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Intentional Distributed Teams



Maria Gutierrez and Glenn Vanderburg discuss how a company can stay productive, creative, and driven when employees are at a distance from each other.


Maria Gutierrez is Sr director of engineering and co-site lead for Intercom London. Glenn Vanderburg is an executive director at RE/MAX.

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Vanderburg: I'm Glenn Vanderburg.

Gutierrez: I'm Maria Gutierrez. About nine years ago, we were both helping LivingSocial build one of the first large fully distributed engineering teams. Between the two of us, we have 25 years of experience with various models of distributed teams at LivingSocial, FreeAgent, First, Intercom, and RE/MAX. This time last year, most companies were co-located. Some larger companies operated on a multi-site model, and a few have thoroughly distributed teams or were fully remote. Most companies in our field had experimented with some degree of remote work, and a couple had even taken the plunge, and then, unfortunately, reversed it.

Disruption - Suddenly Working From Home

COVID restrictions in March forced most companies to move to a fully distributed model almost overnight, with offices closed and everyone working from home for the first time. It was a sudden change, and it has been challenging to figure out how to blend life and work. Despite the unprecedented situation, for most companies and employees, it has worked out better than anyone could have expected.

The New Reality - Some of the Old, Some of the New

Vanderburg: This is not the new reality. It's an interlude. As we understand COVID-19 more and someday soon, hopefully, the pandemic starts to really come under control, what will the world look like? It won't be the same as it is now, but it won't go back to the way it was either. Many employees have learned that they can work well from home, and they want to continue. What used to be their commute time can be productive now, whether for the company or for them and their families. Many companies have learned that they can work with remote employees and have seen other related benefits. Finally, there are definitely companies and employees that want to return to the office environment, but it won't be the same office environment. With the pandemic lingering in people's minds and memories, there won't be much appetite for employees packed in close quarters in open plan offices or cubicle farms. The result is that the marketplace for talent has opened up. Geographical location isn't nearly as important anymore, and employees know it. In order to compete for top talent, employers will have to get good at supporting remote workers and integrating them into their cultures, even if the center of gravity is still the office.

Intention - Acting not Reacting

We were all forced to shift to the distributed model in a hurry with no real plan. Now's our chance to look forward to what the real new normal will be and prepare for it. It's time to be intentional about distributed teams. We'll start off with some reasons we should embrace these changes. The bulk of the talk will be about risks and pitfalls. We'll conclude with recommendations for how to make the right decisions for your organization, in your context, as you plan for the post-pandemic world. One more thing, much of this talk is most relevant for company and engineering leadership. Even as an individual contributor, this will be valuable to you. You have a role in ensuring that your company is thinking these things through.

Expected Benefits

We've long been advocates of distributed teams, so it's no surprise that we think there are good reasons to move forward into this new situation and not try to return to our old habits. For one thing, having remote workers forces a team to really pay attention to their communication, focus on it and get better at it. Let's face it, every team could benefit from improving communication patterns and practices. When everyone's in the same place, communication seems easy. Even then, things are misunderstood or forgotten. Important parties get left out of the loop, or the rationale for decisions is lost. Meetings are great, but having people in different time zones or with different schedules make meetings harder. Video conferences are much more tiring than ordinary meetings. In contrast, remote work guides you away from meetings and toward asynchronous communication, writing things down and thinking about who needs to be included. There are a lot of different tools and mechanisms you can use: Slack, email, wikis or shared document stores, planning tools, or source code repositories, each with their own use cases and sweet spots. All of them are written, persistent, and searchable. As an organization, you can level up on your communication patterns just by paying attention and iterating on what works well and what doesn't, which tools to use for which kinds of information. How to know who to include. Most importantly, choosing open channels rather than private ones, to allow others who need to know to discover the right information.

