Surviving as a Distributed Team

Surviving Your First Week as a Distributed Team

By George Dickson on May 18, 2015

So you're thinking about working distributed, or already took the plunge. Great! But now it's time to figure out how to make it work. Luckily, if you have some effective methods and tools in place it's pretty easy to do that, and the benefits of a distributed team structure are definitely worth the occasional challenge.

In the past, there were countless barriers that kept distributed work from being a viable option for most companies. With today's connective technology and tools, more and more businesses are seeing the potential upsides, and making the decision to work distributed.

The Benefits of Working Distributed

Toni Schneider, former CEO of Automattic, the famously distributed crafters of the Wordpress platform, shared some of his favorite reasons to operate as a distributed team:

"Your employees get to live where they want, not where the job market dictates."

Years ago, it was costly and often legally challenging for employers to hire a top-performing employee from a different country, a different state, or even a different city.

In addition to the extra cost, it can be a tough sell to try to convince someone to leave the place they call home to come work with you. With distributed teams, you don't have to compete with a person's home town, or their family — they can have the best of both worlds. Schneider explains this in his post as well:

"You get the best of working remotely  flexible hours, no commute, a personal work environment, much more time with friends and family  without the typical downsides  guilt about being away from the office, or missing out on hallway discussions."

Knoll, Inc. published a report, The Metrics of Distributed Work: Financial and Performance Benefits of an Emerging Work Model that echoed many of Schneider's points, and added some useful metrics on distributed teams.

How to Survive as a Distributed Team

Just like most things worth having, a distributed team structure doesn't come without challenges.

At Bonusly we work as a distributed team as well, and I thought of some things we learned along the way might be useful to our friends and colleagues out there who are thinking about moving in this direction, just starting their first week, or are veterans exploring ways to make it work better.

First and foremost, communication is key. Without strong communication it's hard to make a distributed team structure work. Working asynchronously across several time zones can be a difficult proposition unless you have a good system in place.

Here's the most important secret to great communication we've found: it's not about how much, or how often you communicate as a team, but how effectively you communicate.

We make sure to share any pertinent information with as much context as possible. Because we can't just walk down to one another's office, or swivel our chair around to get more info, it's important that the things we share are clear and complete.

To help make sure everyone stays on the same page, we hold several regular, lightweight stand-ups each week. In these stand-ups, each team member takes five minutes to debrief the team on their recent progress, their upcoming tasks, and anything that is blocking progress on any of their projects. Then we take a few minutes for a freeform discussion.

There are also a number of tools we use to make sure our distributed team is running as smoothly as possible. Most are free, which is great for a small team like ours.

Slack

You don't have to be working in a distributed team to benefit from using Slack, but as a distributed team, we'd be utterly lost without it. We use Slack to communicate important project details, coordinate projects, send each other bonuses, share interesting articles, share documents, tell jokes, and I'm still probably forgetting a few things.

iDoneThis

iDoneThis is an incredibly useful tool I use to help me stay goal-oriented and focused. As an added benefit, it really helps streamline stand-ups by allowing me to quickly to look back and see my recent accomplishments, and upcoming projects at a glance.

Google Calendar

We use Google Calendar as our main tool for scheduling. There are several particularly useful Google Calendar features for distributed teams, like sharing calendars, and the ability to schedule across multiple time zones. Using these two features together all but eliminates scheduling conflicts.

Google Hangouts

Hangouts are a great way to see your whole team face-to-face without being in the same room. We most commonly use Hangouts for our stand-ups.

There are some additional features like easy screen sharing that have proven invaluable to us as we discuss projects and metrics. One last Hangouts pro-tip: In a meeting with more than two or three people, mute yourself when you're not talking to avoid broadcasting the background noise in your environment to the rest of the attendees.

Intercom

Although Gmail is an excellent tool for communicating with anyone, Intercom found a spot at Bonusly as an effective and intuitive customer service platform. Through Intercom, our team is able to work together to solve any problems our customers face without bumping into one another.

Bonusly

We use Bonusly to recognize and reward the contributions of our team regularly throughout the day. Since we're not all in the same building, it's important for us to have an easy way to take part in celebrating success together. Each bonus is also an excellent communicative tool that helps us understand the things our teammates value most.

Recognizing great work is an important element of any healthy company culture. If you're interested in experiencing the benefits of peer-to-peer recognition, you can try Bonusly for free.

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.