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Distributed teams often perform better than in-person teams. We look at why. image credit

Remote Work Insights You’ve Never Heard Before

The biggest benefits of setting up your company for remote work are not the ones you think

Sarah Milstein
Feb 18 · 17 min read

Remote work is becoming more common all the time, yet the arguments for it seem frozen in time. Yes, hiring people who can work anywhere gives you a bigger, more diverse pool of talent, lowers attrition, and may offer cost savings in salaries or office space. But the biggest benefits of remote work are a lot more subtle — and more powerful — than you’d expect.

Indeed, what makes remote teams so effective is that they’re breeding grounds for trust — the key ingredient for high-performing workplaces. That probably sounds counter-intuitive to you. But after more than two decades of working on and running remote teams, I’ve discovered several surprising truths about remote work.

Different flavors of remote work have different characteristics

Remote work comes in several flavors, each of which has different dynamics, so let’s start by defining our terms.

  • In mostly in-person companies, the majority of employees work from HQ and a few people or specialized teams may work remotely (like sales or customer support). Individuals may work from home occasionally, but most of the work is with people who are colocated — that is, they share the same physical space.
  • In satellite setups, companies have an HQ and one or more additional offices in which everyone works. Individuals who work closely with people in other offices may have experiences similar to remote employees who work from home.
  • In partially distributed or hybrid setups, companies have a combination of offices and remote employees. The most successful of these operate in a remote-first fashion, in which they set up all communications and meetings with the expectation that employees will engage virtually.
  • Companies that are fully distributed have no physical offices. The employees work on their own, using a physical space of their own choosing (home, coffee shop, coworking space, etcetera).

For our purposes, I’m going to use the phrase distributed teams to talk about fully and partially distributed setups as I’ve described them above; satellite setups tend to have different dynamics, which I’ll discuss, too. I’m specifically not addressing outsourced or offshored work, as that’s a different model, with very different properties.

Before we go on, let’s acknowledge that no distributed arrangement is perfect. Some kinds of work, particularly the planning and generative stages of a project, feel harder from a distance. If you work with colleagues in different time zones, you already know that it can be more difficult to find mutually agreeable times to meet than if you all work together. If you have cowokers in different cities, regional communication differences can create surprising rifts. And as even my dog knows, video bandwidth is unreliable and the tone of written communications is easy to misread.

At the same time, colocated work is not perfect. It requires financially and environmentally expensive offices and commutes, plus time spent commuting. It favors extroverts and neurotypical workers. And, as we’ll see here, it involves other, less obvious tradeoffs that can have big effects.

In short, any setup involves compromises. You can gain advantage by understanding the potential strengths of a particular setup and accounting for its losses.

Below, I talk about why distributed teams might be more effective than you expect — and often more effective than colocated teams — plus some other under-the-radar benefits of remote work.

Distributed teams often have higher trust — and thus work better — than colocated teams. Three theories on why.

In my experience, distributed teams are often more productive and less political than colocated teams. That’s not what most people expect. So why might it be true?

Trust among coworkers is a key component of high-performing teams. Research, and likely your own experience, back this up. When you believe your colleagues are capable, reliable, honest and committed to the common good, it’s a pleasure to work with them. As this HBR article explains:

Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.

Conventional wisdom says that distributed teams are inherently low trust. Usually, a seemingly obvious statement is given as proof, something like: “Employees can’t be expected to trust people they’ve never met.” But people don’t trust others simply because they’ve met in person. In fact, I recently mentioned to a friend that I prefer working on distributed teams, because I like the inherent sense of trust among coworkers I’ve found on them — a stronger sense than I’ve found on most in-person teams.

My theory is that a combination of three things underlie this experience of stronger trust: 1) people with personal propensity toward trust are drawn to remote work; 2) remote teams develop swift trust; and 3) ingroup bias creates a shared basis of trust among remote coworkers. These three factors combine into a strong foundation for remote teamwork. Let’s look at them more closely.

