I’ve been shocked by something I’ve observed recently – most of the highest-performing teams that I know are distributed teams.
As I studied those companies more closely, I learned why their distributed teams are so successful, and the counterintuitive ways they turned their distributed nature from a disadvantage born of necessity into a competitive advantage.
With a distributed team, you’re rarely working at the same time as your colleagues, given that you’re spread across multiple timezones. It’s tough to communicate and solve problems in real-time, and that’s a major reason people find distributed teams to be less efficient.
Zach Holman, a developer at GitHub, takes the opposite position. He implores other companies to “be asynchronous.” To Holman, the restriction of not being able to communicate in real-time as easily is actually a strength, because your work won’t be interrupted as often and you can get into the zone.
Here at iDoneThis, we’ve seen the power of working asynchronously, as our product makes it easy for distributed teams (including ourselves) to sync – it’s like having a daily standup but without having to schedule a Skype call across multiple timezones. An asynchronous sync-up allows the team to communicate while focusing on what’s important, instead of fretting about performing in front of their peers or forgetting to relay information while in the moment, like you so often see in standups.
Historically, company culture has been defined by the ping pong tables and yoga balls in your office. It’s cultivated by those small, daily interactions you have with coworkers in the office, and you don’t get much of that with a distributed team.
However, with a co-located team, you have one major restriction when it comes to company culture: you can only hire people who are either in your city or willing to move. That cuts out a huge portion of the population.
At WooThemes, a distributed company that began outside of a major tech hub in South Africa, they’ve made hiring for their remote team into an advantage: they can “hire top talent from anywhere in the world.” That means they’re able to hire for culture fit regardless of location, rather than being restricted to hiring for both culture fit and location.
It’s obvious that it’s easier to communicate in a shared office. The downside of that obviousness is that co-located teams often take communication for granted. They just assume they’re communicating well without putting deliberate effort into it.
Strong distributed teams know that communication is a potential hazard, and so they put in extra, deliberate effort to ensure that they’re communicating well – which flips the communication weakness into a real strength.
At Zapier, a distributed team that’s one of the web’s hottest startups, they don’t just use email and that’s it, like many teams in a shared office. They use 10+ tech tools to help them communicate including Sqwiggle for always-on video chat, Campfire for text chat, and and their own tool, Zapier, for connecting these services together.
The challenges of working in a distributed company usually come to light far more quickly. The upside is that it gives distributed teams a chance to build a resilient working dynamic and solid processes into their foundation. It may take more effort and thought, but the result can be a high level of focus and function, fashioned with great consciousness around aspects of time, culture, and communication.
Guest author Walter Chen is cofounder of iDoneThis, an easy way to celebrate your accomplishments with your team at work, every day. He writes about management and productivity at the iDoneThis blog and he tweets at @smalter.
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