Of course, you now have access to a larger pool of people to hire and retain. You've also learned valuable flexibility that will let you more easily adapt to changing employee needs, like needing to move closer to aging parents, or being transferred along with a partner whose job can't be done remotely. We've seen another big benefit of distributed teams that many people overlook, it can be easier to build a diverse and inclusive team. Think about it, the career prospects for many single parents are limited by their need to stay close to their children's schools. Some people with disabilities find commuting difficult or even dangerous. Plus, you can now recruit people from other parts of the country. People often zero in on the potential for remote workers to reduce facilities costs since they supply their own office space. We want to warn you that you might not save as much as you think. When you do want to get everyone together face to face, you'll incur new expenses for travel. Additionally, you still have to provide good support for remote employees. You don't want them feeling that office dwellers get all the good perks at your company. You might also benefit from being able to hire from cities with lower cost of living. However, you may incur costs that offset this benefit.

What to Beware Of: Downsides and Pitfalls

Gutierrez: While all this sounds very appealing and desirable, a lot of us might approach this change with a bit too much optimism. There are some traps you might want to be aware of before making any rash decisions and changing more permanently your approach and policies. Choosing to build a distributed team requires commitment, halfhearted efforts will result in a worse experience for your employees and could prevent you from achieving your business goals. Company leadership and every engineer or employee, remote or not, have to fully support the effort. There is no right or wrong approach. It's all about your specific circumstances, the needs of your employees, and your preferences as a business. If you decide to become a more intentional distributed company moving forward, there are a few practices we've seen work really well over the years that prove a company's commitment to distributed teams, and that might ease your way in that journey. From our experience, one of the most important factors that determine success is having a critical mass of remote team members. If you don't have critical mass of remote people, they won't have sufficient voice in the culture building process. As long as remote folks feel like second class citizens, the balance is off and you have work to do. It's easier to pay attention to their needs when it doesn't feel like you are making exceptions all the time. That also means removing any perceived glass ceilings for remote workers. If employees feel that their location is a barrier to progressing in their career, they will move on, especially the most talented ones. It's also extremely helpful to have managers and senior individual contributors working from home. By experiencing it firsthand, they will be more influential when it comes to addressing the issues and complexities of not being in the office.

One of the biggest challenges we'll experience when we are able to start going back to the office will be successfully mixing the different work preferences. In a lot of cases, we will have a mix of people working from home and others from the office. An individual might change from one style to the other during the course of the week too. That's what we call doing distributed work in hard mode. It's a lot easier when everyone is in person or everyone is joining remotely like now. You will run the risk of defaulting back to previous ways of working, for example, gathering around a whiteboard while there are folks in a call, or casually catching up in person without sharing the sessions with other team members who were not present when you were talking.

Aside from those fundamental things, companies shouldn't aim to treat remote and onsite employees equally. They should treat them fairly or in an equitable way. Each group will have perks and challenges that the other group doesn't have. As a manager or as a leader of your organization, that means that you need to be cautious of practices and policies that unfairly favor one group of employees over the other, and try to find a balance to create a genuinely inclusive workplace. For example, you might provide health and well-being benefits. Are those only available to those in the office? Do you provide alternatives that are available for those working from home? If you have different benefits available, you want to be very explicit about it from day one, and explain your rationale why you decided to have that difference. Don't forget about the little things as well. You would be shocked what a difference it makes when you remember to send remote employees, treats or swag that normally might only be available in the office. That attention to detail tells employees that you care, and that they really matter.

Following all of this advice, you should be able to have a very productive and engaged team working in this mixed or remote-only way. We have, however, found that occasionally creating opportunities to get a team together face to face can be very beneficial. I would fight the temptation to use that time to maximize productivity. We have found that the best use of FaceTime for a distributed team is to get to know each other better. That increases empathy, and improves communication, making your team more productive when you are then all apart. How often you get together might depend on how dispersed you all are, and personal commitments and obviously your budget. At Intercom, we are going to aim to have a monthly company day when we all get together. At FreeAgent, we used to aim to meet with our team at least once a quarter, and with the whole company twice a year.