Personal propensity. Different people build trust in different ways. I’m going to simplify a bit here, but basically, some people assume trust in work relationships, while others look for coworkers to earn it. The first group assumes a level of trust at the outset and uses experiences together to build or diminish the pool of trust. The second group starts without an assumption of trust, and then observes over time whether others meet their expectations in critical areas — capability, reliability, honesty and commitment to the common good — to build up the pool of trust. In other words, some individuals have a greater propensity to trust others. Anecdotally, people with a higher propensity for trust are more likely than observe-firsters to be drawn to distributed teams.

It’s axiomatic that not everyone whose profession allows for remote work actually likes remote work. Some people feel more productive in an office; some like going to lunch with coworkers; some find physical props important for brainstorming; etc. The list of reasons that people prefer colocated work is long. It rarely includes, “I feel more trusted when other people see me in person.” But for people who build trust by observing others, and by being observed, it makes sense that seeing each other in person feels critically important. For this group, a distributed environment where you see and are seen less often can feel low trust by default.

At the same time, it makes sense that people who start out with higher assumed trust wouldn’t need daily in-person interactions to build a satisfying work environment. In fact, for this group, having to show up at a physical workplace every day can feel paternalistic — as if they aren’t trusted by default. These people thrive in an environment where the output they and their coworkers create is central, whether that’s shipping code, writing or editing documents, participating in meetings (over video), or other activities that can be done and assessed remotely.

When I was CEO of Lean Startup Productions, a fully distributed company, we started using Slack, the team chat software, in early 2014. We were early adopters, and team norms for its usage weren’t yet common. In discussing possibilities, I suggested that it might help us feel more connected across time zones if we each posted in a shared channel daily, saying hello when we started work. One of my top colleagues — collaborative, engaged, friendly, productive — strongly objected to the idea. She had a high personal propensity for trust; to her, the idea that she had to signal she was working felt like monitoring and a challenge to her independence. (How’d we work it out? We agreed to try it for three weeks, and then decide if we wanted to continue. In that time, we learned that it was definitely useful to us for social connection within the team. That built a greater feeling of trust among us, reinforcing the sense that it was a useful practice, rather than feeling like checking up on each other.)

Swift trust. Not only do some individuals have a propensity for trust, but some teams do, too. “Swift trust,” a term coined in 1996 by Stanford professor Debra Meyerson and colleagues, describes the interaction that’s needed and often takes place on temporary teams with specialized workers solving complex problems. They observed that under these conditions, swift trust emerges as “a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations.” In other words, these teams have a propensity for trust. Movie sets are a common example of a workplace where teams form swift trust.

Meyerson et al’s model focused on temporary teams. But their observations apply, too, to many distributed teams working in modern companies, even when those teams are enduring. In this quote from their paper, I’ve substituted a few words to show how the model applies (my words are in bold):

As an organizational form, ̶t̶e̶m̶p̶o̶r̶a̶r̶y̶ distributed groups turn upside down traditional notions of organizing. ̶ ̶T̶e̶m̶p̶o̶r̶a̶r̶y̶ Distributed groups often work on tasks with a high degree of complexity, yet they lack the formal structures that facilitate coordination and control. They depend on an elaborate body of collective knowledge and diverse skills, yet individuals have little ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ physical proximity to sort out who knows precisely what. They often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ physical proximity to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional ̶e̶n̶d̶u̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ colocated forms of organization. In these respects, ̶t̶e̶m̶p̶o̶r̶a̶r̶y̶ distributed groups challenge our conventional understandings regarding the necessary or sufficient antecedents of effective organization.

Now, obviously, most in-person companies today use software to “facilitate coordination and control” (email, chat, calendaring, documents, CRMs, HR and payroll systems, etcetera) — so distributed teams already mimic conventional workplaces in many ways. But the lack of physical proximity to coworkers means that building and maintaining confidence often looks more like it does in temporary teams where swift trust is the organizing force.

