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Downfalls of Distributed Startups

There is an ever-larger body of work dedicated to the benefits of distributed teams.

Downfalls of Distributed Startups

There is an ever-larger body of work dedicated to the benefits of distributed teams. This is not a contribution to it.

This post is a look at the biggest downfalls of distributed startups —specifically the rise of monoculture, siloing of the workforce, isolation of management, expense of communication, and loss of group context.

It is about how these problems are exacerbated by the shape of the team, and it is about ways to prevent or solve them. Co-located teams are far from immune to the issues discussed in this post — but they can get particularly ugly for distributed teams. They can emerge more quickly and be harder to solve. They require different types of solutions and abide by a different set of constraints. They are less documented, far less discussed. There are fewer people in the tech field with experience in solving them. It’s time to get serious.

Monoculture. In distributed teams, communication oscillates toward online, text-based, asynchronous chat to accommodate the inevitable variety of time zones, working hours, habits and schedules of workers. Being inescapably human, creatures of the social herd, we form connections, even relationships using what comes down to a nub of humanity and the narrowest of windows into the soul: a screen name and a few lines of text. To make it work, we create elaborate webs of inside jokes, shared speech norms, memes, emoticons, image macros. Mythology of the company and mythology of each other. In order to function as tools of connection and belonging, these “in-group” mechanisms must lose granularity, variety and evolution in their need to mediate wide, loosely connected groups, replace in-person relationships and survive the medium’s irregular and unreliable nature. As we observe in online communities in similar conditions, (IRC channels, Reddit, Hacker News, etc.), monoculture can rise quickly. “Brogramming” can fester as male-dominated startups turn to hetero-normative male bonding to form relationships. The stabilization of these communication norms can make the company less accessible and friendly to new teammates. Differences between groups are submerged to create team normativity. The false homogeneity can lead to submergence of conflict, illusions of unanimity, and the disenfranchisement/silence of “dissenting” employees. Culture can stagnate as we hold to our old norms to maintain a sense of team and community.

Solutions for Distributed Teams: Create opportunities for team members to bond in places besides group chat — regional meetups, video chats, etc. can humanize and evolve the culture. Insist on maintaining professional rapport even in online communications — it’s a job, not a frat house. Avoid a workaholic culture where teammates rely on work for social connections they should be getting outside of work. Create a code of conduct to help encourage healthy communication and outline expectations. Because of the propensity for monoculture in distributed teams, diversity is absolutely critical. Being able to hire people regardless of geographical location should open up more possibilities even for specialized roles. Team full of white men even though you have a distributed company? That sucks, what’s your excuse? Actively source new employees from outside of existing employee networks, which can lead to homogenous hiring even in distributed teams. Explicitly discourage and call out brogrammer behavior — women in your team might not feel comfortable doing this. Male allies must intervene. Prevent virtual cliques by disrupting too-comfortable teams. And finally: Openly discuss virtual culture. Otherwise, it too easily goes unexamined and untreated.

Silos. As companies struggle to grow, succeed and execute with a distributed workforce, emphasis too easily falls on functional team dynamics, leaving cross-team dynamics neglected. The high coordination cost of distributed work, loss of shared context, diaspora of tools, difficulty of forming online relationships across skill sets and creation of in-team culture can result in ugly and seemingly intractable silos. All too often, people in one skill-based area of a distributed team have never met or spoken to people in other groups. Introductions and socialization tend to happen purely within teams, not across teams. Communication easily gets completely siloed off into different tools that aren’t accessible or valuable to all groups (i.e., engineers using Github, marketers using Google Docs, sales people using Salesforce). As this occurs, even ambient knowledge transmission and communication can be lost. Communicating across groups is often less urgent, and feels less important, than coordinating within functional groups. These silos are self-reinforcing — over time and with growth, less cross-team initiatives are begun and completed as there are no visible models, history, or standards for doing this work.

Solutions for Distributed Teams: Insist on some shared tools that workers from multiple teams can use to share information, status, results, news and projects. Make it mandatory - by directive or by culture — for all teams to actively participate in these channels. Experiment with using communications tools in new ways so more people gain visibility into the workflow of other teams: i.e., how can your marketers and sales team get value from Github? How can your engineers get value from customer data usually seen only by account-side team members? Open up in-team functions like status calls, reports and training to other teams — chances are, they’ll engage if invited and welcomed. Recognize and maximize opportunities where cross-team collaboration is a natural fit: new product development, launches, partnership integration and documentation efforts are great junctures to break down silos in the company. Use these opportunities to create temporary cross-functional working groups with regular chances for collaboration and feedback. Make this work extremely visible and iterate on process to provide cultural precedent for cross-team effort.

Expensive Communications Loops. In distributed teams, much stands in the way of a tight communications loop. There is an absence of shared working environment. Technology for sharing problem spaces and collaborating online remains error-prone, buggy and unwieldy. Workers are typically in different time zones, with different working hours. Soft interrupts — leaning over to the person across from you, quick whiteboarding sessions, questions lobbed across a room — become hard interrupts. Chat messages, Skype calls, scheduled meetings. Multiply these factors in situations where multiple people, multiple sources of feedback, and multiple functional teams are required to complete projects. Distributed teams can carry a much larger coordination cost than centralized teams. Planning meetings, holding meetings, struggling with shitty collaboration and conferencing technologies, creating and distributing status updates, cross-company communication, and the cost of ambient online chatter adds up fast. Suddenly tasks like getting approvals, doing design and content reviews, gut-checking an idea, introducing a new project, brainstorming nad and whiteboarding and other work that benefits from a tight communications loop become time-consuming and frustrating. Because getting things done is more likely in very small, in-functional-team pairings, work that requires higher degrees of coordination is often not done or simply abandoned, carrying great opportunity cost.

