Like many agile tools, distributed teams make problems more visible. Pawel Wrzeszcz listed a couple of those in his talk “Visibility Shift in Distributed Teams” (slides on slideshare) and gave ideas for solutions.
One of the first issues will probably be trust. If “working at home” is believed to be equivalent to “spends add time on Facebook”, you have a trust issue. Managers worry that their “underlings” stop working as soon as they are out of sight, colleagues worry that they have to do all the work for the slackers. You have a “value vs presence” conflict.
Value here means “value for the customer” – how do they profit from what the team members do? Presence is about control. A need for surveillance is always rooted in distrust.
The solution here is to make progress visible: There should be a central place where you can see who works on what and what their progress is. You can have a web site that lists any changes made to the project sources – most DVCS give you this for free. Set up CI and use public backlogs to track progress. If everything else fails, you can send an email with daily status updates. Have meetings where people focus on what they have achieved and what keeps them from reaching their goals.
“Value delivered” should be king.
The next challenge is usually communication. During face to face, about 55% of all information is conveyed nonverbal. Tone makes up 38%, the words alone count for a mere 7%. In other words, if the text in this post lacks 93% of the information you would get if I explained the same to you in a personal meeting (source).
This why you must have a video conferencing system of some kind. It’s not nice-to-have; lacking one is like sabotaging the project.
Also be aware of the effectivenes of your communication channels. Tune narrow channels.
Use video conferences for daily standup (short, personal), chat for discussions (longer, open ended, needs transcription, not very formal), phone calls (complicated, personal, urgent), face-to-face (important). If you have a distributed team, make sure they meet face to face once per month. Flying them in might be expensive but not doing this might ruin your chance of success.
Be more personal in video conferences. Pawel mentioned the “4th question” to form bonds: Which book did you read lately? How do you exercise? This is the social glue that you need when you don’t work in one place.
Use retrospectives regularly to identify important problems that the team wants to solve.