O’Reilly Media — having published a book in 1992 that made the Internet more accessible to many, many people — was an early adopter of distributed work. When I was an editor at the company in the early 2000s, we had offices on both coasts and dozens of individuals working from home around the country. I worked for O’Reilly for four years: two years from home, in a city where we didn’t have offices, and two years from the HQ, north of San Francisco. I worked on many teams, with many configurations. The most productive one was fully distributed, with everyone in different locations on two coasts.

We didn’t have physical proximity on our side, but we built swift trust by figuring out how best to work together. Undistracted by politics in the offices and charged with a clear goal to build out a book series that showed early promise, we invested time early on in defining processes, clarifying our roles, and regularly making adjustments to improve our systems. Those conversations paid off in a self-reinforcing cycle of productivity and further trust. Meyerson et al observed conditions like ours (again, I’ve substituted a word):

In a t̶e̶m̶p̶o̶r̶a̶r̶y̶ distributed group, people often act as if trust were in place….By observing others acting in a trusting manner, individuals can infer that such a stance is neither foolish nor naive. In this respect, each individual enactment of swift trust in the group, no matter how small, contributes to the collective perception that swift trust is reasonable.

Ingroup bias. I’ve found that another factor likely bolsters trust at distributed companies, especially at remote-first and fully remote organizations: ingroup bias. An ingroup is simply a social group that somebody feels they’re part of and that other people are not. It can be based on deep experiences and identities (being part of a racial or ethnic group) or on superficial commonalities (pronouncing GIF with a hard “g” — that is, correctly). Fully distributed and remote-first companies are still relatively rare — probably well under 20% of United States companies— and employees at these orgs can feel like part of a group that works in an unconventional way. In other words, we’re members of an ingroup.

Ingroup bias has a raft of negative elements, like expressing prejudice toward and/or stereotyping outgroup members. But the positive aspects of it include extending greater trust and being more cooperative with ingroup members, even before you know them.

When I worked at 18F, a remote-first tech consultancy within the federal government, many among the several hundred employees placed a very high value on being able to work from the location of our choice. We had a lot of reasons. We hated to commute; we liked to spend that time on other things (exercise, kids, cooking); we had at-home setups that were physically more comfortable than office setups; we liked being able to work while visiting family in other towns; we had tech skills but wanted to live outside hubs like SF or NYC; and many other motivations. But no matter the reasons, there was a strong feeling that remote work let us live our lives in ways that conventional setups wouldn’t, and that appreciating an unconventional arrangement made us part of a small group that understood each other. It wasn’t a fully proxy for trust, but being part of that small group created fertile ground for building trusting relationships with each other.

Additional unheralded benefits of distributed teams.

Trust — crucial as it is — isn’t the only upside to remote-first work. As I noted earlier, there are lots of well-known benefits to companies: productivity, cost and environmental savings, access to global talent, and employee retention. Here are significant advantages I see mentioned rarely or never.

There’s real intimacy in seeing your coworkers’ homes, partners, kids and pets. Although you get to know people in a certain way by spending time with them, you can also connect deeply with people by getting to know them in their own natural habitat. When you meet regularly over video and see each others’ homes, families and pets, you can easily understand them more fully as people than you do in a limited workplace setting. That doesn’t mean work hours should bleed into every aspect of life. Quite the contrary: having insight about each others’ lives helps you respect boundaries. When kids pop in to ask what time dinner is going to be, or when you know a cat who has appeared on camera regularly, your coworkers’ needs outside your meeting — to cook for family, to keep a vet appointment — aren’t an abstraction. And, in turn, supporting each other’s lives outside work builds more trust.

My former 18F colleague Jen Tress points out an additional and important silver lining: For companies that say they want employees to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, that value becomes a reality when people can appear as parents or show other parts of their lives.

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Shoutout to 18F cat Kratos Francisco. Photo: Andre Francisco

(A caveat here: Seeing into each other homes can have risks. For example, a naked spouse is never a good look in the background of a meeting. And parents, particularly moms, are sometimes thought to be less capable or professional when their kids appear at work. If you’re in a leadership role, you can help address this issue by letting your own [clothed] kids wander through the video feed sometimes and by asking to say hello to coworkers’ kids when they’re around.)

