How does our distributed team work?

After a number of different working arrangements, we here at VetPronto have settled into a distributed set-up (i.e. we work from home).

This setup seems to be working pretty well for us; we are making good progress and everybody seems to be pretty happy. I’ve recently been giving some thought to what makes this work.

I think there are three high-level (and rather obvious) characteristics that a distributed team must possess; communication, accountability and trust. However, I think there are different ways that organizations can ‘implement’ these characteristics. Below is some detail on how we have implemented them at VetPronto.

  1. Communication = Responsiveness — I am always shocked by how some organizations tolerate unresponsiveness. In many companies, there is an expectation that you will wait at least X hours/days to get a response to an email/call. In other cases, there is an understanding that a good percentage of emails/calls will never be answered. Since we don’t have the luxury of walking over to the co-worker’s desk, we need each other to be hyper-responsive. The unofficial understanding is that you will drop what you are doing when a co-worker sends a text/IM and that you will respond to any email before the end of the day (usually within a few minutes). Obviously, the other side of the coin is that we only send text/IM requests when something is truly urgent.
  2. Accountability = No Procrastination — I am a huge fan of the Patton quote, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week”. Like any company, we are constantly discussing and reprioritizing things that need to get done. When we agree that something is a priority, it is understood that the person responsible will make sure it gets done as soon as possible. While unexpected issues will sometimes come up and reasonable excuses will be tolerated, I am proud of our focus on execution.
  3. Trust = “I got it” — Although we have a somewhat well defined set of roles and responsibilities for each team member, it is pretty common for tasks/issues to arise that don’t fit neatly into one person’s domain. The “I got it” attitude means that the person who first identifies the issue, will usually be the one to take ownership for and (if possible) solve the issue. This mutual understanding is a wonderful breeding ground for trust.

Please don’t interpret this post as a claim of competence (much less perfection). I know of other distributed teams that use different tactics to implement these characteristics (i.e. a friend’s company uses constant video chat to deal with the communication issue).

We still have a lot of room for improvement as a company and as individuals. However, I think we have stumbled upon an arrangement that works pretty well for us.

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