Solutions for Distributed Teams: Have some periods of the day — something like “office hours” — shared across teams and the company. During these hours, people should be online, available, and free for collaborative work. People, often managers, who are critical path for approvals and shipping must maintain strict and fast turnaround times. Figure out how to do it. You must not stand in the way of your team getting things done under any circumstances. To replace the generative opportunities for spontaneous collaboration that can occur in an office, regional in-person meetups for distributed teammates creates space for white-boarding, collaborating and innovation — work that is difficult when separated by distance, time and mediocre tools. Finally, continually evaluate and demo new tools for online collaboration; this is a fast-changing space and good tools can alleviate some of the coordination overhead created by distributed teams.

Loss of Emotional Context. When around other humans, we use a variety of non-verbal cues to communicate. But distributed teams create a nonverbal vacuum. Without these cues, without frequent in-person experiences, it becomes much harder to create shared emotional state. Shared emotional state can perform critical functions: amping groups up for big projects or push periods, creating a shared sense of urgency or excitement, celebrating accomplishment, experiencing the consequences of failure. And without nonverbal cues, it is easier to dehumanize the people we see as blocking us from completing projects, insulting us, undermining us, ignoring us. It’s easier to hate a screen name than a person. Reconciling is harder as it is easy to ignore conflict and avoid confrontation in chat logs. There are many places to hide in a distributed team. It can be much harder to identify unhappy, disenfranchised, and disengaged employees when you can’t see them. Silos of negativity can fester as negative emotions can be amplified and spread faster in online communities than in-person groups. As we interact using online avatars, sarcasm, crudeness, and even cruelty become routine.

Solutions for Distributed Teams: Seeing each other once in awhile is essential for capturing emotional context and humanizing our teammates. Even as you grow, you must be willing to invest the time and often substantial amounts of money it takes to make in-person meetings possible — in both all-hands meetups and smaller gatherings. If your company is spending marketing budget on events, these are great opportunities to get cross-functional teammates in the same space. Establish ways to resolve online conflict, possibly through mediation. And managers must learn to monitor employee satisfaction without constant in-person communication.

Management Isolation. Distributed teams pose new challenges that managers are often untrained and unexperienced in. Ensuring your distributed team members are all happy, engaged, have sufficient access to you, and are performing well requires different approaches than those for in-person teams. Management-by-walking-around, a very effective technique for in-person teams, is difficult to emulate in distributed teams. Monitoring and managing team state requires navigating the lack of nonverbal context, different timezones, bad technologies, and lengthy communication loops. Managers can easily become isolated from their teams in this context.

Perhaps the most insidious of all challenges faced by distributed teams lies in upper management. Upper management must not only guide individual groups, but the entire company based on shared goals and strategies. Access to upper management can be cut off far sooner in the growth of the startup by the asynchronous, siloed nature of distributed teams. Further, there is often an emotional sense of disconnection, as employees have often barely met, seen, or spoken to members of upper management, or seen evidence of their engagement. Upper management may struggle to share and consistently communicate cross-company goals and their context, or to gather the information they need to make good decisions — requiring coordination with product, engineering, marketing, sales and other groups.

Solutions for Distributed Teams: Hire managers with experience in distributed teams. This should not be everyone’s first time at the jolly rodeo. Without experience, managers may not be able to create the healthy teams and processes they need to succeed. For new managers, provide management training that specifically addresses the issues created in distributed teams. From a high-level leadership perspective, upper management must set an example of transparency and communication. Explicitly communicate decisions, status, and company direction. Provide lots of venues for employees to give feedback on strategy. Lots of them. Management at all levels needs to spend a lot of time communicating (a lot of time), helping employees succeed in distributed environments, taking feedback, connecting and traveling to see people. Move toward more transparency rather than less: Often unintentionally, management in distributed teams seems secretive, uncommunicative, and inaccessible simply because it is not spending sufficient time and effort communicating.

I’ve worked on, sometimes loved, and sometimes hated distributed teams for the better part of my career. So has an increasing percentage of my friends, colleagues, and professional acquaintances. Certainly, we agree, distributed teams can attract more specialized talent, achieve broader marketing and evangelism coverage, optimize production for certain types of work, provide a better quality of life for employees, and sometimes even reduce expenditure on new employee acquisition and company operations. But there is an ugly side.

Distributed teams are good — but they are hard. It is irresponsible to view them as a panacea, without weighing their risks, their challenges, their insidious costs, their inevitable constraints. I look forward to the maturation of dialogue around distributed teams — a dialogue in which we stop singing their praises without critical thought, stop prescribing them for all companies and all situations, stop drinking the kool-aid…and start being honest about we can fail and succeed with the new nature of teams.