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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart”

Q&A on the Book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart”

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Key Takeaways

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  • If you’re not in the same physical location as all of the people you work with, you are all remote from somebody. Even if your organization does not have a formal “remote work” policy, you are likely already working in a distributed organization.
  • Distributed teams hire faster and hire better. When you have an office, are you hiring “the best person for the job” or “the best person for the job who will relocate or lives within commute distance of your physical office”?
  • Requiring people to commute to an office limits your ability to hire diversely. For some people the barrier is the commute, not the ability to do the work. No wonder distributed teams are usually more diverse than all-in-one-office companies, making their company’s productivity measurably better.
  • Many conference call and video call problems are avoidable. Avoid audio-only conference calls when at all possible—video calls are faster and higher-quality. If your job involves communicating and working with others, then find good (cheap!) tools and learn how to use them reliably.
  • Humans have worked in distributed teams for hundreds of years. The tools and how humans communicate evolve over time, but the organizational needs remain. Changing how we communicate changes how we work and live. As this becomes the norm, it also changes how we build our cities and their environmental impact.
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Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart by John O’Duinn is a practical guide for people who work in distributed or dispersed teams. It details the business, social and personal benefits of distributed teams and provides suggestions for effective communication when physically distributed, coordinating work and handling complex interpersonal situations.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Distributed Teams.

InfoQ interviewed O’Duinn about the advantages and disadvantages of open plan offices, using different communication channels, how a single source of truth can help distributed teams to collaborate better, holding one-on-ones when people work in distributed teams, and keeping an eye on how the culture is developing with distributed or dispersed teams.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

John O'Duinn: As a computer guy, when I first found myself in a leadership role in a distributed organization in the early 1990s, I had no training on how to lead distributed teams. I had to start learning on the job. That company was physically distributed. Over years of working in various distributed organizations and mentoring distributed startups, I noticed patterns of behavior that did and did not work. In my workshops, I repeatedly saw good, smart, well-intentioned people struggling to invent ways to work in distributed teams without a practical guide, so they would discover “new” problems that had already been discovered by others before them.

I was also fascinated and surprised to realize that humans have worked in distributed teams for hundreds of years. Helpful examples are detailed in various history books, yet were not being discussed in “modern” management books, so people were repeating the same mistakes. I couldn't find another book which explicitly covered this topic, so I decided to write my first book.

It’s hard to make time to read a book these days—I know, I have plenty of half-read books. With this in mind, I explicitly designed the book to make it easy to read. The book is written using short English words, not formal management English. Each chapter is short—usually only 8-10 pages. Each chapter is standalone. Each chapter has practical takeaways you can try the very next day. I wanted this to be a book you can easily read over lunch, late at night -- or on your commute if you have one! Hopefully this book will help people make only new mistakes.

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

O'Duinn: If you work in, are joining, or considering starting a distributed team, this book is for you. If you cannot reach out and literally touch *all* of your co-workers on their shoulder when you need to ask them a question, you are in a distributed team.

It is easy to be distracted by discussions around being full-time vs. contract vs. gig-work vs. outsourced vs. onshore/offshore, as well as the social and economic benefits of distributed teams. That’s covered in the book, but for this particular discussion for InfoQ, I’ll put aside those administrative topics and focus more on what would be interesting for technical leads and engineering managers in software organizations: the practical mechanics of how to work well together if you are not all physically together.

InfoQ: You described in the book that offices come with a price and have disadvantages. Can you elaborate?

O'Duinn: The first cost is the obvious financial cost of paying for office space, power, lighting, building security, etc. When you add up all of the costs for running an office, it is shockingly expensive.

In addition to the money, there are other important less-obvious costs.

Once you have a physical office, you bias towards only hiring people to sit at your expensive new desks and chairs that cost you money daily, even when those desks and chairs are empty. You limit hiring to those within commute range or who are willing to relocate. This ignores a hard reality: no one has a job for life anymore, and as people’s job tenure continues to shrink, fewer people are willing to relocate for a job. This slows your rate-of-hiring, which means your company spends more time paying employees to do interviews while they are also working understaffed. This hiring cost impacts your organization and puts your organization at a disadvantage. This also impacts your ability to hire diversely, which again puts your organization at a disadvantage.

Growing a company culture that can only get work done in the physical office puts your organization at risk if there is ever a problem with that building (think: fire in adjacent office, closure for repainting, power outage, etc.) or if public transit and roads are ever disrupted by winter storms or sports events. The financial cost of an office closure is bad for most companies, but the financial cost of a long-term office closure can quickly become company-threatening.

