9 Steps to Better Distributed Teams

Regardless of how you feel about distributed work, it is here to stay. You likely already collaborate with coworkers or teams across the globe, and so a new set of rules and expectations are needed to ensure the sanity of all involved. Luckily these new rules are also generically applicable to most modern workplaces, distributed or not. I'll spare any explanation of the benefits and drawbacks of distributed work, your opinion of its value shouldn't stop you from wanting to do it well.

This is a working document, I'll be updating it as my experience and opinions evolve.

Is information shared by default?

Building trust is arguably the most challenging aspect of a successful distributed team. By being radically and default open with company information you establish a culture that is inclusive to everyone regardless of where they are located in the world or org chart.

There will be things that you are not comfortable sharing widely (performance reviews, salary information, etc). I ask that you try starting with the default being to open information and backing into where your personal line of confidentiality is.

Do you default to documentation?

It is likely that you are hiring, or have hired, people that are pro-active and most effective when they have the autonomy and resources to independently complete their work. The decisions you make, information you gather and conversations you have are the lifeblood of your team.

Create a culture that values making decisions based on documents rather than meetings. There is no better way to destroy your distributed team's culture than by making decisions in-person and not recording and distributing those decisions to the rest of the team.

Are conversations shared by default?

Along the same lines as company information, communication channels should be available to everyone. From Slack to email to meeting minutes, having the heartbeat of your company available to everyone keeps resentment from building and allow for unforeseen collaborations to blossom.

With great communication comes great distraction. You must trust your team members to be selective in the conversations they observe and engage with. Strong distributed team members will intuitively know when to jump in and when to bow-out.

Does everything have a URL?

Can everything in your company be accessed by a URL? Building off of the previous items, having canonical URLs for everything allows for your colleagues to find and share the required context in the easiest way possible. This applies to documentation, tickets, designs, communication archives, specs, HR resources, employee directories, ect.

Do you default to asynchronous over synchronous communication?

If you are doing the things listed above this one will come naturally, if you are not it will be more painful. You can no longer assume that a teammate is present and available to talk. Asynchronous communication can be in the form of tools that let you leave comments on, tickets, documents, designs, pull requests or any other work artifact.

Favor this style of communication over directly asking a colleague. When a direct message is the best option, be explicit with when you would like a response. A message that needs a response quickly will be handled vastly different than something you need by the end of the day or week.

Do you have at least 3 hours of overlap with your key collaborators?

This one might be a little controversial. Even with good asynchronous communication habits, there are situations where it is more effective to directly talk with your colleagues. Do not be afraid to pick up the phone, start a video chat or direct message when both parties are available. Beyond having an overlap with your key collaborators, do you have a system in place to know when they are available and when they should not be disturbed?

Does everyone have access to high quality video & audio equipment?

Both the hardware and software around communication tools have gotten great over the years. There is no easier way to improve your synchronous communication than everyone having excellent audio/video equipment and the bandwidth to support their proper usage. I consider this a requirement for every distributed team member, I simply cannot tolerate technical issues when using valuable synchronous collaboration time.

Do you reward results over effort?

Every team should have a results based culture, it is especially important for distributed teams. If you prove to your team that the results their work brings is the key indicator of their value they will be more engaged, more aligned and incentivized to do their best work. Additionally, having to account for the level of effort a team member is giving is a high-overhead and challenging task in a distributed environment.

Do you have a virtual “water cooler” & does everyone participate in it?

Developing a personal connection with your colleagues is a challenge on distributed teams. On top of that, building a collaborative team culture relies on those personal connections. It is crucial that you have a place for all team members to gather, virtually, to discuss non-work related things. This can take the form of a Slack channel or scheduled random virtual “coffee” meetups. The most important thing is that everyone participates and feels comfortable contributing to the conversation.

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