How much overlap do remote teams really need?
Business, teamwork

How much overlap do remote teams really need?

When you have remote teams, you need to ensure there is enough cross over to collaborate when needed. Basecamp wrote poignantly in their book “Remote”,

“At 37 Signals, we’ve found that we need a good four hours of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team.”

This 4 hour cross over is great if you can get it. When you have a colleague on the other side of the country, it’s important to leave some room when you can both sync up on a topic. But is the crossover essential? And if you need it, how much exactly do you need for optimal performance?

Just stuck or social need?

One question you need to ask if you’re in a remote working situation is how much time do teams really need to talk one-on-one. The ultimate goal is to create as much space in everyones day to focus, and zone-in on the work they need. The more zoning time, the happier your teams will be, and the more productive the outputs.

No matter what situation you’re in, having constant interruptions in the middle of the day helps nobody. 4 hours of overlap might be good for a team who wants to talk a lot, or might need the dialogue to do their work. But that kind of overlap isn’t required for all roles.

We find with crafts like user experience design, sales and marketing, these roles gravitate to communicating with team mates more in a social context, ad-hoc discussions which lead to ideas and iterating on plans that aren’t working. Often, that type of collaboration can lead to better outcomes. But developers and content producers on the other-hand have workflows that are different. When they need answers, it’s best to get them quickly, then get back to it.

Certain teams require collaboration in the moment, while others require more social and ad-hoc collaboration. let me give you an example.

Let’s say a developer is working away, highly focused, and they’ve been working on fixing a problem a customer has reported. But they hit a roadblock, and they need to ask a question of their team mate. Maybe they need a password because the one recorded isn’t correct, and the person who knows it lives in another timezone. This is one of those small, but sticky blockers. When someone comes into contact with a problem like this when they are in the middle of a task, productivity will grind to a halt.

The answer may only take 2 seconds to get, but if this happens every day, the whole team will become slow.

Having more cross-over hours for this developer won’t actually improve productivity all that much. Because the total volume of questions that might be raised could only be 1 or 2 questions a day, and the total time to address those problems might only take 10 minutes.

So trying to ensure everyone has crossover of 4 hours to answer 10 minutes of questions is probably not overly helpful.

What counts in the end

A simple way of thinking about cross-over hours is this.

The more interaction a team needs, the more cross-over is required. But the longer each of those interactions are – this is what really counts. This is because people don’t generally mind being sent a message at 7pm to ask about something, so long as that request is small, and infrequent.

So if you find the questions are small, you can probably get away with less cross-over hours, but if they require a good 20 minutes on the phone to flesh out an idea, you may need to ensure that entire team is in a closer timezone to each-other.

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