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A Guide to Distributed Teams (increment.com)
227 points by tate 50 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments

I am someone who did not enjoy remote work, because I felt lonely. I’m lucky enough that now my commute is a 25-minute bike ride in Amsterdam, and I thoroughly like being between people all day, having in-person interactions. It’s also nice to leave the office, knowing that most of my workday is done.

It might be an old school way of thinking, but as long as I can have a short enough commute, an office where flexible work is the norm (eg WFH is fine on some days, there are no fixed hours etc); I would choose this over full remote, anytime. While my team is local and large, I do end up working across time zones, with other engineering teams.

I get it that this is highly dependent on personality and situation: there are those that thrive on remote. It’s just not me. How do others feel about this - and what do you like/dislike about remote work?

I spent 3 months fully remote, and by the end I was fully depressed. There’s something about looking at the same walls of my apartment for 14 hours a day that just did not work for me at all. I would occasionally go to coffee shops or whatever but it didn’t change the isolation. I had no idea how much I leaned on being in a shared physical location with my coworkers. It’s hard to know until you try it; I think you need to be in a very specific work situation and have a certain disposition for it to work well.

Recently started a FT WFH job with a semi-flexible schedule. Prior I was self-employed (consultant / freelance) and made my own schedule, etc.

The adjustment to the new schedule wasn't too bad per se. That said, at the first opportunity possible I'm going to ask for some budget to get a day (or two) per week at a co-working space. For me and how I'm wired that would make a massive difference.

“I think you need to be in a very specific work situation and have a certain disposition for it to work well.”

I much prefer remote work but I agree that you have to be cut out for it. It’s not for everybody.

There's a lot of replies negative about remote work, so I'll weigh in the other way. Caveat, I'm not 100% remote.

I live a 20 minute drive from the office, but most of my work tends to be with people at other locations (mostly working from their homes, scattered in timezones +4 to -6 hours from me). There have been days I've been in the office and pretty much spent half the day in video calls with people located elsewhere, and literally the only human-to-human interactions at the office are in passing while I get coffee or lunch or go to the bathroom. When I do talk to people in the office, it's often at least started over Slack (if not entirely conducted there) as we tend not to interrupt whatever people are up to.

As a result, in the past few months I've spent more and more time working at home. I've found it's way more productive for me, including being easier to get into flow. It also saves me ~40 minutes of commute per day, and the time to pack or go buy lunch. Most people don't notice either way.

I think the other thing that works for me is I have a wife and 5 yo at home. There's a lot of replies talking about getting depressed being by yourself in the same place for 100% of the day but I don't get that. At the least, I'm doing either drop-off or pick-up from school (often walking), though generally it takes me 2-3 days before I'm at the point where I really need to leave the house for sanity reasons.

The biggest negative is that I tend to end earlier than I would at the office, and pick back up later in the evening, but this doesn't really bug me (and I don't do that every day). I try very hard not to work more than 40-ish hours in a week, as doing that just leads to burn-out (been there, done that).

I’m remote right now, and the job was taken on initially out of the necessity of being in a different part of the world where the local salary wasn’t something I would commit to. For the most part when abroad, it worked well. I didn’t have too many connections anyway and I was able to get a workspace and do a 15 minute walk there and back in the warmth.

I’m now back to my homeland and I’m crashing at my parents for a few weeks until after Christmas, and the remote side of it is affecting me quite badly. I can’t handle certain aspects of it at all.

For starters, I’m working with an almost violent intensity and rate that I really struggle to turn down. In an office I’d not usually hit a level of flow state like I do at home and it’s almost like I don’t have enough forced distractions. The little coffee break, lunch with team mates, interruptions and meetings. Nothing can get in the way of me writing code, but it’s starting to come at my detriment. I have more optional distractions, sure, but I’m at work so I’m not gonna watch TV for 10 minutes. It breaks my focus too much and to a greater extent; what’s the point?

I’ve lost a great deal of balance in my life. I don’t cook. I overtime a lot more. I have no reason to leave the house (even more so that it’s 0c here vs 32c where I’ve just arrived from). I stay in bed until the last minute.

These are all my fault and my problem to fix, but it seems to incentivise unhealthy ways of living for me. I should have more time and freedom but everything has ended up being more intense and busy. There’s something to be said for that walk though the city or allowing yourself to work at the pace of your office neighbours. I miss that side of it.

I struggled with remote for the longest time until I got a dog.

Those forced interrupts and little bit of extra responsibility are nothing short of a miricale.

