How to Create a Distributed Work Culture
PREAMBLE: Please don’t call it “remote work”. It makes people who work outside of an office into an exception of the in-office norm. Consider saying “distributed work” or “work”. To learn more, see this excellent post from Chase Adams at Walmart Labs.
We at Cylinder help achieve business goals using human-centered design and software, which is super fun. We also have an entirely distributed team, which works well for us.
Recently, we had a client say something we hear all the time:
“We ’re having trouble hiring full-time expert developers in San Francisco.”
One hears this a lot in the Bay Area. It feels impossible to hire expert developers in San Francisco, much less convince them (typically over-30, maybe with families) to move to the major U.S. city with the lowest percentage of children.
Distributing your team is one way to address this hiring challenge and benefit your team in a number of other ways.
However, creating a distributed work culture is much more than just “letting people work from home”.
A distributed work culture is an intentional team-wide commitment to a set of communication channels and practices to enable working from different places.
Here’s how you would create a distribute work culture and why.
Why Distribute Your Team?
We will discuss the benefits in detail separately, but in short, the main three are
- Happier employees (better health, enhanced productivity, increased diversity, less employee turnover, encourages autonomy)
- Enhanced productivity (more focused use of time, fewer lost work days due to illness)
- Lower Costs (real estate, employee turnover and hiring, health care from happier/healthier people, cheaper to recruit from a larger pool, lower salary when employees live in a lower-cost area)
How to Build a Distributed Culture
There are four keys to making any organizational cultural change like shifting the location of where everyone works and how they communicate.
1. Tell a Change Story
To make a shift successfully in any organization, you need to prepare everyone for what’s about to happen. Most critically, the leadership needs to tell a compelling Change Story. The term sounds fancy but it’s a pretty simple idea:
- Tell a clear story about why your organization is going distributed, how the change will happen (specifically), and when it will be expected to be complete.
- Continuously publicly revisit #1, keeping the story consistent, and report on how it’s going.
- When the change is complete, send a message to everyone saying “the change is complete!” and thank everyone for their patience.
Why is this important? Any major changes in a workplace create anxiety. Work is how we support ourselves and our families, not to mention how we get health care — imagine someone telling you it will all be different tomorrow! Even a change like opening up to distributed work can cause anxiety. If I work from home, will people think I’m slacking? Am I less likely to get promoted?
The Change Story helps everyone manage their expectations and reduce anxiety. It does so by holding your hand calmly throughout the whole process and not wavering from the plan.
Example Change Story
When distributing your team, your story might look like this:
At the start:
We will be moving to a distributed work model between now and Thanksgiving. You are free to work from wherever you want but it’s important to understand how to do so effectively. Please read our best practices document (Editors note: ours are at the end) and begin a discussion with your team. For in-office folks, it’s just as important to read the document and buy in, maybe more so. We are doing this because we believe this change has positive business benefits, including happier employees, increased diversity, lower costs, and improved productivity. Get in touch with Alice or Bob if you have questions.
Hi again! We are halfway through our transition. If you haven’t already started to shift your team or start discussions about what distributed work looks like for you, now is a great time. Remember, we are doing this for happier employees, increased diversity, lowered costs, and better productivity. Also, remember to get in touch with Alice or Bob if you have questions!
At the end:
Hello! Well, our transition to a distributed culture is now complete. We will continue to adapt and adjust how our teams live out this goal, but everyone has done a great job! So far X% of people have moved to full-time distributed work and Y% have at least tried it once. We are now experiencing all of the wonderful benefits we thought we would! Yay! Big thanks to Alice and Bob for spearheading this change!
One tactical note: Everyone should be involved in writing the story, not just leadership. A story written by the people who have to live out the change is far more likely to be successful.
2. Role Modeling
The second key to cultural change is Role Modeling.
The leaders of an organization have to actively and publicly demonstrate the new desired cultural change.
This is key — if the leaders do not fully embrace the change story and live it out in their daily behavior, the cultural change will fail. Everyone else will feel like it’s more work they’ve been assigned by the bosses who don’t have to follow their own rules.
In our example of spreading distributed culture, the executives and management should work in a distributed fashion, participating in discussions about what works and what doesn’t, and otherwise being positive and encouraging. Seeing the CEO work from home is far more influential than hearing the CEO tell you to work from home.
3. Reinforcing Mechanisms
Once you have a story in place and the leadership are showing everyone how it’s done, it’s important to monitor the progress and reinforce the desired behaviors.
In the case of moving to a distributed culture, consider tracking some very basic metrics which answer the question: “Hey, how’s that distributed work thing working out for you all?”
- Percent working entirely outside of the office or at least once per week
- 1–10 survey of how conducive the culture is to working elsewhere.
You can then send out short reports on which teams have the best scores and randomly gift them something like a prize or outing. Studies show financial bonuses are not as effective.
