Remote Control

Leadership in an era of distributed teams

Steve Daniels
The Startup
Published in
9 min readFeb 12, 2015

“Gonna try and get you response within an hour. Mad internet probs here.”

This was a ping from Myles, my co-founder and Makeshift’s editor-in-chief. Sure enough, a detailed response followed chiming in on the latest iteration of the redesign of our print quarterly. Little did I know he was huddled — his laptop tethered to his phone — outside a meeting in Apatzingan, Mexico, where leaders of the autodefensa vigilante militia were discussing whether to make a pact with the government.

Makeshift’s editor-in-chief collaborates synchronously on assignment.

Such is the collaborative process at Makeshift, a media company that covers often-dangerous topics under an umbrella we call hidden creativity. We are a team of 15 volunteers and freelancers scattered across six countries, plus a contributor network of 350 across more than 80. Distributed work is a daily reality, from production to marketing to team celebrations. And yet, on a shoestring budget, we put out a product I grow more proud of each issue. And right now we’re winning: in the last quarter we tripled distribution of our flagship print mag. Later this month, we launch our YouTube channel.

Business leaders have wavered on the merits of remote vs. co-located teams. The latest splash was made by Marissa Mayer recalling Yahoo’s employees back to Sunnyvale. I still hear her February 2013 “no-work-from-home memo” debated in C-suite circles behind closed doors.

The truth is remote collaboration is a reality — and often an advantage — of a globally networked economy, and its consequences are more nuanced than such a hard-line measure would lead one to believe. At Makeshift, we acknowledge four key realities of remote collaboration:

  1. Remote workers are more productive yet less creative
  2. Teams function best together or apart — but not split
  3. Software is the new studio
  4. Meetings are still messy

By embracing these realities, the Makeshift team has become masters of remote collaboration, featured in several case studies.

Reality No. 1

Remote workers are more productive yet less creative

One myth about remote employees is that they sit around at home and slack off. This may be true for some, but these are the same people playing Snood at the office. This is not true of any team member who is qualified and motivated to contribute to your mission. In fact, a Stanford study showed remote workers are more productive. However, the authors caveated, “The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits, we think.”

In my previous role at IBM Design, I cherished my time away from the office. I checked in for morning meetings, and then I had hours upon hours each day to get actual work done. What a relief! My managers were impressed too, and I gained a reputation for quick turn-arounds.

The problem is I missed out on real-time collaboration. Face-to-face brainstorms, reading body language, accidental run-ins with co-workers. Creative sparks don’t always happen in the one-hour block you decided to meet with your team. That’s why, on days I flew down to our Austin studio, I became inundated with ad hoc meetings and updates. On those days I felt like I got no “work” done but soaked up a ton of new input.

Transparent meeting rooms yield accidental meetings. Credit: IBM

At Makeshift, we get very high output from freelancers and volunteers on a tight budget, but we sometimes stagnate. That’s why we balance asynchronous communication with synchronous brainstorming sessions. All planned meetings take place over video Hangouts, not teleconferences, and whenever we feel a project needs some extra juice, we’ll ping each other over chat to hop on a video call. Tools like Sqwiggle offer persistent views of your team members throughout the day. Experiment with these to build a culture that prioritizes synchronicity over isolation.

On special occasions, we bring the full team together. When we released our redesigned magazine last summer, we held an all-hands video chat that would’ve broken Hangouts. It wasn’t easy to schedule 15 people across 13 hours of time zones, but it was critical for getting everyone excited, aligned, and feeling like a cohesive team.

Hollywood Squares, Makeshift Edition.

When enough team members find themselves in a single city, we’ll host an offsite. This usually means renting an Airbnb and spending a full day workshopping and cooking. The result is an incredible rush of new ideas, experiments, and projects to carry forward.

An editor, a publisher, and a salesperson walk into a room…

Reality No. 2

Teams function best together or apart — but not split

One trap teams fall into is co-locating the majority of the team and then making exceptions. A founding engineer wants to move to Seattle; a marketer has young kids and wants to work from home. This core-and-satellite model seems like a nice compromise, but it can actually be toxic.

Most of the work on such a team now happens in meatspace. Walls fill up with sticky notes and prototypes, and conversations that yield critical decisions go undocumented. Digital documentation or catching someone up becomes extra overhead, so the satellite employees are left out.

At IBM, whenever I checked into the Austin studio, I’d take several laps around the office. This routine meant bumping into someone I hadn’t seen in a while and, equally importantly, catching a glimpse of mockups or personas for new apps. On almost any lap, I would find inspiration or an opportunity to partner. Yet this was essentially the only way for me to learn about these developments — by finding myself at a particular point in space and time at a global company of nearly half a million people.

Hey, she might use my product too!

