Can Distributed Teams Be Real Teams?

Can distributed teams be real teams? I believe they can. They’ll look, sound and feel different from co-located teams, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t teams.

I’ve been reading Tobias Mayer’s The People’s Scrum (in preparation for attending a workshop with him in a few weeks). He’s unequivocal.

He argues: “Distributed teams are not teams: they are at best a collection of people who communicate regularly… A distributed team cannot create the kind of energy that comes from human eye contact, from shared spontaneous laughter, from physical touch… Distributed teams require coordination and management and thus can never be truly self-organizing… Distributed teams can never be truly agile. So let’s stop pretending.”

I think it comes down to that old “team” metaphor. When Mayer thinks of a team, what kind of team is his team? Elsewhere in the book, we find it: clustered around a great big whiteboard with index cards, sticky notes, tape, flags and stickers, gathering to argue, discuss, align, learn and celebrate.

Virtual TeamMy kind of team isn’t like that.

I’ve worked all my life with distributed / virtual / remote colleagues, since well before it was fashionable. That’s how it’s always been in journalism. Even when I worked in an office with lots of other people, it was very rare for everyone who worked together to be based on the same site.

So it’s possible that I’m missing something, and I’ve just never had the experience of working with a real “team”, as Mayer conceives of it.

But what I have had, especially in the last few years, is loads of experience of developing deep connections with students and colleagues I’ve never met.

Often, we’ll be using Clean Language questions to explore the thinking behind our thinking: what really makes each person tick. We’ll discover what their deepest hopes and dreams are, how they see their life’s purpose, and what they need to work and learn at their best.

The process builds trust, builds collaborative communication, and thus forges us into a team.

My sense is that as a result of this process, I know them – and they know me – much better than many people I see frequently: my neighbours, my friends from the pub, the people at the gym or whatever. I know them much, much better than the people who work with me day-to-day, but who I haven’t done the Clean Language thing with: my VA, webmaster etc.

That experience has convinced me that it is possible for a group of co-workers who are not co-located to become a real team: perhaps a stronger team than one which shares an office.

These distributed teams look different from Mayer’s ideal scrum team standing at the whiteboard. Perhaps you need to use your imagination to “see” the team at all.

But they work.


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