The forced walks help too but I actually walk much less/day now (keeps sniffing stuff)

Working remotely and dog owner too, I find walking the dog to be a great help for having a real (mindful?) break without thinking of work.

I've been working fully remotely since 3 months or so and I love it. I have much more control over disturbances (i.e. people walking to my desk) and much more flexibility in how I structure my time. When I get in the flow of working I can focus fully, and when my focus is gone I can answer emails or take a shower, prepare lunch, that sort of thing. I don't have to adjust to other people's rhythms as much and it makes a big difference in how I feel about my work.

It's nice to have people around in an office and I do miss out on some of the quick conversations. Overall our team is quite distributed though so it's not much of an issue. I live with my girlfriend and a bunch of other housemates so it doesn't get too lonely. I do make a point of going outside regularly and getting some exercise (biking or hiking) since when I'm working I'm mostly behind my desk.

I went from working remotely 3 time zones away on legacy code to working remotely within the same time zone on a new project, and I love it. Before that I was working in an open-plan office near my home, for a different company.

I work at home but go into the main office once a week — it's an hour away.

It's a small office — IT department is under 20 people, team is 6 — and I'm the only remote person.

The bigger difference, though, is that I'm doing contract work instead of working as an employee — it was the only way to get around my current client's rules about remote work. And it turns out that hourly contracting is really good for my mental well-being and productivity. ADHD micro-deadlines FTW!

Since I see people once a week in person, it's not entirely remote. But I don't do any real work there. Overall it's the most productive I've been. Partly because I can control my home office environment, and partly no commute, and partly the hourly thing (see above).

We have screen-sharing 1:1 meetings multiple times a week to collaborate on technical things. It's not quite as good as walking over to someone, but it works fine.

You mentioned loneliness. I have a family that prevents that, and I get out a lot.

Worth at least noting that this article is about distributed teams more broadly and not remote work specifically. You can be on a distributed team and not work remotely. You can even be on a distributed team and all share the same building. The advice in this article applies to all sufficiently large teams.

Yes. But people make up teams :) And it's important to realize different people will react differently at different times. You can't optimize your team without first embracing a people-first mentality.

Are you from Netherlands or did you migrate to Netherlands? I ask because I would like to know if it is common for Netherlands natives to have their office at such a convenient distance from home. In the UK, it usually takes a 1 to 2 hour train ride to reach work by train.

I moved to Amsterdam to have a better work-life balance, with a family.

I lived in London before, having a 40-minute tube commute that was okay when I had no kids. London became harder to live in, once I had kids - central London is especially an unfriendly place for families IMO.

I did exactly the same thing a few months ago (sans kids). Turned my 35-40 minute tube commute into a 10 minute leisurely cycle ride.

+1 on the sync and async discussions.

This is super important, not just at work but every day life. I find that sometimes I don't want to text someone when I'm having a passionate discussion, I'd rather video call or call them. If I can't do that, then I'll go for async messages (like voice clips).

Really awesome newsletter, and amazing collection of tips.

This stuff is crucial to any distributed team.

The culture bit is what I think makes remote teams more productive, more engaged and in the end happier, when nailed in the right way. This is why I am building a platform [1] to help alleviate the cultural challenges around remote teams.

Not being in the same place, at the same time, not having the kitchen conversation by the coffee machine is something that _can_ be worked around by using the right tools and implementing the right processes where those types of conversations can happen.

[1] https://standups.io

And as a counterpoint, I have worked in organizations that were on-site but everyone was so stressed about heads down work and looking busy that we didn’t have those random small conversations anyway.

It was one the most depressing work periods of my life.

Async video conversations. Putting the nuance back in to team communication. :)

I love the format of the above tool, the only contention is that it should be extended to all communication, not just standups.

You should be able to asynchronously discuss something with short videos. And record your desktop if necessary.

And they should provide transcriptions to make the chats searchable.

Thanks for this link. The team i'm with is considering creating a role like mine for several developers in remote-from-home-office locations, and this will absolutely be a tool to consider for that group.

This is a good collection of tips. Being deliberate with distributed team culture and expectations is crucial to healthy teams. I particularly agree with their advice about asynchronous vs. synchronous communication:

> Healthy distributed teams blend synchronous and asynchronous styles. Because what doesn’t have to be synchronous is better done asynchronously, default to asynchronous communication for nonblocking items and help team members review them on a cadence.