A completely virtual team, on the other hand, builds documentation into the fabric of how they work. Holding a meeting? You can be certain a Google Doc is running, capturing everyone’s ideas in real time. Have an artifact ready for review? Post it to Podio, our intranet, so the entire team can see and chime in. Every thing and decision we make is documented for all.

Capturing as we go…
Ready for feedback!

Reality No. 3

Software is the new studio

Most teams spend enormous budgets on real estate, following the interior architecture mantras of books like Make Space: a mix of open floor plan, collaborative meeting space, and personal or private space. Studio design is now a mature (though still evolving) practice, and architects are paid the big bucks to make you more collaborative.

At IBM, I contributed in a small way to the creation of our flagship Austin studio, followed by replicas and iterations around the world. I watched architects and team members nitpick over the smallest details. The result was a series of wonderful spaces like nothing IBM had ever seen.

Looking through the floor plan in Austin. Credit: IBM

However, the tools available for virtual collaboration at the time were abysmal. This was partly the result of arcane IT policies and nearly nonexistent budget. But it wasn’t entirely IBM’s fault; most collaboration tools on the market have a long way to go — even video chat, according to a study by Oxford Economics. Too little thought and resources have gone into how people want to work virtually.

At Makeshift, our investment is reversed. We spend zero dollars on real estate, opening up budget to experiment with and adopt tools that will advance our practice. These tools are our office.

Our home base is Podio, a project management tool that flexes to the way we work. Not only have the folks at Podio thought deeply about virtual work, but the tool also requires our team members to become a kind of “virtual workspace designers,” creating and iterating on collaborative spaces and workflows. It allows our team to take ownership of our space, like a team in a studio that rebels by rearranging desks and hanging bikes from the ceiling. Specifically, Podio brings our team four critical benefits:

Transparency — Any member can see all work across the organization. Documentation is built into the way we work.

Status of all articles going into Issue 12 Laws & Orders — no reporting required.

Democracy — Any team member can tag or chat with any other. Podio presents a flat hierarchy based on merit, not personality or status.

An editor asks me a style question (left) and gives me work to do (right).

Accountability — Any team member can assign a task to any other. Podio allows us to tie tasks and comments directly to each piece of work.

Tasking a team member to select winners for our recent shelfie competition.

Openness — A public API means Podio plays nice with Google Docs, Dropbox, and a host of other third-party applications.

Posting a Google Doc with an article’s copy to a Podio entity that also contains its photos, metadata, comments, and tasks.

There are many tools available, and others may better suit your needs. The lesson is to make room in the budget for tooling and to create a culture that inspires your team to take ownership of their virtual workspace, experimenting with new tools and improving their workflow.

Reality No. 4

Meetings are still messy

Virtual collaborators are not immune to the dread of meetings familiar in any office. Sometimes virtual meetings suck more — usually because they happen over teleconference or one person dominates. And when meetings happen infrequently, you tend to cram all different kinds of discussions into a single hour, after which you’re not quite sure what happened.

The reality is your distributed team members are actually craving interpersonal connection, and meetings can be an opportunity to build rapport and excitement. Imagine that.

Makeshift has directly adopted the in-person meeting culture I helped build, under excellent mentorship, at IBM Design. At the heart of our collaboration is a structure of four different types of meetings — and clarity around which type you’re in:

  1. Stand-ups — These are very short meetings to update your team on status and blockers. They usually repeat daily or weekly. No work content is discussed.
  2. Working sessions — These are longer meetings used to actually get work done or brainstorm. Usually only active project contributors attend, though they can also include clients and partners.
  3. Playbacks — These are reviews of work for team members and stakeholders — sometimes including clients or partners — delivered in a way that ties the deliverable under discussion back to the market opportunity and desired user experience.
  4. Retrospectives — These are reviews of how the team is working, usually held at the end of a project or milestone playback. The team reflects on what they liked, what they disliked, ideas, and questions.

If you adopt this type of structure, it will make much better use of everyone’s time and encourage continuous improvement of both work and workflow. They need not be planned in advance; any of these meetings can be started ad hoc with a ping.

A space at IBM designed specifically for playbacks — attendees look at the work, not each other. These are really easy to do over video chat with screen share.
A Makeshift retrospective held remotely. Let it all out in the open!

Remember to have fun with your collaboration. When teams are remote, you run the risk of losing a sense of playfulness. Make room for personal catch-ups, jokes, and irreverent updates in all of your virtual space. Your team will appreciate it, and their ideas will be better for it.

Props to the Makeshift team for being engaged in how we work and constantly challenging ourselves to improve. And thanks to Phil Gilbert, Charlie Hill, Adam Cutler, and Ari Font for the wisdom of experience and trust to experiment at IBM Design.

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)

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Steve Daniels
The Startup

I serve a vision for the more-than-human world grounded in interdependence. You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://stevedaniels.space