5 Secrets of Effective Distributed Teams

Thomas Schranz
6 min readMar 10, 2014

One thing is certain, we won’t see fewer distributed teams going forward.

But what I find really fascinating is that many of the skills that are important for distributed teams are also very useful when you are co-located.

Once you’ve mastered to effectively work together with people across different cities and time-zones working in the same physical location becomes a cakewalk.

Ok here we go …

1. Invest in the best Communication Tools available.

Great team communication is essential to enable distributed teams.
Fortunately by now we have an awesome set of tools that enable effective communication even if you’re not in the same location.

If you remember only one thing from this post …
Think James Bond. Pick the best gear and master it.
It really pays off to invest in the best communication tools available.

Instant Portals: Sqwiggle
Great for quick conversations without scheduling overhead.

Sqwiggle has really smart “push-to-talk” functionality that allows you to instantly talk to a team mate using just one click. No hassle scheduling and setting up a Skype or Hangout meeting. This works great for these brief valuable questions that would never get asked or answered otherwise.

Group Chat & Water Cooler: Flowdock, Hipchat, Slack
Great for synchronous and asynchronous messaging.

Slack is a super simple group chat tool.

Meetings & Screen Sharing: Google Hangouts, Skype
Great for scheduled meetings, screen sharing, pair programming, …

Google Hangouts is a video chat tool and part of Google+.

File Sharing & Editing: Google Drive, Dropbox, Github, LastRev
Great for collaborating on free form files or specific jobs like code & design

LastRev is a super simple app for collaborating on design iterations. You can easily annotate screenshots and comment on improvements instead of sending countless emails back and forth.

Project Management: Blossom, Basecamp, Podio, …
Without a Project Management tool it’s really hard to stay on top of what’s actually going on. Think of this as your virtual office and tactics room.
Ideally you want to visualize what is going on, what the progress is and how the things you work on relate to the bigger picture.

Blossom is a modern Agile Project Management tool for teams that practice continuous delivery.

2. Be Smart about Email

Email still is one of the most important communication channels.
Especially when you work in a distributed way.

I’ve personally tried to stay at inbox zero countless times. In the end it never really worked for me. I have no idea how people actually achieve inbox zero for extended periods. ☹

That said, not all is lost. You can get on top of your email inbox.
It definitely is worth to establish a setup that works for you and your team.

A few tips on managing email …

  • Be clear & concise
    Use descriptive titles, add TL;DR sections.
  • Unsubscribe from Newsletters
    They quickly fill up your inbox and get more over time. Try unroll.me.
  • Create Mailing Lists
    For example you can create lists around roles (dev@, support@, design@, marketing@, founders@, …). This lowers the barrier to forward/involve people and to create a base-layer of transparency.
    Greg Brockman of Stripe wrote a great post on how they use lists.
  • Create Filters & Custom Inboxes
    You want to make sure you don’t miss important communication from your team mates, no matter what else is currently going on in your inbox. Set up filters and a custom inbox. Think of this as your high priority channel. You can also set rules for important people that are outside of your team (think whitelist-allowance to get on top of your attention)
  • Use Labels/Tags
    Ever searched for your flight or hotel booking emails on the go? Label them “travel”. Ever searched for tickets of conferences or hackathons? Label them “tickets”. Invoices and bills for accounting? Label them “receipts”. Now you can just archive all these emails, finding them again later is super easy. Simple but effective.
  • Use Email Reminders
    If you use your inbox like me it is probably full of emails that act as reminders because you want to do something about them at some point in the future. Use tools like FollowUpThen to get them out of your inbox without losing your peace of mind.

If you need some more inspiration check out Andreas Klinger’s fantastic essay on getting the most out of Gmail.

3. Locations, Time Zones & Overlaps

Being distributed means different things for different teams.
Get on top of what it actually means in your situation.

  • Where is everyone of your team located at the moment?
    Continents, countries, cities. Hint: look into potential issues like different rules regarding daylight saving time.
  • What is the current local time of my team mates?
    Is it in the middle of the night or just before lunch?
  • What’s the weather like?
    This might sound obvious but since you aren’t in the same place everyone of your team will be affected by their own specific ecosystem. You will want to have some context on what’s going on around them.
    Think weather, politics or other important events.
  • Who will be available when?
    Are there common overlap windows for the whole team? When?
    Who’s a night owl? Who’s an early bird? What are expected availabilities (from “ready to chat” to “do not disturb”)? What’s the protocol in case of emergencies (“server down”)?

Being distributed means that a lot of the things that come naturally when you work in the same location need to be re-thought and re-defined.
But if done right this can actually be a huge advantage.

An upcoming Blossom feature that shows you useful information about your team mates like current weather, local time and ways to contact them.
Every Time Zone shows you the local time at various popular locations in a very compact format. Great for scheduling times that are ok for multiple people in different places.

4. Focus on the Why.

As a distributed team you might be out of touch for hours or even days.

When it comes to tasks and things to work on there is just no way to clearly specify how exactly things should be done. Unforeseen challenges pop up all the time. This is ok and to be expected.

Whether it relates to design, programming, marketing or any other efforts always make sure to clearly define the “why”.

By focusing on the “why” you provide context for trade-off decisions and implementation details. If you do a great job with defining “why” getting something done is valuable and how it ties into the greater scheme of things it immediately gets easier to judge whether you are doing a good job.

On top of that focussing on the why dramatically reduces the number of feedback cycles, increases team morale and enables people to do the best work they possibly can.

Focus on autonomy and getting everyone on the page.

5. Do Regular Retreats

It is tough to form deep relationships without meeting in person.

Retreats are a great way to bring everyone together at least once every few months. It’s not surprising that popular distributed companies like Buffer & Sqwiggle are well known for their retreats.

But retreats aren’t only important for team relationships, they are often responsible for pivotal moments in the lifecycle of a company.

For example have a look at this rare and interesting footage of Steve Jobs on a retreat with NeXT at Pebble Beach in California.

Also Joel of Buffer just published a great post on why they go on retreats

Retreats are some of our most productive weeks of the year. In fact, at our last retreat in Pattaya, Thailand, we built most of Buffer for Business and launched it just a week later. Three months later, Buffer for Business generates over 15% of our total revenue, $60,000 last month.

Bring your distributed team together once in a while. It will be worth it.

Blossom having a delicious cup of green tea & chatting with Art Lapinsch at Sektor5 in Vienna.

Are you a distributed team? What are your tips & lessons learned?

If you found this post helpful follow me on twitter where I tweet about Software Development & Product Management ☺

Also make sure to check out Blossom an Agile/Lean Project Management Tool I’m currently working on ☺