10x Distributed Teams
Thoughts on evolving modern workforce - hybrid, remote, distributed
This is a companion piece to 10x Organizational Structure. The focus of this blog on team structure in an increasing location/site agnostic workforce.
The nature of modern work is changing as a result of the pandemic. While some companies have announced RTO (return to office) plans - they remain centered around hybrid work philosophy, i.e. acceptance of the fact that you don’t need to be in the office to do your best work, all day, every day. Several companies have gone full remote, fully embracing 100% remote work. Airbnb even announced equal compensation irrespective of the location, further bolstering their full remote bet.
Note that hybrid, or even full remote is not necessarily a pandemic invention, rather a pandemic acceleration. Pre-pandemic, a number of other companies were already utilizing remote or distributed teams for some or all of their operations. What’s changing now is reversal of the “norm” - and there are implications worth thinking about.
But first, let’s define the terms…
Remote: The term remote team is often used interchangeably with distributed teams, or as a general term for all styles of partial and completely remote teams. A partially remote team would be partially not remote, so, exactly like a distributed team. A fully remote team, meanwhile, has no centralized headquarters. Every single employee works from home.
Hybrid: For a large majority of the period in modern work, work was synonymous with going to the office. While silicon valley experimented with WFH (work from home), and then developed an allergic reaction to it (FIXME: cite Yahoo example), true hybrid always felt like a risky experiment from a leadership perspective. Of course, that was before Covid-19 pandemic. Now, expecting employees to come back to the office 5 days a week to work, is more of an exception rather than a rule. What appears to be the default now is having employees coming to the office 2-3 days a week and empowering them with collaboration tools to do effective work from their home the remaining days.
Distributed: A distributed team is generally a hybrid team. Some of your employees work in a central office or a coworking space - likely using the Hybrid model described above, while others work from home or other locations. They might be local to you and come into the HQ as necessary, or they might be as far away as another country.
There are several factors pushing leaders to (re)evaluate their distributed team strategy - and here is a framework to help you build the “right” team model for your business. But know that there is no “one size fits all” solution.
Establish the key success metrics - This is where a leader needs to spend the most amount of time. Be very intentional about the goals and ruthless about prioritization - as every other decision must be made to favor these metrics. A few metrics that come to mind…
Cost efficiency (differential in compensation, office space, T&E)
Talent pool (are you hiring for specific talent?)
Number of meetings outside of “core” hours
Speed of organizational decision making
Frequency of misalignments
Autonomy and Empowerment - Perhaps the most obvious, yet one of the hardest part is to figure out a decoupled function that the site can deliver on mostly autonomously. Quite a few considerations here as you need to determine not just an equitable amount of work, but also exciting growth roadmap, and alignment with the local talent. We also need to revisit this aspect frequently, kind of like a wellness check - at least once per year to ensure the team model is fully optimized.
Establish core/sync hours - It’s not unreasonable to work across 3-4 hours in time difference, as long as everyone is conscious of more core working hours. The natural consequence is that you may need to tweak your core hours to accommodate for your remote (timezone) wise workers and as a result likely shrink those core hours, and rely more on asynchronous mode of working.
Invest into the right set of tools and processes for async work - Some (an exhaustive list) examples below…
Explicit working guidelines for decision making.
One whole team meeting per week guaranteed for planning and weekly updates.
Geekbot/async standups for daily updates
Slack for real-time-ish and mostly non-decision making discussions.
Document decisions and share them widely.
Place the “right” senior talent to align, communicate and act as a “glue” -
The more distributed the team, the more you’ll depend on high skills and crisp communication. This doesn’t stop with the “site leader” rather at every level in the organization will need to be upskilled for this aspect.
Good communication skills become foundations to bring in alignment, understand cultural norms and direct teams towards a common goal.
Culture around decision making and inclusion -
Arguably the greatest argument against having a distributed team is erosion in culture. At Springpath, the startup I was at from almost the very beginning until its acquisition by Cisco, we were extremely mindful about this aspect, and made a very deliberate decision to hire only in Silicon Valley. If we were to do it again now, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t execute upon that strategy. Instead, we need to tackle the challenge of culture head-on.
What’s culture, and how to cultivate a culture that becomes your competitive strength is a topic for another blog - here I’m advocating that we need focused efforts to protect established cultural norms in a distributed setting.
Be intentional about “human to human” connections -
The more distributed the team, the more you need to invest, explicitly, in “human-to-human” communications - getting the team together for an all-hands in a nice location. You need to build trust and group cohesiveness through team-building activities
With zoom, every meeting has an air of formality around it. However, as leaders you can build a practice of “open zoom hours” or just impromptu slack huddles/zoom checkins to take some of those formalities away to replicate “water cooler” conversations.
Beware of “anti-patterns” - every team, every distributed team, is unique. To list a few obvious anti-patterns…
Regions isolated by >3-4 hours time differences are required to largely work together to deliver on projects.
“Out of sight, out of mind” - When you have one (or two) “main” sites and allow for remote workers who are regularly (perhaps even inadvertently) left out of key meetings, decisions, and your incentive structure is biased towards those who have more in-person presence.
Hiring “junior” engineers and not being mindful of “remote onboarding tax”. This is just plain hard, and we need to revise our expectations.
Over Indexing on “magic hallway conversations”.
Setting up the organizations with leaders who haven’t had a track record of practicing Inclusivity.
And the list goes on - if you’ve observed an anti-pattern you’d like to share, please share it in the comments.
Like many leaders, I’m approaching this new work environment as a student who is willing to experiment, learn and apply those findings to build a distributed team that’s resilient to risks and threats - rather becomes a machine that is able to capitalize on unique opportunities through the power of (distributed) teams!