I've managed distributed teams for several years now. One of the biggest and most unexpected challenges has been orienting new hires to healthy expectations about remote work. A lot of people are drawn to remote and distributed teams for the wrong reasons. You need to be careful to identify and correct bad behavior or misaligned expectations as early as possible, for the sake of the employee and the rest of the team. Specifically:

- Some people are drawn to remote work because they want to be as isolated as possible. They don't like interacting with, communicating with, or coordinating with other team members. These lone wolf employees can work in very narrow, specific job roles, but most tasks require teamwork and cooperation. Don't try to cater to individual's isolationist tendencies if it's not a good fit for your workload.

- Distributed teams can attract bad actors who see remote work as an opportunity to escape supervision and get as little work done as possible. You need to find a healthy way to follow individual's productivity without being overbearing or nagging them frequently. Address performance issues early and often.

- Watch out for the side hustler. Remote listings attract a lot of wantrepreneurs who want benefits and a paycheck while they prioritize their energy toward their own startup, contracting gigs, or other side hustles. I make it very clear that our hires need to prioritize company business as their full time job. In theory, I don't care if someone is taking on side work on the weekends or in their spare time, but in practice most people can't juggle competing priorities effectively.

- If employees are in similar time zones, I encourage a "core working hours" policy where everyone is expected to be online and working. 3-4 hours of overlap is enough to cover any synchronous discussion needs while still leaving plenty of schedule flexibility for most people. I've had night owl employees try to work opposite schedules from everyone else, but this quickly turns into the isolationist problem I mentioned above. Set the expectation of some work hours overlap, then let people decide when/where/how they do the rest of their work. It's a small price to pay for the increased communication efficiency.

- Group chat is fun, but don't let it become a constant distraction. The article mentions memes, gifs, and humor as a plus, which is fine, but be careful not to let the culture degrade into all-day distractions. If people feel like they need to read your #random channel all day long to avoid missing something important, consider gently reshaping the chat culture with dedicated focus hours or other expectation setting.

- Watch the private vs. public message ratio of your group chat. There is no magic number, but it can hint at communication problems. If you have 95% private messages and 5% public messages, you might be at risk of cliques and silos. On the other hand, if you have 95% public messages and 5% private messages where everyone is in every channel, your group chat might be too distracting. Lead by example with "Let's take this offline" when conversations get too chatty in shared channels, and also by following DM conversations up with summaries and decision announcements in shared channels.

- The article mentions budgeting for in-person meetings, which I strongly encourage. Meeting someone in person creates a much healthier bond. However, keep the in-person trips short and focused. A 2-day off-site retreat once a year is reasonable for most people. However, asking everyone to fly out for a week-long off-site from Sunday night through Saturday morning twice a year is likely to generate resentment from people with children. Find a healthy balance and keep it short and sweet. Don't burn your remote workers out on travel.

- Finally: Distributed and remote work is great when it works out, but it's not for everyone. Practice healthy expectation setting, performance management, 1:1s, routine feedback, training, and other guidance. However, if someone can't handle distributed work then it's not helpful to try to force it indefinitely. At scale, you need to be prepared to let some otherwise excellent people go if they can't handle the distributed environment. It's always sad to let them go, but it's better for everyone if they're allowed to find a better fit elsewhere.

This is a great set of advice, and matches my experience as a remote manager. It seems that remote work seems to attract two types of people (to grossly oversimplify):

1. Professional hard-working people that are really focused on getting stuff done and free thinkers that don't tolerate a lot of waste. So a commute and other ceremonies seem dumb, and they love remote work, love being trusted, and get a lot done if you help them.

2. People that want to figure out how to work 2 jobs, or get away with not doing a lot in 1. Or who are really good at getting jobs, and are hoping that the overall immaturity of your company, you as a manager, or remote work itself, will allow them to work 4 hours a day and do the absolute minimum.

Remote work if managed well exposes #2 pretty quickly, but it is more of a challenge than the general population in my experience. You have to put a great focus on hiring and testing people.

Totally agree with this, and it's how companies like Gitlab have leveraged going async [1]. I wrote a piece around the benefits of going async [2] by the default within your org.

I'd keep sync processes limited to as few as possible, and default everything else to async.

[1] https://about.gitlab.com/handbook/communication/

[2] https://standups.io/blog/how-async-communication-can-help-yo...

The hardest thing for me is actually remembering peoples names, faces and roles

That's why I made me an app to keep track of this (and enable others to update the team's info)

Sry if this looks like spam!


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