9 Tips for Distributed Teams

Giff Constable management, startups


The best way to build a startup is to have everyone in a single physical location, but that isn’t always possible.  I’ve had to deal with virtual teams on multiple occasions, and my last employer, The Electric Sheep Company, took it to an extreme, with 75 people mostly scattered around the country.  Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years in making virtual teams work effectively.

1. No Substitute for Facetime: Humans are social creatures. We tend to only go the extra mile for colleagues we have met, like and respect.  I learned this lesson in one of my first jobs out of college. We were working on a trans-Atlantic deal, but whenever I needed something from my British compatriots, somehow it always felt like my requests went to the bottom of the heap.  Halfway through the deal, I got to meet and have a beer with my Brit colleagues.  All of a sudden, I was real to them. I was a presence they liked and respected. They would pick up the phone when I called, and pull an all-nighter if I needed it.  I shifted from “the guy asking for stuff” to a compatriot and teammate.  The sooner you can get new hires in a room with everyone else, the more productive everyone will be.

At Electric Sheep, we found that we needed to do company-wide retreats every 3-4 months to get people back on the same page, strengthen relationships, and re-energize everyone. (Note: while the ability to hire anyone, anywhere certainly helped the business when it needed to staff up quickly to meet demand, the broad distribution of the company was a serious impediment when the company’s prospects became more difficult.)

2. Flexibility with Accountability: I’m sure you’ve faced it — a fire drill pops up and the critical person is nowhere to found.  Or, you are getting into the zone and suddenly find yourself bottlenecked because your colleague isn’t reachable to answer a simple question.

Personal freedom is important, but for collaborative work, flexibility cannot come completely at the expense of team productivity.  Working remotely requires extra levels of communication. This includes sharing your availability and how you can be reached. If your work is collaborative, it also means working when other people are working. One way to add structure is to have everyone agree on a specific time window where they will work and collaborate in real-time.  On the flip side, you might also consider time windows where people can be deep-focus productive and *not* have to be instantly responsive to IM and email, save for emergencies.

3. Empower individuals: This is important for all startups, but especially critical with remote teams.  It is very easy for a remote employee to fall into passivity or even negativity.  In an office, you can draft off of the energy, intensity, and activity of others on a down day.  Mark Pincus coined a great phrase: “everyone should be a CEO of something.” Flip people out of the mode of “doing what they are told”, and help them take charge of solving problems and creating new opportunities.

4. Weekly 1-on-1’s: Managers need to talk to their reports 1-on-1 every week, in-person or over the phone.  Do not leave this to email, IM or group meetings — you won’t get honesty, and relationships will atrophy.  As CEO, you might not be able to physically “manage by walking around”, but you should do your best to connect with individuals and keep your finger on the pulse of the organization. Furthermore, you can really boost morale simply by listening to people’s ideas.  Even if their ideas don’t get adopted, most people want to be heard and respected.

5. Level up in email: a lot of communication happens in email, which requires both efficiency and etiquette. If you are not effective at text communication, then working remotely might not be for you.  If you cannot inspire people in text, then you should not try to lead a distributed organization.

Everyone needs to be extra-careful with written communication, because you won’t have “water cooler” interaction to keep things civil and patch things over. Before interpreting something in a negative light, try to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Before sending that angry note, stick it in your draft folder for an hour or two. I once witnessed a truly spectacular email flame-out by a frustrated, angry employee. What began as a rant quickly degenerated into an email war with 20 other people, and ended in a firing.  That was an extreme unpleasant case, but as a rule, you want to be extra-sensitive in email when working remotely. When in doubt, switch to the phone (which leads directly to my next point…)

6. Escalate off of text *immediately*: text communication is ripe for mis-communication and misunderstandings.  The instant something gets frustrating to explain, get off email and pick up the phone.  The instant you start feeling anger or irritation, take a deep breath, and pick up the phone.  This applies to interactions with colleagues, customers, vendors, and partners.

A 30-second phone call can save hours of wasted time writing emails. A 30-second phone call can prevent unnecessary drama, or pop it like a balloon. When people are irritated, their reaction is to stay off the phone, but this is the worst possible idea. (p.s. you will probably need to push software developers to do this, since many hate the telephone, but I cannot stress it enough).

7. Experiment with tools: Every team has it’s own preferences for collaboration tools.  I am partial to Yammer because it is lightweight and asynchronous, and thus easy for people to share and interact.  I use IM a lot, but many remote dev teams like IRC. A good document sharing tool is also effective, whether it be Google apps, Dropbox, etc. For the product/dev side of things, a lot of people like using Pivotal Tracker and/or Basecamp for higher-level organization. Some people like email lists; I’m not a huge fan personally, but if you don’t have them, you need other tools to make up the gap.  You’ll never get unanimous approval on any single tool, but you do need general buy-in for something to work.

8. Choose your work style consciously: When you work from home, the lines between work and personal life start to blur.  Be careful that work doesn’t expand to take up all available space.  I’ve seen plenty of people who work 14-16 hour days, but actually get the same amount done as those who put in 8-10 hours of intense, high-concentration time. It can come down to personal preference, but make it a conscious choice.  For me personally, it depends on the tasks at hand — I find creative work harder to do effectively in unbroken bursts. And of course, if you are finding the house too distracting, switch to a coffee shop or co-working facility.

9. Keep conference calls short and small: In general, try to have the fewest people at any virtual meeting as possible, and always end your conference calls early!

Interesting Related posts:
Mark Suster, The Power of “In Person” – Why Distributed Teams are Less Effective
Mark Suster, People Management: Startup Teams Should Dip but not Skip
Ben Horowitz, CEOs Should Tell It Like It Is

Thank you to Chris, Becky and Jessie for contributing their tips on working remotely.