Too often, the idea of running a distributed (remote) team is dismissed as only possible when the company is small. This week, Automattic showed us that it’s not only possible to have a fully distributed team at a large scale, but you become a billion dollar company doing it.
In this HowToWD we are going to disassemble the learnings from Automattic into a format that can be easily implemented by any team:
- Team Buy In
- Asynchronous Communication
- Tools & Processes
- Transition Format
The first thing to look at and understand is Why you want to be building a distributed team. If your thoughts are simply around cost saving on office space, you should probably stop here;
The best benefit of a remote team is individual team happiness. When you give people autonomy to work how they want, you inspire in them motivation to not work longer but better and love their job.
Team Buy In
In order to successfully transition to a remote team, you need everyone in the team to understand why it’s happening and what the benefits are so that they can get behind it and ensure its success. If the team thinks this is a shoddy attempt to cut costs and doesn’t understand the real value, then failure looms ahead.
If done correctly, this should take little effort. Remote working has a huge amount of benefits for the team and only several downsides (we’ll tackle these later). A good way to communicate this—which also adheres to the open communication that Automattic strives for—is to write up a document in your shared drive/forum explaining why the transition is taking place and what the benefits are (surprise at the end).
The biggest challenge when transitioning to a distributed team is communication. Due to being in a shared, physical space, your communication style has most likely evolved to take advantage of this close proximity. You’re be used to tapping team members on the shoulder for questions whenever it comes to your mind. Running impromptu meetings to discuss projects is a daily occurrence.
Once you go remote, these seemingly small interactions are no longer possible—at least not in the same way. Sometimes you won’t get an answer to your question for a few hours because of timezones or overlapping work schedule. This doesn’t mean work has to stop, it simply means that you communication style has to evolve to be more asynchronous.
Asynchronous communication is any form of communication that can be responded to over time, in bits and bob, rather than in one chunk (think email, online discussions, Slack, Trello, etc.). The power of this is that team members can get quiet stretches of time to concentrate on work and then respond to communication when appropriate.
Tools & Processes
As Automattic said time and time again, the most important thing about going remote is ensuring there are tools and processes in place that encourage open, asynchronous communication.
The tools and processes that you set up are critical in enabling team members to be able to effectively do their job. Information is king when making decisions, so it needs to be easily accessible and well organized.
Depending on your team style, you’ll need to have tools for the following tasks:
1. General Team Communication Tool If you’re still operating mostly by email, then as your team goes remote and you can’t tap each other on the shoulder for basic information, things are going to get stressful. Having a team chat tool where all conversations can be easily found and searched saves time for everyone in the team. It doesn’t matter if you’re using Slack, Flowdock or MatterMost. Any tool that allows your team to openly communicate will do.
2. Video Communication We are all human; we are all still social animals who need interaction. Going remote can easily lead to alienation of team members or simply unhappiness from lack of team interaction. Video communication is a vital part of any remote team. Whether it’s being used for formal meetings, daily updates or just casual chats, seeing each other in ‘person’ is fundamental to creating a sense of ‘us’ and keeping team happiness up. Also, as you communicate more and more over text-based discussion, it can be difficult to to gauge emotions and body language, so use Google Hangouts, Speak, or any group video tool to stay connected as a team.
3. Document Storage & Collaboration Documents, files and resources are fundamental to people doing there job. Having them stored separately across team member’s computers is going to halt productivity pronto. Set up any file sharing solution and make it part of the culture; if a file isn’t in the shared drive, it doesn’t exist! Use Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox or any open source file share alternative.
4. Project Management This depends largely on how you run your team and the type of industry you are in. Most likely you already have this setup. As you go remote, the commenting and discussion functionality of this will be used more and more. Don’t have something? Trello or Basecamp are popular.
It doesn’t matter which tools you decide upon using, all that matters is that they are used consistently and are part of your culture. If people are having to dig through email threads or even team chat tools for documents, files or information, it will lead to loss of productivity, frustration and, most critically, an unhappy team.
If you are transitioning to a remote team culture, before you make the switch in locations you should first start by operating as a remote company (in your tools, processes and culture.) Your tools and communication should be open and asynchronous so that when the time and distance grows between team members, things still run smoothly and efficiently.
As you transition into this period of distributed working, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can take a step over approach where the team starts working remote a couple of days a week but are all still in the office on the other days. This will make for an easier transition period as people can slowly get used to the change in work style while still meeting face to face several days a week.
In fact, the best remote teams often have offices in their major cities that team members can work from whenever they choose. This is why remote working is the new luxury; it’s not that you have to work from home, but that you can choose any location in the world that works for you, even if it is just the office.
The main disadvantage of working in a remote team is that culture and a feeling of ‘us’ can easily slip away. This means you need to have processes in place that specifically tackle aspects of culture-building that wouldn’t be needed in a typical office.
There are lots of things to compensate for this, but the most important is having a clearly defined culture document that serves as an agreement for how the team should operate and treat each other. For Automattic, this is their Creed that everyone respects and works by.
Without going into details here today, some things that Automattic and many other remote teams do to make their remote culture still feel authentic:
- Weekly/Daily Video Chats
- Team Retreats (Annually or more frequent)
- In Person Hack Days
- Team Happiness Surveys
- Personal One-on-One Checkups
Transitioning your team to remote will require some planning, change and team buy in. Here’s a guide/letter to kick the process off.
Grab it here: Team Guide for Going Remote