enhance and build stronger team relationships rather than to address priority, alignment and collaboration issues
  • Rapid decision-making
  • High level of spontaneous meetings compared to update meetings
  • More open calendars (less pre-booked meetings)

The final area of assessment is to understand how quickly the team is able to deliver on their objectives. This is really a function of removing the delays to decision-making and execution that can hold up projects at all stages of their lifecycle. It is really a question of FLOW, the ability of a team to progress a project in a seamless way without disruption, delays and avoidable constraints.

What you might see in a distributed team

  • Delays in decision-making as approvals reliant on asynchronous communication
  • Delays in self-organising a new team due to unavailability of colleagues
  • Days lost due to delays in waiting for required items (slow response times)
  • Time lost due to misunderstandings created by asynchronous communication that did not provide all the information required
  • Time spent in seeking answers to key questions before committing to and responding to requested work
  • Difference of opinion on constraints leading to delays as teams seek alignment

When you have a fast delivery team you would expect to see

  • Improved cycle times
  • Shorter delivery times for specific types of projects
  • Decision-making on the fly in real-time, without referral and delay
  • Fast set-up for new projects
  • Project deadlines met on time

There is no doubt, it is challenging to assess the performance of a distributed team. However adoption of the above principles will help provide a very objective framework on which this can be undertaken. Once an organization has established a better understanding of the current position, it makes identification, trial and validation of a solution that much easier as you know what benefits to expect and therefore how to track progress.

We would welcome any and all comments and if you would like information on how Sococo can help transform a distributed team into a high-performance team, please feel free to send us an email, or call us at +1 (650) 265–7013.

by 
David Newberry

Jane Gonzalez
Associate Editor