Productivity And Collaboration Via Distributed Working

20 Sep 2013

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"I know that the distributed model feels very strange to business people who are used to the traditional, centralised way of running a company. But I'm here to tell you that it works. It might even work a lot better than the traditional model for certain types of businesses."

Toni Schneider, CEO of Automattic

a wearable button reading 'work from home - ask me how'

My last post was all about the optimisation of workspaces for productivity and collaboration. A related topic is the growing trend toward distributed working; each employee working from their own home or other location of their choice (often in multiple timezones). The following is a discussion of the who, where and how of modern, web-enabled, distributed working with a particular focus on some of the young businesses favouring this model - especially those in the tech startup arena such as Buffer, Automattic and GitHub.

The Trend

Distributed working places an emphasis on employee choice. It recognizes the value in allowing employees to tailor their physical environments to their working styles and personal needs. Thus it's no surprise that modern, web-savvy businesses are embracing distributed working as a way of life.

"Great software engineers have eccentric work habits and quirky computer setups. Many software engineers report getting their best work done between 10pm and 2am or between 7am and 9am. Many intensely dislike commutes and rigid work schedules. Most have heavily customized their personal development workstation to be greased for productivity. Many report getting some of their best ideas in the shower or after a nap. Working from home in a fully distributed model offers more opportunities to leverage their established (and optimized) work style which would be socially unpalatable in an office environment."

Andrew Montalenti, co-founder and CTO of Parse.ly

Naturally, however, such distribution comes at a cost. It is incumbent upon businesses who work this way to focus hard on creating and maintaining team spirit (not teen spirit). The kind of collaboration that keeps a business one step ahead of the pack is something most easily found in face-to-face interactions so a modern, web-based, distributed business must be 100% committed to keeping the creative center and soul of the organization alive amongst those working at a distance.

In researching this post, everything I read led me to believe that some of the smartest people in the world are working for companies with a bias towards distributed teams and that those people and companies are really thriving because they've worked extremely hard to make distributed working a success.

Multiple Timezones / Global Hiring

Whereas working across many timezones has traditionally been seen as an impedement, many organizations are finding ways to turn such working to their advantage. Those organisations feel that they can get more done in 24 hours than some co-located teams.

Buffer, for example, has a number of people on the team who take care of customers ('happiness heroes') and these heroes are based around the globe. The benefit of this arrangement is that it allows Buffer to provide 24/7 support while still allowing each happiness hero to keep a fairly standard working schedule. Further, Buffer deeply values the first-party cultural understanding they gain about customers in different parts of the world - making it easier to communicate with and support those customers.

In 2008, everyone at Basho was working from the office in Cambridge, MA. Just three years later, they had a distributed team across three countries - including 12 states in the US.

"Slowly but surely the team grew in size, but it quickly became apparent that requiring all employees to work in the same geographic location would result in us missing out on some talented and downright brilliant people. So we resolved to 'hire where the talent is'. ... Hiring where the talent is means we don't sacrifice great hires for location."

Mark Philips, Director of Community for Basho

Hours

Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote a seminal analysis of management and efficiency in 1911 with The Principles of Scientific Management. He took the first scientific approach towards maximizing efficiency in manufacturing jobs. To paraphrase Taylor: time is money, faster is better, more hours are better.

However, there is an obvious correlation between businesses (particularly in technology) that embrace the modern philosophies of distributed working and those that view as bullshit the slavish adherence to strict hours of work.

Put simply, you can show up and flip burgers for your contracted eight hours but that doesn't mean you've provided good service or represented your employer well. Indeed the idea that someone isn't at their most productive unless they show up at a preset time and work for a preset number of hours seems ridiculous when taken in isolation. It is only cultural baggage that allows us to think of such a policy as 'normal'.

As with startups in the creative industries, tech startups recognise that they can't solve their most important problems by throwing more time at them. Like Art or Theatre or Music, building technology is a creative endeavor. Programmers need to be in the right mindset to create high-quality code. Having them work set hours in an environment in which they are not completely comfortable will not yield the best results - and surely it's results we are after?

