Communication is the Biggest Challenge for Distributed Teams

As the saying goes “good news never goes beyond the gate while bad news spread far and wide.” It tells us that we have to employ some means to let good things known to others, and properly handle bad things, or else the offshore work mode is unable to cover them up. For distributed teams, communication has always been an eternal and focal topic, so I think it’s necessary to dig this topic deeper in this section.

■ Do a good job no matter how simple it is, and remember there is no trifle for communication.

■ Understand the nature of communication from two dimensions (synchronous and asynchronous), which helps offshore team members to explore ways to raise communication efficiency.

■ Remain empathetic.

Agile development is characterized by frequent communication, especially face-to-face communication. However, the organizational structure of distributed teams becomes the biggest challenge to communication while adopting the agile development method. Most people believe that as long as the distributed teams in different places could develop functions on their own, it will greatly mitigate the adverse effect of poor communication, which has been a rule in outsourcing industry in the past years. Such distributed cooperation is substantially different from agile development which is based on incremental development and continuous integration. But the good news is that the constant development of communication technologies, especially Internet technologies, enables different teams to collaborate more closely, work in pair remotely, and take part in development of all functions.

E-mail: The Most Basic Means of Communication for Distributed Teams

I often hear complaint that e-mail is the worst means of communication. But why distributed teams still rely on it? How can we make full use of e-mail by maximizing its strength and minimizing its


Most people think sending e-mails could not have been much simpler, why should they bother to learn from others to use this tool. But to be honest, I have seen so many occasions where e-mails are improperly sent. See the examples as follows:

■ Team members were discussing the pain points of writing work logs through e-mail; but several rounds later, their topic shifted to the security policy of a customer.

■ One person sent an e-mail to all of his colleagues in the distributed team, later one of the recipients gave him a reply that contained some personal information, he answered this e-mail and copied it to all the others without the consent of that recipient.

■ When discussing a trivial matter, the two sides kept passing the buck in e-mails and failed to make any decision after wasting a long time; what’s worse, they forgot to forward the e-mails to the one playing a crucial role.

■ Although the requirements were specified in the e-mail, what the other teams had done was poles apart.

■ The e-mail subjects were defined randomly, either less relevant to the content or overly broad. For example, there are e-mails carrying the subject as “some recent problems,” but they are hard to be searched afterward since there are no keywords at all.

But there are situations where we made good use of e-mail. For example, there were two persons from different teams maintaining single-line contact, but they failed to reach any consensus after rounds of discussion. Later, one of them copied their e-mail to the other one’s leader, which apparently upgraded their communication, hoping that some high-level figure would intervene and finalize a scheme as soon as possible.

It is better for each e-mail to focus on one matter or something related. Many people like to discuss several topics in one e-mail. But it will lead to disjointed topics, a long reply list, and ambiguous subjects with inaccurate keywords for finding e-mails.

In addition to text, the e-mail content should also contain screenshots as many as possible, which helps to prevent the recipients from getting confused or suspicious, and reduce the frequency of e-mail exchange.

The offshore teams that I had worked with often complained that they received no reply for a long time after they e-mailed the customer. When they were ready to send another e-mail to the customer to ask for a reply, they would copy it to his leader together with the original e-mail, in order to remind the customer of his procrastination in making any response.

We shall be aware of most functions of e-mails that prevail on the market. First, we must make good use of the mailing list, which will ensure that all e-mails are sent to each member of the distributed teams, especially when they are not familiar with each other. Second, we must learn to use carbon copy (CC) and blind carbon copy (BCC) to make our communication more professional.


Let me start with CC. I had been working in Singapore-based Creative Technology Ltd where I learned to send and copy e-mails. I was member of a typical distributed team (with testing personnel stationed in Singapore and Beijing) in those years. Shortly after I entered this company, I was present at a meeting and assigned to e-mail the meeting minutes to those concerned. I added almost all of them into the “To” address bar, put my department manager in the “CC” address bar, and then hit the “Send” button. After a short while, a colleague of mine in the same department, who had worked at the Singapore headquarters for more than ten years, came to me and taught me the first lesson of my career. He told me that “when sending the e-mails like meeting minutes, the “To” address bar is left for all participants who are entitled to receive the e-mail, while the “CC” address bar is for those have something to do with the meeting but fail to show up for some reason (including leaders), in order to let them know what the meeting was about.”

BCC is a bit complicated. Ordinary recipients and CC recipients cannot see who are in BCC address bar; BCC recipients, although they cannot see each other, are able to see all the other recipients. BCC is mostly used for sending e-mails to outsiders. For example, if you want to send an e-mail to several customers at a time without their detection, you can put them in BCC address bar. Note that when you send an e-mail through BCC, you must not hit the “reply to all” button. So far as I know, two team leaders were arguing over a plan in e-mails, then one of them notified this matter to their supervisor through BCC. Later, this supervisor finalized the plan in their stead and replied to both of them. The result was conceivable, the other team leader was so angry that such a trivial matter was reported to their supervisor. Since then on, they found it hardly possible to work together as before.

Features of E-mail Communication

My years’ experiences in e-mail communication are summarized as follows:

Considering the information it carries, e-mail is available for nonemergency communication to convey details between each other, and also store the records of communication as evidence for any potential use.

Regarding the dimension of time, e-mail itself is an asynchronous communication process, recipients do not have to answer an e-mail immediately, but have plenty of time to figure out how to reply it.

There are skills in forwarding an e-mail. When we receive an “FYI” e-mail, we will find it contains so many communication records over a period of time, and more than one persons have expressed multiple opinions. It is troublesome to understand all the problems set out in the e-mail without adequate contextual information. Those who forward such e-mail shall make sure of the following two points, which helps to relieve the “headache” of recipients.”

■ Briefly introduce the problems and how they come into being in the e-mail;

■ Summarize all the problems that are raised recently, which were already addressed and how about their solutions.

Better Means of Communication are Preferred in Some Occasions

For example, I have mentioned that both parties pass the buck for a small matter in e-mails, and failed to finalize a plan for a long time. In this process, the final scheme is really valuable, yet it is too complicated to be communicated via e-mail. The correct approach is to discuss the plan with a telephone or instant messaging tool, and after we have got a conclusion, it shall be e-mailed to all relevant personnel.

If you still send e-mails in the case of urgent matters, do not expect to get an immediate reply, even if you specially point out that “we will take necessary action if no reply is received before getting off work today.”

Many people may have such a misunderstanding: we just need to forward the e-mails to others, and they are sure to read them and learn all the information inside. But for some matters, we’d better call together all parties concerned to have a discussion.

View e-mails from the Perspective of Continuous Improvement

If we have to discuss some problems in e-mails, we shall ask a stakeholder of the problems to send each of us a summary e-mail upon the end of discussions. He shall summarize all valuable information in this e-mail for any inquiry and information transmission in the future. In case of no such summary, the newcomers who did not join in the discussions will only get a long list of forwarded e-mails, they have to read them one by one to collect valuable information, which wastes both time and energy.

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