Principles for an Effective Distributed Team
It's 2020 and people work from home. The benefits are intuitive: commutes are often risky and can be a waste of time and natural resources; plus removing geographical barriers can increase the size of the recruitment pipeline. Even though some companies are making headlines by bucking that trend, remote working is a fact of life. People get sick; they make appointments during business hours; they want to keep their heads down and focus away from their sometimes-distracting office; they want to catch up before or after hours on something important to their work. Face it: your teams needs to be able to function outside of a centralized workplace. Whether your team is entirely distributed, completely on-site, or some hybrid thereof, try to mind these principles to empower your team for success.
Principles for Teams
The web has made physical distance less meaningful than ever before in human history. This means that teams have the power to work in ways that were impossible a generation ago. With this great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility must not fall exclusively on those who happen to be working outside of the space where most of the team works. Before reading, take stock of what kind of team you're working with: are there any teammates, vendors or consultants working off-site? How many? How often do teammates work from home? With these facts in mind, consider the principles below.
Manage Availability and Expectations
Teammates need to know what to expect of one another. It's easy to tell when someone is away from their desk in person, but folks working off-site have no easy way to peek over at someone's desk and figure out their immediate availability, and vice versa. Ensure teammates are aware of each other's work hours by keeping shared calendars updated. Don't be distant on instant messenger either: status messages or quick FYIs are a great way to keep everyone—regardless of location—aware of when someone's working and when they're not.
If your team evaluates teammates in a way that could de facto penalize someone who is off-site, consider reworking those criteria. A results-oriented evaluation system will support work habits that empower all teammates to succeed regardless of their latitude and longitude.
Drop Bread Crumbs
"Silo" is a dirty word in the workplace. Teams should avoid balkanizing their communications wherever possible. Informal chats about Product A in the break room can quickly turn into actionable work. An instant message chain in a small channel can snowball into a full-blown spec in no time. The simple solution? Take notes! Sharing a photo of the back of a napkin or a quick email summary can help keep the team abreast of developments that will impact their work. This sort of artifact generation also comes in handy months or even years later when trying to retrace the evolution of a product or feature.
Invest in Telepresence
Audio/video quality directly impacts communication quality. Invest in the right hardware and software in order to minimize potential disruptions and maximize comprehension. Set aside a few minutes before a video conference to make sure that the camera and microphone are set up and working. Teammates shouldn't wait for others in a teleconference to tell them that they can't be heard or seen—beginning a meeting with "can you see and hear me?" makes a world of difference. Ideally, the answer is "yes," but if not, everyone needs to pitch in (within reason) in order to troubleshoot and resolve the problem. This can be burdensome, but it's far less disruptive than an information deficit that leads to a defect in the product.
As important as A/V quality is, telepresence is not the same as physical prescence. In fact, telepresence is a skill that can be cultivated and improved with enough care and attention. Keeping the camera and microphone on is a good practice, but don't be alarmed or judgmental of teammates who switch off sometimes. There's a difference between being physically together in the same space and having your head on a large-screen television for all to see up-close. To avoid falling into the trap of "multitasking" and other attention-draining activities during video conferences, try not touching the computer at all. Note-taking or even idle doodling could be an effective way of practicing mindful telepresence.
Spontaneity and shared experiences are the foundation for meaningful human connections. There's no reason why these ideals can't be met digitally! Team instant message channels could ensure there's a space for unplanned, not-necessarily-work-related fun. Keeping an open-invitation video conference is a nice way for collegues to digitally "visit" each other's work places. Team outings are a great way to bond, but try to balance out those activities with location-independent events. Internet games, book clubs, and fantasy sports are just a few ways to be geographically inclusive. Scheduling one-on-one conversations with teammates you'll never physically "bump into" in a shared office is a great way to nurture connections (even if your teammate isn't your "work friend"). Don't be afraid to use video chat just to say hello!
