October 31, 2018

How Data Visualization Helps Remote Teams Align

Written by
Melissa Reinke

According to Merriam-Webster, the term remote has several different definitions. Some have to do with separation in space and time; others have to do with seclusion. Most definitions, in one way or another, have to do with distance, sometimes physical in nature, sometimes not. For instance, the final entry in the list reads: “distant in manner: aloof.” Unfortunately, this final definition can become a reality for many remote workers who don’t get the benefit of in-office visibility into projects and outcomes.

For some, distance is what helps them excel at what they do. In fact, Forbes reported that a 2016 survey of American employees cited 91% of employees who work from home felt they “get more work done when working remotely.” In this sense, an entire team of remote employees would be a more productive team, right? Not necessarily.

Distance isn’t always positive and working remotely also comes with its downsides. Whether the distance is geographical or social, one major challenge of being a remote employee is feeling separate and/or alone. What happens when your team has too much distance? When each person on a team feels separated and alone, you quickly lose the whole “team” aspect.

How do you focus a team that is scattered geographically?

Meet your new MVR (Most Valuable Resource): Visualization

When you send a report to a client or make a presentation to a prospective customer, do you simply hand them some data in a report and call it a day? No, you dress it up a little, smooth out the edges, make it easier to follow, pull out some key facts and figures for them to focus on.

Better yet? Add some charts so they can visualize not only the progress you’re making toward their dream, but also the progress they’ll be able to continue once your piece of the puzzle is in place.

Why should it be any different among coworkers?

Remote workers can have a difficult time feeling connected and up to date on progress when you can’t just walk over and check in with a coworker. Part of that is that when you’re standing with a coworker, you can literally see what they’re working on. They can show you how a project works or where the team is stuck. There is something very comforting about clarifying communication to see the forest through the trees.

In his article “Think globally, code locally: the secret to remote teams,” agile coach Dan Radigan explains, “When transitioning to a distributed culture, err on the side of over-communicating. Communicate even minute details until both offices find a healthy groove.”

Be Nimble

Communication does not have to be completely verbal. From themes to epics to tasks, Agile project management programs break down a project into digestible pieces in order to make progress as clear as possible. The visualization of an abstract project keeps teams nimble and everyone on the same page.

When you look at a project laid out in a project management software with visualization tools, it’s easier to see what’s done, what’s in the queue, and where to go from there. Visualization tools also support regular Scrum check-ins, where teams can adjust priorities, progress, and processes overall.

You’ll find a lot of data visualizations come standard for project management tools:

  • Burndown charts
  • Gantt charts
  • Dependencies charts
  • Kanban boards

Teams can supplement their project management visualizations with dashboards that show overall quantitative progress toward goals:

  • Bar charts show the total number of projects or tasks completed during the month or quarter, quantifying overall productivity
  • Fuel gauge tools show progress toward a stated goal, whether it’s the number of tasks completed or the number of dollars earned during the time period.
  • Funnel tools show the number of leads along a sales pipeline, which can help teams better understand where they’re performing well and where they need to step it up.

One of the most interesting aspects of using an agile project management approach with remote workers or distributed teams is that agile development tools were originally designed to be used for tight-knit teams working in close proximity. It turns out, however, that they also work well to keep remote team members working simultaneously toward a desired goal. The inclusion of specialized data visualizations makes this even easier.

Be Brief

Not everyone on a business team needs the minutia, and many team members can quickly get lost in unnecessary or unexplained data. There’s comfort in being able to see the forest through the trees. Just like some of your clients, your team members don’t always need to know every little thing about every team member’s work.

Summary reports and in-app dashboards with charts and graphs paint a broader picture some people might miss when faced with raw data. Distributed teams have enough trouble communicating in the first place, so use team and individual dashboards to give an overview of the progress that anyone can understand. Line graphs, bar graphs and pie charts offer clean, quick, easily understandable visualization of trends and progress.

Don’t let physical distance get your remote team out of whack. Use visualization to draw everyone together so you can set (and keep) your sights on a common goal.

Melissa Reinke is a writer for TechnologyAdvice.com. She is a storyteller, editor, writer, and all-around word nerd extraordinaire. She spends her days managing web content and her nights unwinding in myriad creative ways.