How to build globally distributed development teams that outperform co-located teams

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

At HERO Transformation we consciously chose to build a distributed development team for a few reasons:

  1. To access the best talent globally and not be constrained by hiring people who live close to our location.
  2. To keep our costs down as we are self-funding . We don’t need to pay for an expensive office or travel.
  3. Different time zones give us more coverage across a 24-hour period . We can code all through the day and night if we necessary.

A distributed team is one that’s spread across geographical boundaries and time zones. The team works together without being in the same office building, or even the same continent.

Distributed teams
Distributed team members could be located anywhere in the world with an Internet connection

We’ve been able to cast a much wider net to attract talent than would have been possible as a co-located team. We have team members from Ukraine, UK, USA and India who would never have relocated to the UK to join us locally.

Our team members are liberated from the traditional 9–5 office environment and exhausting commutes. They have the freedom to work where they like: a shared office space, at home, a coffee shop or in fact anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection.

Working remotely increases flexibility, which in turn enhances the lives of our employees, allowing them to navigate personal commitments when required. The end result is a happier team and a lower churn rate — a win-win situation.

Companies like UpWork, Buffer, WordPress, Kissmetrics, MySQL, Mozilla and Github have all embraced the distributed development team model.

However it is not all rosy and we’ve learned some lessons the hard way.

Lesson 1: Face to face is still the most important

Even distributed teams need to make an effort to meet face to face in some way. When your team spans different time zones, it’s easy to feel disconnected.

We hold as many meetings as possible via video conference to build stronger personal connections and rapport. Being able to see someone’s body language, facial expressions and posture is a key factor in building trust.

Lesson 2: Over communicating is essential

There is less osmotic communication in remote teams, so over communication is vital to ensure alignment.

Frequent, direct communication about work creates a sense of shared purpose, involvement and progression. Ask questions, air assumptions and clarify — it will show that you’re engaged and available when needed.

A benefit of being co-located with your peers is they get to know you personally. They learn about your family, hobbies, your likes and dislikes. In the absence of being able to catch-up over lunch or grab a drink after work, it’s important that distributed team members over-communicate about themselves too.

We share photos of our family, tell people about days out we have had, talk about our interests, share film recommendations, talk about great coffee we have made and a lot of other silliness that brings us together.

Team members sharing photos of their lunch

Lesson 3: Get culturally aligned

Different countries have different values and cultural norms. It’s important to acknowledge this, understand it and then build common alignment.

New teams should undertake cultural integration workshops to establish a shared business culture. Even when team members are from diverse backgrounds, they can be united by shared business values.

Here’s what our our kick off cultural workshop covered:

  1. THIS IS ME: Your family, things you love, pet hates, best and worst work experiences.
  2. COMPANY VISION: What do we want to be known for, what are our values and what do they mean to me?
  3. PRODUCT VISION : What problems are we trying to fix? What does our future look like?
  4. CULTURE : National, local and business, communication, desired behaviours, co-created behavioural charter.
  5. WAYS OF WORKING : The working week, protocols to keep us on track.

Lesson 4: Make use of the best tools

Utilising the right tools and technologies can help make life as a distributed team run more smoothly. Organisation, task management, prioritisation and collaboration will become a breeze with the right software behind you.

Here are the tools we couldn’t live without: chat (Slack), video conference (, email, calendars, content publishing (Medium), marketing (Active Campaign), document storage and collaboration (Google Docs), project management (Azure DevOps), mock ups (InVision), and development tools.

Excerpt of our cultural alignment workshop

Lesson 5: Maximise overlapping work hours

Try to maximise the ‘golden hours’ when remote teams are working in their respective offices at the same time. This is the ideal time for meetings, stand-ups, backlog alignment and more, allowing for close collaboration.

The hours when the whole team isn’t working together can be very productive as there are fewer distractions.

Lesson 6: Be very clear with requirements

I am not talking about unnecessarily detailed briefs that take longer to read than to complete the end task. But confusion can wreck performance, so it’s important to provide just enough detail to ensure everyone’s on the same page, especially if you’re not in the same office.

We find mock ups, annotated screenshots and simple documented examples are all effective, fast ways to create common understanding.

Lesson 7: High language proficiency is a must

It is essential to have a common spoken language that all members of your team are highly proficient in. This should be an important consideration in any interview process.

It is hard enough to communicate across countries without adding in language barriers.

Lesson 8: Fast, reliable Internet quality

There is nothing more frustrating than losing connection on video conference calls.
Regardless of the country that team members reside in, they must have internet as strong as their coffee. This is the cornerstone of a productive, happy team.

How to build globally distributed development teams that outperform co-located teams
Scroll to top