How I learned to stop worrying and love the distributed team

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We often hear a lot about the positives – and negatives – of distributed teams.  You can certainly argue about the benefits of increased focus, happiness, and productivity.  I agree that these things are all true, but my own experiences are more focused. But only 20% of workers have a remote work option or a distributed team.

“Distributed team” means many things – home office, satellite “away” office, NO office. I’ve worked at the central HQ for major companies as well as some satellite distributed locations.  I have worked-from-home exclusively (with my personal dedicated office space) in addition to what I would call work remote (no office space whatsoever).  SportsTrace currently has 100% remote work, so I think I have experienced it all.  I can certainly say that tons of technology have improved the overall situation for distributed teams, but the technology is only as good insofar as how the distributed teams leverage that technology (which, let’s be honest, is always the best use). There are even companies (like Firstbase) that will help enable business set up and maintain the tools and processes for distributed teams.

Communication and Perspective

Two things that are most important in all of the work I’ve done on ANY side of the distributed teams paradigm: quality communication and space to have perspective. The first might seem obvious at first, the second, maybe a little more out there.

What I always needed from a remote team was reliable communication.  This went beyond saying what you would do when you would do it.  This changed the way I would write an email.  I stopped making assumptions.  I made sure I dialed in the kinds of details I thought I would want to know if I got an email from someone who might not be online at the time it was read. Give the background, give the implications, and give the solution in as few words as possible.  It was about taking time on your end to validate what was going on to help reduce that communication overhead that inherently exists in email.  Other tools are great – you can manage process around ticketing systems, chat channels, or document repositories, but this facet still remains.  You don’t just need timeline communication – you need concise, considered, and empathetic communications.

Working with distributed teams made me better. But it also gave me space I needed to react, reflect, and learn.  As communication needed elements of consideration and empathy, so too does the environment itself. Just having the ability to have a moment to walk away from certain situations, whether good or bad, gives you a more developed, professional outlook on work overall, be that in an office or virtually from any other location.  It’s so important to have that kind of perspective where you can carefully weigh what is going on and establish the urgency and priority.  This isn’t always possible in collocated teams.  But, distributed teams allow for a greater learning of working with people around the entire globe.  I’ve learned so much from so many along the way and visited/seen amazing things with amazing people – either in person or virtually.

Our Distributed Team

For SportsTrace, it was easy to set up our 100% remote operations.  We can be found in every continental US timezone as well as multiple countries (even in our early stage of development).  Sure, our background is weighted a bit towards Microsoft (with Teams, Office, Azure Dev Ops, even Azure itself, to name a few).  And, most importantly, the tools you leverage are only as good as the trust on the team.  High trust = high efficacy, something we’re pretty proud of at SportsTrace. You can set up all the tools in the world, but if you don’t have people that can effectively communicate and work together with the appropriate perspective, it won’t matter at all. I feel like we have this and I am both happy and proud.

Total Aside – Architecture

OK, eventually I have to put my architecture degree to some use, so I thought about this from the built environment perspective as well.

It’s fascinating how the distributed teams are actually changing capital investments in physical office space.  Obviously open workspace and open (aka “hot”) desks are pretty contemporary examples where workers are told that they should embrace the environments that other companies employ.  But, this is more of a capital investment factor because open spaces in particular allow for greater flexibility of the space in the future. Other, more advanced architects and design firms have taken a more forward-thinking approach.  Take OMA and the Seattle Public Library. 

OMA argues that the biggest threat to the contemporary library is high modernist flexibility; where architects create generic floor plates that are ‘flexible’ to carry our whatever function. For libraries, this means that the bookcases allowed ample reading area on the opening day but as the collections inevitably expanded they started to encroach on the public spaces. With Seattle Central Library, the architects introduced compartmentalized flexibility – where related functions were organised in compartments. Thus, as the library expanded the ballooning of certain compartments would not threaten the extinction of other programs.

OMA compartmentalized the flexibility, not outright-mandated it for all job functions.  I think well design open work spaces and distributed team opportunities provide incredible places for the best work to be done. You need places to enable effective communication and places to provide perspective.  You don’t just throw people into any room and give them headphones to allow for either.  This is one of the greatest pitfalls in how distributed teams and open floor plans aren’t necessarily working together.