I’ve been working on a distributed team for just over two years now. Prior to that, I worked in offices, one of which was an open office and the other was cubicles. It was a big change to go from leaning over the partition to ask my colleague a question to sending a question via the interwebs to wherever my colleague may be at the time.
Background: I work at cove, a DC-based startup that builds and operates “productive spaces.” We have physical locations members can access through user-friendly technology, where they come to get things done. There are nine locations in DC and two in Boston, and between 18 full-time employees, we manage and operate the locations, as well as build our technology, market the product, facilitate a community amongst our members with relationship-building and events, and many other things. That’s all to say that we bounce around the city from location to location and don’t often see each other.
So, to learn more about the pros and cons of working on a distributed team, I did a super scientific survey with my teammates and then gathered some tips to enhance the pros and disable the cons.
Number of respondents: 13
Number of respondents who worked in an office before: 12
Margin of Error: 99%
How we spend our time each day (out of 105% because some of us are really bad at math).
Video Calls: 10%
Chat (Slack, GChat): 10%
In-person conversations: 15%
Not doing your work (Facebook, Reddit, etc): 5%
Actually doing your work: 45%
Sidenote: If I had to venture a guess, if we were working in an office all in the same place, in-person conversations would increase significantly and video calls and chat would decrease—that’s not to say they would disappear, since we are located in multiple cities. I think we’d also do less of our work due to pure boredom, but that’s just from my own experiences in working in an office.
Did you like working in an office environment more, less, or the same as working on a distributed team?
Eleven out of 13 respondents had a mixed response, with one definitive ‘more’ and one definitive saying ‘less.’ I really liked what one person said in regards to a company operating in multiple cities: “An organization that delegates authority, recruitment, and operations locally and in turn facilitates different working needs is reflective of a modern and progressive organization.” Yay, us!
Ultimately, though, there were clear pros and cons to each, which brings me to…
What’s the most challenging part of working on a distributed team?
The overwhelming response was communications, followed closely by relationship building. Though technology allows us to communicate on a variety of platforms, some conversations are just easier to do in person. It’s easy to feel a little out of the loop. It’s harder to have brainstorming and problem-solving sessions over chat and video. And, as we all know in our text-centric society, we tend to infer a lot from written messages and make incorrect assumptions.
What’s your favorite part of working on a distributed team?
On the flip side, there are great benefits to working on a distributed team.
- Flexibility—you can often work when and where you want to, which is awesome.
- Less distractions—no ringing phone, no side conversations, and a lot less meetings about meetings.
- Autonomy—there is more trust amongst teammates and less bureaucracy.
- One of the best parts is when we do actually see each other, it feels like a reunion. We’re excited and motivated to talk and collaborate.
cove's team on a Zoom call
So what does this mean? If you work on a distributed team, here are my recommendations for making your team and your work life productive and fruitful:
- Use technology. As noted, we really like Slack and Zoom to ease communications, but there are many others. Here’s a list of alternatives to Slack. Also use Google’s drive, Dropbox, or Basecamp to share documents and collaborate on projects.
- Have clear guidelines for communications. When can and should you message someone? What’s the best way to communicate with various teammates? Are you able to go offline to focus at any time or are there guidelines for that?
- Find ways to build relationships. Grab a drink with colleagues that live nearby. Spend the first three minutes of every video call asking about each other’s day/weekend/latest vacation. Get creative and set up a daily team trivia question to get to know each other.
- Check in regularly. Make sure managers are checking in with their teams to ensure happiness and motivation is high. It’s very important that employees are honest with workloads and personal issues. You aren’t going to be able to see when someone is struggling.
- Allow employees to work whenever and wherever they want. Because that’s the best part!
What are your tips for working on a distributed team? Share below!