Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Remote != Distributed

In an age when companies seem to be shutting down their remote work programs, I'm here to tell you that a distributed team can work, and when it works well it is a great experience. I have worked on a distributed team for the past three years. Prior to that I worked for four years in an office that had one full-time remote employee and allowed occasional work from home for others.

Working from home and working remotely are not the same thing as working on a distributed team. If there is a center of gravity at an office and a few remote employees orbit that office, then there is a different experience for some people than for others, and there is a different way of working for some people than for others. There is a natural imbalance that an inanimate system would want to equalize, but in a human organization people pull in opposite directions.

A distributed team is a team where no one is physically co-located. There is no center of gravity at an office. There is no imbalance, because everyone has the same experience, and everyone has the same way of working.

When there is an office/remote split, there is a different experience for some than for others. The office people have shared experiences like water cooler chat and birthday celebrations, and the remote people are left out. The office people gather in a conference room for a meeting and dial in the remote people over a crappy speakerphone. The experiences are different which affects morale and cohesion.

On a distributed team everyone has the same experience. You find new ways to create shared experiences that are different from office experiences and unique to distributed teams. You use tools that allow meetings to be high quality experiences for everyone. These shared experiences support morale and cohesion.

An office/remote split means different ways of working for different people. In-office employees may depend on ad hoc hallway conversations, but remote employees are not privy to those. In-office employees have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality and think that remote employees aren't productive because they aren't communicating with the remote employees. Remote employees feel disconnected and lack direction for the same reasons.

On a distributed team everyone communicates through the same channels, and everyone can see the activity about who is doing what. Since there aren't two different communication channels there isn't an "out of sight, out of mind" problem.

When there are different experiences, different ways of working, different communication channels at the same company, then two different cultures develop, and that is detrimental. A permanent office/remote split is doomed to failure from the beginning, so it's no wonder that companies are killing their remote work programs.

What does it look like to do a distributed team right? I can tell you what has worked for me and my company. I do not expect that our experiences are universal, but I will try to draw some general principles.

Distributed teams that work well:
  • Use tools to fix work into a tangible medium of expression (to borrow from copyright law). Office collaboration via ad hoc hallway conversations and whiteboards doesn't work for distributed teams. You have to produce Google Docs, tickets in Jira, etc. These are things to which everyone can have access. Frankly, distributed or not, this is a better way of working than informal ideas banging around in people's heads.
  • Communicate through many-to-many channels. Of course there is still a need for one-to-one communication, but using many-to-many communication channels means that everyone can feel a part of the company. Just like others can walk by and join in on hallway conversations, people can observe and contribute to Skype calls and chat rooms. It is also a good idea to have logs of these chats that people can catch up on (see above).
  • Adopt processes that encourage collaboration and productivity. Working on a distributed team may not be for everyone; to a certain extent it does take a self-motivated individual. However, pair programming and daily standups create an environment that encourages collaboration and accountability. We also tend to hire people mostly in North and South America so that the timezones line up better for collaboration. We also meet face-to-face 3-4 times a year, which helps to develop the personal relationships that are necessary to working well together.
Realize that the idea of "remote" working does not work when combined with an office culture and a center of gravity in one location. Working from home or remotely may work temporarily, but eventually gravity will pull you back towards the office. If you try to maintain this unnatural office/remote balance you will enforce different experiences and methods of work and create two different cultures in your company. This cultural divide will lead to jealousy, resentment and other morale and cohesion problems.

This does not mean that it is impossible to function unless everyone reports to the same office. It just means that different tools and processes must be developed to facilitate a distributed team. You must use tools and processes that encourage tangible expression of ideas, many-to-many communication, and collaboration and productivity.

Remote working is isolating and doomed to failure, but a distributed team done right is a joy.