Bowling With Bumpers: Why Better Managers Care Less About Location

As the CEO of a 300-person organization with offices in New York, San Francisco, Nigeria, and Kenya (that, for some reason, the world seems to find interesting), I’m often asked to speak about managing and growing distributed teams.

By now, you’re probably familiar with some of the reasons why the world is moving toward distributed: happier employees, more applicants, improved diversity, and access to top talent.

Seems like a no-brainer for any company, right? But try to have this conversation with a room of junior engineering managers, and you’ll probably hear something like this: “We can barely communicate as a team of 20 in a one-room office — there’s no way we could manage remote team members.”

Let’s think about that for a second: “Communication is broken, so let’s not add fuel to the fire.”

If you can’t keep things running smoothly in-person, of course you’re not going to be able to properly support distributed team members. And while I gain no joy from bearing bad news, the distributed team model may not be the root of the problem.

Being in person is like bowling with bumpers. For a pro, there’s no real impact. But if you’re just starting out, they help you avoid unforced errors. If you continue to rely on “face time” and group lunches to keep morale up and facilitate communication, your team will never function at the highest level. It’s not that these things are bad — who doesn’t love free lunch? — it’s just that they aren’t enough. Great management is often misunderstood, but a dependence on physical presence is one of the most consistent fallacies.

In my work at Andela, there are three myths about distributed teams that I hear all the time:

Myth 1: Distributed teams aren’t productive.

While many engineering managers view remote work as a threat to productivity, a Stanford University study found that remote workers are 13.5% more productive than their in-office counterparts — and they put in longer hours. During those hours, they’re free from common office distractions: unnecessary meetings, loud conversations, and impromptu requests. Office workers, meanwhile, are interrupted roughly every three minutes — a challenge for developers whose work requires focus and attention to detail.

Myth 2: I can’t communicate with my team unless they’re sitting next to me.

On the contrary, working distributed actually improves team communication. When sitting next to a colleague, an engineer might turn to ask a quick question, disrupting the second developer’s workflow. On a distributed team, that conversation would occur via Slack, allowing the second engineer to respond when ready, offering transparency to the full team, and creating a record of the discussion. Set a process for information sharing, and provide the right tools, and communication issues will evaporate.

Myth 3: Our company culture depends on being in the same room.

Distributed managers drive company culture intentionally — and are forced to base it on something other than gathering around a ping pong or foosball table. This can be a scary prospect, until you realize that a desirable company culture is one that reinforces collaboration, trust, and shared values — all things that are possible to cultivate regardless of geography.

That said, I’ll also be the first person to agree that some time spent together in a single non-virtual room is useful. Trust, it turns out, is a meaningful variable in team productivity, and it’s easier to build that in person than it is remotely. The key insight is that it doesn’t need to be all the time. We’ve found that ~2 week bursts of in-person work once or twice a year is enough to maintain that feeling of connection while also allowing companies to gain the benefits of a distributed team. This is why we fly each of our developers out to spend a couple weeks onsite with their team early in any partnership. Yes, it’s partially about onboarding, but it’s also an exercise in trust building and creating a shared sense of purpose.

Essentially, a successful distributed team looks a lot like a well-managed local team. Most concerns about working distributed are driven by existing managerial challenges. Address those, and your team will be successful whether they’re in the same room or scattered across the globe.