By contrast, distributed organizations hire better, hire faster, and hire more diversely. This alone is a competitive advantage. Distributed organizations avoid the single-point-of-failure of an office—so even if one human has an emergency and is unable to work, the rest of the company continues to work uninterrupted.

InfoQ: What are the advantages and disadvantages of open-plan offices?

O'Duinn: In my opinion,“open-plan offices” have few advantages and many significant drawbacks.

Advocates for open plan offices usually claim that this allows people to quickly communicate with each other. This is mostly true, but comes at a cost—it is hard for people to do their work without being interrupted. Advocates for open plan offices will (usually quietly) talk about the reduced financial costs. After all, reducing the area-per-human saves the company cold hard money each year, simply by reducing the recurring cost of real estate. I wish more company leaders were honest about wanting open plan offices because of the financial savings… and consider that they could save even more by simply not having any office at all!

Now, for the drawbacks of open plan offices.

An open plan office forces all humans to fit into one way of working. This causes friction because all humans are different, have different approaches to their work—and are working on different jobs.

Some humans do their best work with spontaneous reactions to interrupts and frequent context switching. Some need quiet interrupt-free focus time to detangle complex problems. Putting these humans in the same open-plan office forces you to have the same work rules for everyone, which is suboptimal for all.

A common arrangement for an open-plan office is to have most people at open-plan desks, surrounded by offices for “important people” and a few meeting rooms. This structure guarantees that you will never have enough meeting rooms at certain times of the day. This shortage of meeting rooms causes people to start taking calls from their open-plan desk, creating even more disruptions.

More subtle drawbacks include simple things like “what room temperature should we have in the office?” (the answer depends on your body size and metabolism—I’ve seen people with coats and blankets in offices, while other humans in the same office are in shirtsleeves) and “should we allow dogs in the office?” (the answer depends on whether you have a dog, or whether you were ever bitten by a dog or have allergies).

All of these drawbacks negatively impact people trying to do work. And all of these have nothing to do with the focus of the company. Avoid these distractions by simply not having an office in the first place!

InfoQ: The mention of distributed teams makes people think of video calls.

O'Duinn: Ah, yes, video calls. I’m sure we have all lived through examples of badly run in-person meetings, badly run video calls and, for that matter, badly run audio-only conference calls (on youtube, the video “A Conference Call in Real Life” by the comedians Tripp and Tyler is painfully realistic). 

If your job requires you to work and communicate with others, you need to choose good communication tools and learn how to use them reliably. Reliable tools, used consistently, help your team stay better coordinated, and speeds up meetings—whether they are in-person, audio-only or audio-video. This is an important part of your job, so you need to learn these skills just like your other job skills.

The reliability of tools is not related to their cost. I’ve usually found that cheaper, portable, ubiquitous tools work better than expensive location-specific tools. Also, when all humans know how to use these reliable tools, meetings are faster and more useful. Done well, hour-long meetings on video were typically around 10-15 minutes faster than audio-only calls. For example, having everyone on head-and-shoulders video allowed us to use nonverbal cues to quickly speed up the flow of meetings, reducing long gaps between people talking or verbal collisions. This was before we even started any other structural meeting improvements.

InfoQ: Nowadays there are many different communication channels. What's your advice on which channel to use for what type of communication?

O'Duinn: There are so many different communication channels available today: video calls, audio calls, email, group chat, sms/text messages, in-person formal meetings, and in-person informal corridor or coffee shop meetings... As companies scale, I don’t think it is possible to keep up with all the channels, all the time and still do your actual job. I think it is healthy to start by being honest about that, and plan your work accordingly.

Chose a channel based on the urgency of the topic and the intended target audience. For example, if the CEO needs a question answered before going into a board meeting in 20 minutes, call his/her cellphone as soon as you have the answer. If the question is less urgent, say for the end of the next financial quarter, do not use the phone—you don’t know what urgent work you might be interrupting. Instead, use a less-intrusive, lower-priority communications channel. Using the right communication channel for the right priority of information also helps others. After all, if you only call when it’s urgent, they’ll know it’s worth interrupting their work when they see your call.

Arranging where to put information and decisions made in all those channels is also important. If you’ve ever found yourself looking at contradictory information from an email-to-you, a group email, and an official project planner document, which do you trust? Having a culturally-agreed-upon “Single Source Of Truth” (SSoT) is essential.

InfoQ: How can a single source of truth help distributed teams to collaborate better?

O'Duinn: Having a pre-agreed written “Single Source of Truth” helps all teams work better. When you are all-in-one-location, you can get away with less-efficient work habits like undocumented decisions in meetings, communications gaps, unclear expectations, etc. People cope with these inefficiencies by holding frequent status meetings and sending status emails. This continuous re-telling of the latest evolving status updates is one way of keeping everyone up-to-date. However, this is inefficient when everyone is in one location—and extraordinarily hard when people are spread across multiple time zones.