A lot of the distributed companies that I've looked at have found that if you let responsible people handle their own priorities, on their own timeline, they'll end up getting the important stuff finished and still be able to work productively on other work. In other words, they trust people more than clocks.

Culture / Contact

Culture is an important issue in any business but it can make or break a distributed business in ways that are often difficult to recognize.

"Anyone who works at a startup or as part of a small team can speak to the importance of culture. It's crucial that distributed employees feel as though they are part of a tight-knit crew. ... Just because you're committing code 1000 miles from your nearest colleague doesn't mean you need to feel like they are 1000 miles away."

Mark Philips, Director of Community for Basho

It's important that every member of the team recognises their responsibility to keep collaboration and communication strong and this is never more important than when working at a distance.

"... it's the little things that matter when culture is concerned at a distributed company."

Mark Philips, Director of Community for Basho

One of the ways to have good culture in your company is to have strong hiring practices that test rigorously a candidate's culture fit.

Another important way is to meet up on a regular basis (particularly in the beginning) to foster a common culture and establish solid relationships. GitHub, which has around sixty employees, is highly decentralized. 60% of their team work out of the San Franciseco office with the rest spread around the world. New hires are flown out to San Francisco to get to know the team and, beyond that, all employees meet up for twice yearly summits. As one employee says...

"I think you have a better context of where someone's coming from that you interact with through text or chat once you meet them in person. Someone that you might find abrasive because of the way they text, when you meet them, you might be like, 'Oh, he's just very serious all the time. He's not angry.'"

Chris Wanstrath, co-founder and CEO of GitHub

With this quote, Wanstrath is emphasizing the power of face-to-face contact to humanize our colleagues in ways that deeply improve our work and happiness.

At Automattic they have been inspired by the MySQL team and have started to have in person meet ups for the whole company every six months.

"We ... prepare for meetups by thinking up team projects that can be built and launched in a week. This turns our meetups into a kind of 'hack week' with 2-3 person teams working on projects and demoing and launching them at the end of the week. We also spend a lot of time socializing, having fun excursions (hiking, golfing, go-kart racing, etc), and doing 10 minute lightning talks followed by Q&A (short talks by anyone in the company on whatever topic they feel like sharing)."

Toni Schneider, CEO at Automattic

The fact that face-to-face meetups are likely to be much rarer for distributed companies means that they must be treated as extremely precious events. Planning them with an efficient emphasis on the kinds of collaboration that are inherently difficult at a distance is a hallmark of a thoughful, modern business.

When training teams, I'm often amazed at the speed and efficacy of improv in creating stronger bonds, deeper relationships and a more pronounced sense of collaboration. This is why I often recommend improv training to distributed teams as part of their meetup activities.

Bonding Through Distributed Collective Experiences

GitHub's team also recognises that keeping a bond with their distributed colleagues is very important and they do this through the power of a shared music experience.

"One of our guys built an application to stream radio. It allowed everybody to pick music via our chat app to play in the office. That was really great and everybody remote got to watch the music, but then one day we added streaming. Once we added streaming, every single person, no matter where they work, can listen to the music that is playing in the office. That immediately brought everybody together and made them feel like they were doing the same thing. It sounds like it's not a really big deal but it's amazing to see how big of a deal it actually was."

Jon Maddox, developer at GitHub

At GitHub, they believe strongly in seizing opporutinites to have fun. One of they ways they do this is through a Campfire bot...

"It doesn't matter what it is; if it improves the lives of your coworkers or makes them laugh, it helps build a stronger company culture. And that's cool."

Zach Holman, developer at GitHub

Collaboration, Communication, Connection

Communication is the key to making a distributed team effective and productive.

37signals (based in Chicago) have half the team working outside the office - even the Chicago crew isn't in the office every day.