In the case of creating distributed culture, incentives may not be necessary — the change may be it’s own reward. Saving time on commuting and having more schedule flexibility may be a positive enough change to motivate others to do the same.
4. Skill Building
Finally, it’s important for all employees to feel supported in making the change with the skills and tools to do it right. Specifically, to encourage distributed culture, leadership should provide training on how to effectively work on distributed teams.
It’s important to be intentional about a cultural change like this and acknowledge that success more than just allowing some to work from outside HQ. It’s about understanding and implementing best practices, and evolving them for your own organization.
Working productively outside of an office is a skill which can be improved upon, like any other. If you hire software developers based on how many years they have been writing code, you should also consider how long someone has worked in a distributed team before hiring them into one.
Let’s take a look at what organizations can to enhance communication across wide spaces.
What a Great Distributed Team Looks Like
It bears repeating — creating a distributed work culture is much more than just “letting people work from home”.
Here are some best practices you can test out with your team, as you develop your unique way of working:
- Hold a short video standup meeting each day. It helps to feel connected and provides a consistent opportunity to talk synchronously at least once a day.
- Avoid hallway chatter — move everything online where possible. More importantly, create a culture where it’s okay to call this out. Some things are best done in person like sketching / white-boarding, which is okay, but try to capture the output and share back via chat..
- ASAP is poison. Asking for something to be done immediately is disrespectful of our teammates valuable time. Plan ahead for actually-urgent tasks by laying out a protocol for how to handle fires and set shifts for who is on-call for support.
- Maintain consistent work hours and mute notifications during off hours. Post your working hours in your profile. All of this prevents Slack burnout where you feel the need to be online constantly.
- Post “Good Morning” and “Good Night” messages to clearly indicate when you are online and greet your team.
- Set a maximum time zone difference. Even flexibility has it’s limits, and this is a hard one to overcome. If you can’t regularly have 2–3 hours of workday overlap for the whole team, it’s very difficult to communicate well. This means practically about a 6 hour limit in timezone variance.
- Watch out for snark (“Oh, look who’s loafing off in their sweatpants at home today!”).
- Respect the precious attention span or your colleagues.
- Everyone should log in to a video call, even when some people are in the same room. We all need to see close-ups of your beautiful face, not a grainy wide shot of several people.
- Consider not using a conference room for the people in-office to avoid audio issues. Or alternatively, use a room but have everyone wear headphones and turn their microphones on. (hat tip to Ken Miller for this one.)
- Train participants to look into the camera — it creates a deeper connection and conveys the sense you are looking at the other person, rather than off to the side.
- Set expectations at home with your family on when is okay to come in, so you don’t get ambushed. Consider a lock on the door.
- Work from a quiet place where everyone can hear you. Coffee shops are okay in a pinch but too noisy for everyday communication.
- Share the video conferencing link well before the scheduled start of the call to allow everyone to log in and set up. One way to do that is to maintain a single video “room” for most meetings.
- If the majority of attendees are in one room, designate someone as the “remote delegate” to represent any AV issues, particularly in very large calls like all-hands meetings.
- If you’ve never met before, budget 5–10 minutes to get the video/audio setup correct in your conference room.
- Meetup once every quarter in-person for a few days or a week. This is the biggest investment with the biggest payoff.
- Nicer video camera — Even a $50–75 external webcam is a big upgrade in video quality from the default camera.
- Reimburse workers for network connectivity, ensuring it’s enough to pay for higher-bandwidth.
- Reimburse for better home office gear like standing desks, external monitors, chairs, and standing mats to prevent injury and create a more comfortable space.
- Invest in upgraded video conferencing services like Zoom.
- Add sound-dampening foam to the walls.
Hiring Distributed Teammates
- Aim to hire teammates with distributed experience. Like any skill, it does take time to learn and improve.
- Rewrite your job description to create a picture of day-to-day work.
- Evaluate written/oral communication skills carefully in interviews. For that matter, conduct interviews over video conference.
- As an employer, experienced distributed workers will judge you on all of your written communication to get a sense of the writing standards. Continuously edit and improve your job postings, public documentation, blog posts, etc. so they are crystal clear and fun to read.
- When hiring, search outside your normal local networks. Post your jobs on distributed job boards and spread the word about your hip new distributed work culture.
If you like this work, please consider sharing it with someone else.
At Cylinder, we believe simple software can get work done faster, leaving more time for life. Using human-centered design, modern software practices, and high-quality communication, we research, design, and build simple web and mobile software for businesses and people. Email email@example.com to learn more.
And if your organization needs a hand changing to a distributed culture, give us a shout.
- Thanks to Gaurav Bhatnagar for first introducing the Influence Model and teaching me about culture at work.
- Thank you to Karolina Szczur for her great writing on distributed work, inclusion, and communication.
- Thanks to the wonderful team at Code for America.
- Thanks to the great team at Infinite Red for first showing me all-distributed consultancies can be successful. Read their post on best practices here.
- Thanks to all of my friends and colleagues for feedback and edits.