Hard conversations can be easier. Hard conversations at work are inevitable. You must explain to a direct report that they aren’t getting a raise they wanted; you need to tell your manager that they’ve misunderstood the implications of a customer complaint; you want to explain to a coworker they drowned out others in an earlier meeting and it caused a problem. One of the awkward aspects of these conversations is that they’re likely to provoke emotions and reactions that either party may not want to display at work. When you’re three feet away from each other in a small office, those emotions are very visible, they hang in the air palpably, and the physical closeness can itself amp up the vibe. When you’re talking over video, it can be easier to diffuse those reactions, or to diffuse their appearance, and to focus on the content of the conversation.

I don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t be upset if you don’t get a promotion you were expecting, or that you should downplay frustration if a coworker failed to meet an important and promised deadline. Those feelings are real, and they’re part of our workplace conversations. But anticipating them can also prompt people to avoid these very discussions. The distance that people experience on video calls can help make it easier to hold these conversations in the first place.

Drama is muted. When I was on staff at O’Reilly Media, the company was based in Sebastopol, CA, with an office in Cambridge, MA and a lot of staff distributed around the country. Initially, I worked from home in New York City; later in my tenure, I moved to California and worked from the headquarters there. When I first started working in the office, I was surprised by the level of day-to-day drama. Working from home, conversations mostly focused on editorial work. Working at HQ, conversations much more often focused on the changing opinions and feelings of executives. Similarly, gossip and rumors made up a much bigger percentage of discussions in person than over distributed channels.

O’Reilly was not a company more interested in HIPPOs or gossip than other companies. But it was an early adopter of remote employment, and the contrast between the distributed experience and the in-office experience was notable. I’ve since seen that pattern in every other hybrid organization and satellite office I’ve worked in. Why are the patterns so strong?

Humans are designed to be highly attuned to each other, and analyzing others’ behavior is inevitable. What does it mean that the CFO was yelling in a meeting with the CEO? Should I be worried that my boss was joking in the kitchen with one of my peers? Why did one of my direct reports avoid looking me in the eye in the hallway? When you work together in person, you have a lot of information about how other people are acting and a concomitant need to understand it. Thinking and talking about what you see can help you figure out behavior, which can be healthy. But on the flip side, it can lead to speculation, rumors, and a high pitch of concern.

Of course, people yell in meetings, joke with each other, and avoid their bosses in distributed organizations, too. But you don’t tend to see those behaviors as often, so you don’t spend as much time wondering about them. The means that when you’re not colocated, you have considerably more time to focus on customers and shipping work. (It is certainly possible that too little information can breed FUD. But that exists in colocated orgs, too, and smart leaders in any organization get ahead of it.)

You annoy each other less. Are you the kind of monster who likes heating up fish in the microwave for lunch? In an office, this makes you less popular than Voldemort; at home, your stinky food bothers no one. Like to listen to music and hum along as you write, code, or draw? You can sing opera at home and not irk a single team member. Start to quietly hate your colleagues who leave coffee grounds on the counter and dirty dishes in the sink? Your home kitchen need never know how gross they are.

Getting along well with others is a key part of work. When you don’t have to share a physical space, you can focus that energy on key tools and collaborations instead. Discussions about Slack hygiene tend to be more important for work outcomes than discussions about kitchen hygiene.

You’ve got a built-in zone defense — time zone defense, that is. Time zone differences create real and commonly cited problems. But they offer two clear benefits, too. First, if you’re in a business where customer-facing coverage is important, having employees spread over time zones makes it easier to address needs around the clock. I currently work at Mailchimp, a hybrid company. Last year, when our Mandrill service had a prolonged outage, the people working to diagnose and address it were spread across four time zones and thus able to take shifts to lighten the load.

Second, if you work regularly with colleagues in other time zones, you may have a natural phase of each day for meetings and a natural phase for heads-down work. When I was at Lean Startup Productions, I was based in New York and most of the team was based in California. That meant mornings were quiet for me, while the rest of the company had Sarah-free late afternoons. When you have colleagues in your time zone and in other time zones, you don’t get that automatic phasing of the day. But you can create it intentionally and use the distribution across time zones to help figure out when to prioritize collaboration and when to prioritize individual work.