"At 37signals I really feel more connected and current with what is going on than in any physical workplace I've been a part of. It is effortless to keep up with what my co-workers are doing and how what I'm doing contributes to the whole. I'm free to keep up with projects and learn new skills as they fit my interests. We collaborate how and when it makes sense, and stay away from each other when that's the best way to work. That makes for a really effective working environment."

Jason Zimdars, UI designer at 37signals

One of the things that makes distributed working a really positive and inclusive experience is asynchronous communication. idonethis was clearly inspired by the need to make asynchrnous communication work effectively.

"Asynchronous communication means I can take a step out for lunch and catch up on transcripts when I get back. Asynchronous communication means I can ask my coworker a question in-chat and not worry about bothering her since she'll get back to me when she's available."

Zach Holman, developer at GitHub

Benefits

Automattic have strong open-source roots. At present, 120 employees are spread across 26 countries and six continents. Although most work alone at home, each team (usually made up of five or six people) has a generous travel budget.

"All of the money we save on office space, we blow on travel costs."

Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of Wordpress

Groups have gathered in Hawaii, Mexico and New Zealand. Once a year everyone meets for a week at an accessible destination with a reliable internet connection.

They embrace the fact that a distributed workforce means they can hire talent from around the world - without having to offer the perks and pay of bigger players like Google, Facebook and Apple.

Technology and Productivity

lolcat is workin on ur problemz

Buffer talks very openly about its distributed team and its use of technology to keep them productive and collaborating. There are a growing number of web-tools/apps that allow distributed workers to not only stay connected but to thrive. It's important to remember that collaboration tools and processes should compliment and enhance the way you work, not dictate it. Indeed, businesses should be highly sensitive to the issue of adoption and organic uptake as measures of the viability of chosen tools.

Fundamentaly, it's important that you choose something that suits your organisation. Here's a short list of popular tools that should get your research started...

Asana - the shared task list for your team - the place to plan, organize & stay in sync

Assembla - collaboration tools for teams

Basecamp - the leading, web-based project management and collaboration tool - to-dos, files, messages, schedules, and milestones

Campfire - a simple, web-based, real-time group chat tool for business - it makes real-time communication with 2-60 people as simple as visiting a web page

Confluence - a wiki / collaboration tool

Dropbox - a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs, and videos anywhere and share them easily - never email yourself a file again!

Facetime - Apple's answer to Skype, AIM and others

GitHub - online project hosting using Git - includes source-code browser, in-line editing, wikis, and ticketing - free for public, open-source code

Google Docs - a freeware web-based office suite offered by Google within its Google Drive service

Google Hangouts - group coversations / video conferencing

HipChat - group chat and IM built for teams

idonethis - reply to an evening email reminder with what you did that day - the next day, get a digest with what everyone on the team got done

Jabber - an open, secure technology for instant messaging similar to MSN, ICQ, AOL Messenger and IRC

Jira - track and manage everything with JIRA project and issue tracking software by Atlassian

join.me - combines instant screen sharing and powerful meeting tools in an app that anyone can use to present, train, demo or concept

Odesk - helping connect freelancers with work

Perch - mount a device in two locations to create a live, always-on video portal

Skype - make internet calls for free

Squad - collaborative, web-based code editor

Subversion - open-source version control system

Trac - an enhanced wiki and issue tracking system for software development projects

Trello - super lightweight group task management app built around assignable, schedulable cards

Yammer - helps you move faster with social communication and collaboration tools for the enterprise

Final Thoughts

During my career, I've been a remote worker and a colocated worker. My remote working experience wasn't great as I was the only one remote working and the company didn't make any real changes to adapt to this; so I was left feeling isolated and in the dark. Now, as a freelance consultant, I work remotely with a number of my clients and have no problems at all because I set up the relationships in a way that allows remote working to succeed.

If you're looking for a place to kickstart a remote working policy then try this article on the FogCreek blog and by all means leave me a comment / tweet me to let me know how you fare. Please also let me know if there are other tools you couldn't live without that power your distributed working.


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