Instead, have all humans agree in advance what will be used as the SSoT, and then use it consistently and obsessively for all updates. Anything written down or stored elsewhere is, by definition, less important, possibly out of date, and not to be trusted. If you discover other records or documents with contradictory information, the SSoT is always the final authority.

Be obsessively consistent about keeping the SSoT 100% up-to-date. Whenever you hear or discuss something that is important enough to tell others, add it to the SSoT immediately. Even a short update is helpful. Your work is not finished until you update the SSoT.

At first, it might sound like writing things down takes too much time. However, I found that updating the SSoT saves time. It reduced the number of status meetings I had to attend, and reduced the amount of time I spent reading/responding to phone/email requests for updates.

This is about human culture change as well as technology. Simply saying “write things down” is not enough. People who take the time to write things down will notice when others ask for status, ignoring what they wrote! As a culture change, encourage people to stop asking “What is the status of…” and instead ask “Where is the latest SSoT for ...?”

If someone offers to give you the latest status, politely stop them and say that you’ll let them know if you have questions after you read the latest updates in the SSoT. If you don’t have any questions, say so - this positive reinforcement encourages people to continue updating the SSoT. If you do have questions after reading SSoT, ask and then make sure the answer is added to the SSoT in case anyone else asks the same question. Another benefit of SSoT is that you can check status as frequently as you want—regardless of which time zones others are in, and without interrupting people doing the work to ask for yet another status update.

InfoQ: How can you hold one-on-ones when people work in distributed teams?

O'Duinn: Oh, a good question on a complicated topic! Knowing what people are working on and doing one-on-ones and reviews are multiple chapters in the book, but here are some quick points.

The first thing is to schedule one-on-ones for the same predictable time every single week. This is good to do whether you have an office or not, but still shockingly rare so I’m calling it out explicitly here. I’ve found that shorter, more frequent one-on-ones are more relevant and helpful for everyone, compared to longer, less frequent meetings. Thirty-minutes-every-week works better than sixty-minutes-every-two-weeks. Scheduling these at the same time every week helps everyone plan their week… and eliminates the need for calendar-haggling each week.

Have both of you attend on your own head-and-shoulders video. This is essential to help both people see each other’s nonverbal cues, which are essential in one-on-ones. It also helps each of you focus on the other human you are meeting, instead of being easily distracted by random group chat or email distractions during the one-on-one.

Lastly, agree on a structure for these meetings that you both find useful. Then stick with them. Again, predictability is important for nurturing trust.

InfoQ: How can you keep an eye on how the culture is developing with distributed or dispersed teams?

O'Duinn: The essence is about keeping in constant contact with all of the humans.

If your team is all in one office building, you can take time to grow social connections and friendships across teams by casually walking around and talking to everyone. To encourage humans in different teams to talk across organizational boundaries, some companies have regular “Friday afternoon happy hour” events. In between the social chatting, people find a way to also talk about work—no surprise, as it is something they all have in common.

Distributed teams need to explicitly plan ways to re-create this same social space. In addition to the carefully scheduled cadence of group meetings and one-on-ones, it’s important to schedule recurring “social happy hour” video calls. Have everyone join using the same video software and cameras you use in other meetings. The only difference is that the agenda is simply, “encourage people to talk with each other.”

In addition to these weekly socials, I recommend organizing in-person group gatherings every 3-4 months. With some careful planning, these can be low-cost, fun, and a great way to have people get to know each other. Building rapport and trust over a continuous pattern of contacts will also help you notice if anything starts to go wrong with the group culture. And, it helps everyone trust each other later, when an unexpected emergency arises and you need people to already have that deep trust in each other.

InfoQ: How to intervene when things might be going in the wrong direction?

O'Duinn: Being able to detect when things are going off-track is hard when everyone is in one place, and especially hard in distributed teams. This requires a pattern of continuous contact, so you can more easily notice when people are start to change how they usually behave. Proactively following the tips above help you notice changes quickly. Once noticed, a speedy discussion is important - time delays are not your friend. Routinely having discussions on video help make it natural and routine for people to quickly get on a video call at short notice in tense situations.

About the Book Author

John O'Duinn has written code and led teams in organizations ranging from four-person startups to nonprofits to multinationals—including the US Government as part of the Obama White House, for the US Digital Service. In addition to technology, O’Duinn loves growing a culture where diverse groups of humans work well together in a distributed global workplace. He has worked in distributed companies of one form or another for 27 years, led distributed teams for 14 years and consulted/mentored for five years. He has lived and worked in 13 cities across four continents.

 

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