You can more easily record meetings. If most or all of your meetings take place over video and/or chat, it’s automatic or easy to create a record of them. That’s useful for sharing discussions and decisions with people who aren’t able to attend — not to mention keeping track of when, what and why you decided on things. And recordings or transcripts can be important for people with certain disabilities.

Communicating more about how you work makes for better outcomes. Colocated workers say often that hallway conversations help them gather and share key information. Without unplanned meetings and other unstructured connections, distributed teams have to be intentional about when, where and how they communicate. Should you meet daily, weekly, less often? How should your meetings be structured and facilitated? Where should notes, decisions and files be kept? These questions and more are answered proactively by strong colocated teams, too. But distributed teams don’t have the luxury of letting these things arise organically, and they benefit from making these decisions early and often. As a bonus, jointly deciding on and adhering to team norms — like keeping mics muted during video meetings and unmuting to signal you want to talk — help build critically important trust.

You can potentially accommodate more people with disabilities. For people who have disabilities, remote work might mean they’re able to contribute more comfortably or sometimes at all. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that employers must make reasonable accommodations (that is, adjustments to the workplace or job) to allow qualified people with disabilities to do a particular job. For companies that have offices, remote work is not a substitute for creating reasonable accommodations in person. But for some employees or candidates with disabilities, at-home setups are personally preferable to any you could create in an office. For other people with disabilities, eliminating the need to commute is a game-changing difference. There’s growing awareness that supporting disabled workers is a benefit of remote setups, so I mention it low on the list, but it’s a big potential consideration.

What can you do with these insights?

Once you understand that different approaches to trust and outgroup bias can be at play in your workplace, you can use that information to prevent, diagnose and address problems in 1:1 relationships or team dynamics.

For example, organizations with strong HQ culture that also have satellite offices and/or remote employees often struggle with outgroup bias. It’s not hard to picture: the people in HQ consider themselves a group, other employees are another group — or several other groups — and the various subgroups have outgroup bias toward the others. A good way to combat this phenomenon is to model remote-first practices from the top, so that people in all locations have more similar experiences and feel more connected. At 18F, where some key people, including the executive director, worked in Washington DC, going remote-first involved things like switching the weekly all-hands meetings from a room at HQ to an all-video meeting where everyone — including the exec director and other senior employees who ran the meeting — joined via video from their own laptop. That meant everyone experienced the meeting the same way, could participate in it equally, and didn’t feel left out of bonding that happened in person or in Slack during or after the meeting. You can also foster trust by having people visit each other in their own hometowns to get a sense — and hopefully increased empathy — for what their coworkers’ day-to-day experiences are like.

Another example: If you have hybrid teams — with some people in offices, especially HQ, and other people remote — don’t be surprised if there’s friction that stems from different propensity for trust. Look for employees in the office who tend to assume trust, and assign them to the hybrid teams, especially those in leadership roles.

If you’re hiring for remote roles, or even for satellite office roles that will work closely with other offices, you might probe for information about how the candidates build trust. During interviews, if you ask a question like, “When you collaborate with peers, how do you build trust quickly?” — look for ready answers about sharing information, helping team members in tough spots, and sharing credit.

As you gain more sophistication in thinking about distributed teams, you’ll think of other ways tap their true power. Please share what you learn. Remote work is gaining ground, and we’ll all benefit from understanding better how to harness it.

Thanks to Marc Hedlund, Frantz Joseph, and Nassim Kammah for helpful reviews of an earlier draft.

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Thanks to Coach Tony

Sarah Milstein

Written by

Force multiplier. Currently @ Mailchimp Eng. Formerly 18F, Indie.vc, Lean Startup, O’Reilly Media. www.sarahmilstein.com

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Sarah Milstein

Written by

Force multiplier. Currently @ Mailchimp Eng. Formerly 18F, Indie.vc, Lean Startup, O’Reilly Media. www.sarahmilstein.com

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

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