Effective Distributed Teams
When I was 14 years old, I got my first job. I can’t remember if I had an official title or not, but it certainly didn’t matter. I was officially and unofficially a “Errand Boy.” A errand boy is the person who does what is asked of them. Pick up lunch? Check. Organize a filing cabinet? Of course. Clean the coffee machine? Done. While I didn’t enjoy it at the time, I also didn’t find it demeaning. I mustered the motivation to do a good job. The upside of being handed down simple tasks was that the sooner I completed them correctly, the faster I could get to what I enjoyed doing.
I’ve worked remotely full-time now for over a decade, yet I haven’t written much about it. Perhaps it’s because the bulk of what I believe makes a distributed team effective seem second nature to me. Maybe it’s because I feel like there’s enough guidance out there already. The world is a slightly different place right now (COVID-19). With so many companies reluctantly braving their initial foray into a fully distributed team — I figure there is no better time to talk about it than now.
Before we talk about effectiveness, let’s establish a couple norms. Efficiency is driving fast. Effectiveness is arriving at the right place. While working remotely requires both, I’ll be focusing on the latter — the former is a natural byproduct.
First, I have sad news. Ineffective co-located teams will not get any better once distributed. It’s not that the following advice will not help your remote efforts, it will, but it’ll be mostly treating the symptoms of a deep-rooted disease. So let’s look at the root cause.
At first glance, I posit that an effective distributed team starts with trust. Trust is a paramount ingredient; however, trust — by itself — won’t suffice, it’s only one leg of the stool.
Trust and ownership are catalysts for greatness. Motivated people are self-managers; it doesn’t matter where they sit, which office building they happen to spend 8+ hours a day, nor how many meetings they have.
I am talking about ownership over goals and outcomes rather than delegation of tasks. My “Errand Boy” times taught me a lesson I will never forget: Task delegation is a fool’s errand. While it may seem efficient, it robs the executor of ownership. No ownership, no motivation.
An effective distributed team is composed of intrinsically motivated people who feel trusted and have ownership over goals and outcomes.
Adding streamlined processes and practices as guardrails to a team lacking the trust and motivation will be an exercise in turd polishing. It’ll be shiny, but it’ll still be a turd.
Now onto the good news. Most people want to be effective, they want to be trusted, and they want to have a high level of ownership. You can start from where you are today. Change your practices, your attitude, and you will begin to see the positive response. It may take a bit to see signs of recovery. How long exactly will depend on how conditioned those around you have been to feel distrusted, and relegated to task-only-ownership. Fret not — human nature is resilient, and people will bounce back, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Once they do, the following practices will boost your team’s ability to do great work.
Here's How To Help Your Team Thrive
- All meetings must have an agenda and a clear written down outcome in a centralized and shared place. Meetings must start and end on time.
- Team members should find a quiet, dedicated, and comfortable — preferably ergonomically friendly — workplace to call it their own. Ensure reliable and fast internet connection.
- Pick consistent work-hours and minimum overlap for the entire team. Be available during that overlap, which doesn’t mean responding to every single asynchronous-chat message instantly, but if a coworker calls your phone, answer it.
- Learn and promote concise writing. B.L.U.F. (Bottom Line Up Front) is a military strategy that works wonders in a distributed environment.
- Have a Wiki that is simple to use, with powerful search function. Write everything down — values, meeting notes, summarized discussion, and decisions.
- Create an easy-to-use Change-log and share that with the relevant teams. Assume everything you say and hear will be forgotten, and anything pertinent to remember should be written down and shared.
- Avoid burnout — leave work behind when you are done for the day.
- Turn on your video camera when chatting with coworkers. Use your eyes to connect when you talk and listen.
- Be transparent. Have a weekly call with the entire company to share valuable information, wins, losses, and everything in between. Transparency breeds trust.
- Work in small autonomous teams (4–8 people), and have a clear framework for defining goals and outcomes.
- Have a weekly social-hour where smaller groups of people can gather over video and share experiences. Find time for levity and laughter.
- Spend a few days together in-person once a quarter. Celebrate, retrospect, plan, and have fun. There’s no amount of video or voice chatting that can compensate for in-person interaction.
- Be a broken record. Repeat the good, do away with the bad. Culture is what you do, repeatedly. Act in a way that exemplifies the company’s D.N.A, but listen and learn to adapt.
- Cherish the quiet, focused moments. Promote a sense of freedom and time for creative, heads-down focus — often rare in an open-office environment. The best ideas seldom come from long discussions in conference rooms.
How will you know it’s working? Look at your attrition rates. Look at how much work employees throw over the fence between teams. Count each time someone says, “not my problem.” Review your company goals and metrics. Distributed culture doesn’t have to be hand-wavy; the metrics won’t lie.
Frequently Asked Questions
For some of you reading, this may seem daunting. It’s different from what you are used to, so that’s understandable. What follows is my attempt to answer a few common questions I’ve received in the past.
How do I know people are working?
By their outcomes. If you’ve hired self-managers who are intrinsically motivated, and you gave them ownership over goals and outcomes — they’ll do the right thing.
Doesn’t in-person communication have a much higher bandwidth?
Yes, I’d argue it is too high. Tough conversations benefit from a nuanced tone and should happen over video chats. Most of the time, the subject of discussion is technical in nature and complex. These discussions benefit from asynchronous focused written communication as they require deep-thought and careful considerations.
But I thought being in the office made people more creative?
Does this mean I don’t need an office for my company?
That depends. My advice would be to maintain a small office tailored to folks who would like to visit once in a while. The office will also be an excellent place to gather for hands-on workshops and talks.
I hear time zones are a massive challenge, is that true?
Yes, time zone differences exacerbate any problems you already have. Stick to time zones plus or minus 3–5 hours to minimize this issue.
How do we ensure culture fit if everyone is remote?
I’d argue one should be striving to hire people who are “culture add” rather than “culture fit.”
Remember, part of communicating your culture, whether you’re distributed or co-located, is to do and reward the behavior you expect to see. The strategy here is no different from a distributed team, with the exception that you must have the culture norms well documented, easy to find, and often-referenced. For example, have your cultural principles or values documented in your Wiki. Have a comprehensive on-boarding document that guides newcomers through the established norms. Give them a simple way to submit questions and ask for corrections and clarification.
I like seeing people in the office; this gives me the reassurance they are working. How do I get comfortable with a distributed team?
Empower people to have ownership over goals and outcomes and trust they will do the right thing. Once you are proven correct, the comfort you desire will come naturally.
Dozens of other articles have covered this section, so I will keep it concise.
If you have an office, conference rooms must be set up for reliable video conferencing. All meetings defaulted to include a video call. Use Google Meet or Zoom for this.
Give each employee a set of good quality headphones + microphone.
Have an easy to use conference line for the entire company to call-in, and use it weekly to keep everyone in sync.
Be mindful of time zones when scheduling meetings. There are many tools out there to help teams visualize colleague’s time zones.
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Stay safe! ✌️