When teammates work across more than one work space, it's imperative that everyone pitch in to make it work. Investments in a distributed workforce will benefit the whole team, even if most or all workers are on-site most of the time. Build a lexicon of non-judgmental terms to foster inclusivity. Instead of being "at home," teammates are "in the cloud." Instead of "spending" time getting the new conference room microphone set up, "invest" that time. Teammates don't "get to" work from home—it's not a personal favor—they're just working.
Working outside of a central office is easier when teammates understand what to expect. If teammates are encouraged to occasionally work from home, it's likely that they will understand the needs of off-site teammates more. Another strategy would be to hold an "all-remote" meeting where all attendees—even if most of them are in the same office—join a teleconference individually. This will help build empathy amongst teammates by putting everyone on equal footing with regards to telepresence. The quality of the A/V might be surprising too: one microphone and one camera per person can do wonders for communication clarity.
If the team is spread across more than one time zone, there are two rules that must be followed:
- Always mind the time zone
- Seriously, always mind the time zone
- Mealtimes will vary. Mind that, too.
Tips for Remote Workers
These are suggestions for someone working off-site, even if it's only for a day.
Don't guilt yourself
Working remotely has pros and cons for yourself and the team. There's no "right" way to work.
Eat a meal, drink a beverage, exercise, take a walk, do something to take care of your mind and body. When the end of the day comes, make sure you've done at least one thing other than sitting at your workstation.
Embrace being a head in a box
The longer you're out of a central workplace, the more you become associated with whatever electronic communciation media your team uses. You're basically a head in a box; don't fight it! Have fun with it.
Maintain professional relationships
If you're working from home, it's easy to neglect your professional network/community. If you can't go to meetups or other events physically, there are ways to stay "in the loop" with people and ideas in your industry. Seek and cultivate those opportunities.
Structure Your Time and Space
"Commute" to work
Boundaries between personal and work time can help you protect the former and focus on the latter. Maintain two daily rituals before and after work hours to structure your day: a workout, a walk, an errand, a coffee run, taking the kids to/from school, etc.
Have a designated work "space"
The notion of an office needs to be adapted in order to apply to remote work. Whether you set up shop in your single-family home five days a week or travel the world in a van, guerilla-working from wherever you can find the best coffee and wifi, crafting an office can be a great way to tacitly enforce boundaries between work and life. In 2020, your office is not necessarily a physical area; it can be a state of mind. If you work from your home, avoid regularly working in areas reserved for eating, sleeping, or leisure. Those spots can be great for taking a one-on-one or for an occasional change of scenery, but they are too tightly coupled with your personal life for routine productivity. Strive to find a location other than your dining table to get things done on a regular basis. If your locale changes regularly, try to find something to help trick your brain into perceiving an "office." For some, simply starting at a fixed time of day is a good way to mentally tag their "office." For others, wearing a certain pin or other accessory during business hours may do the trick. Whatever your solution, make your "office" something that consistently differentiates work time from the other parts of your life.
Don't Be a Stranger
Make time for relationships
Go out of your way—schedule it if you must—to connect and reconnect with colleagues. Keep in mind, though, that staying connected is a shared responsibility. Don't shoulder everything yourself.
See and be seen
Don't turn off your camera during video conferences unless you need to, and do your best to participate in situations that haven't been optimized for videoconferencing.
Even pants. You might think you're only visible from the shoulders up, but just in case.
Master your communication apps
Get to know your instant message, video conference, and VOIP apps better than anyone. Learn how to troubleshoot efficiently. Become a power user to minimize technical difficulties and maximize utility.
Not all messages can be returned right away—teammates won't always mind your status/away message or check your calendar before sending an IM your way. Find ways to respond, even if it's a triage message, something like:
Hey, I'm in meetings all afternoon so I can get focus on this starting around 4:00pm Eastern Time. In the meantime, I think Charlie might be able to help out. I'm setting a reminder for myself now.
Children and animals...
... can be welcome "guest stars" on camera. They can also be a distraction. Always be mindful of the context and purpose.
Lydia Nash and Ayo Jimoh proofread and contributed ideas to this post. Thank you!
Keep the conversation going
I really appreciate feedback from anyone and everyone who reads my posts, so please feel free to say hi at [email protected] and keep the conversation going.