Productivity and Alignment

Vanderburg: During 2020, many tech companies have been surprised to see an increase in productivity since employees started working from home. Is that sustainable? How do you maintain that over the longer term? Is that realistic? Is it even a good idea? First off, it's much too early to conclude that increased productivity has been caused by remote work. It could be any number of things. The Hawthorne effect, overcompensation as people focus on learning about remote work, concern about feeling less visible to management, or even just leaning into work as a distraction from other uncertainties. Companies should not expect that increased productivity to continue. Some companies have already seen it start to taper off. Of course, you do want to be as productive as possible.

For a distributed team, productivity starts with communication. I mentioned improved communication as a benefit you might see, but that won't happen unless you work at it. Many companies will end up with a hybrid model, some employees in the office and some working remotely. It's vital that neither of these groups feel like second class citizens. Maria alluded to this earlier, if any members of the team are remote, then all members must adopt a distributed style of work. For example, consider a meeting where a group of office based employees gather in a meeting room and include remote coworkers by way of a Zoom connected laptop sat on the end of the conference table. We can tell you from experience what will happen, you'll effectively have two separate meetings of insiders and outsiders, plus a lot of frustration. It's much better for everyone to work in the same style using the same tools.

On that topic, employers should invest in the best hardware and tools you can afford, and make them available to all. In an office environment, having different departments using different tools is inconvenient, but people can compensate quite easily. On a distributed team, that difference can be a real barrier. If at all possible, choose company-wide tools to make sharing, verifying, and updating easy. Don't stop there. Make sure it's clear how people should use those tools, and that everyone uses them consistently. If you're an engineer, you have a really valuable role in this. Make sure you know how to use those tools effectively, and help others who are struggling.

Beware over-emphasizing productivity. On a distributed team, too much focus on productivity and efficiency can be a barrier to building strong, resilient teams and a healthy work culture. Think about what happens in an office environment. People stop in hallways or break rooms or gather around someone's desk to talk about weekend plans, sports, movies, games, music, all the things that make people, people. None of that directly contributes to the company's productivity and efficiency. In fact, it can seem like just wasted time, but it's absolutely vital for strong productive teams. It's how people get to know each other, learn to communicate effectively, and figure out what makes their coworkers tick. It's part of what makes them enjoy their work and care about it. Here's the thing, all of that happens naturally when people are in the same place, but when people are remote, you have to work at it. Your employees need to hear it from their leadership explicitly. Finding ways to just be human together in Zoom, Slack, or wherever, isn't goofing off, it's part of the job.

Do Your Homework

Gutierrez: It certainly is. All we have discussed until now is pretty much under your control as a company. Unfortunately, there are important external factors that will influence your approach that maybe you haven't given much thought to, but that is critical for you to really understand well. As you consider a new way of working post-COVID and decide to provide more flexibility, you will have to decide how far you want to take that flexibility, and you're probably going to consider different options. If you used to be co-located, you might now want to give the majority of your workforce the option to continue working from home or come back to the office regularly depending on their preferences or the nature of their job. In this case, you might still expect people to come at least one or two days a week to the office, or be able to easily change plans and meet in person if needed. If this is the case, you will expect your employees to live within easy commuting distance from their workplace. You might, however, decide that it is not necessary for everyone to come to the office on a regular basis at all, and your employees can now choose to live outside commuting distance from the office. You still might expect them to travel for company days, or special occasions, but not regularly. This will allow your employees to move to other parts of the country and potentially abroad. Flexibility within your jurisdiction tends to be more straightforward. Deciding if you are willing to support full-time work outside the jurisdiction where your company is legally registered as an employer has important implications for your business. That might be a different country in Europe or a different state in the U.S. Deciding what you support is probably the most important decision that you will have to make. Not having a good understanding of different countries or the state's privacy, intellectual property, employment and tax laws can get you in trouble down the line from a regulatory point of view if you are seeking funding, or if you're planning an exit, an IPO, or an acquisition. You need to understand your options and decide what risk and cost are you willing to take on? If you hire folks outside your jurisdiction, you can do so as contractors through an employer of record company or by setting a legal entity yourself. Each of those options will have pros and cons and a cost associated that you need to understand very well.

Aside from legal implications, don't underestimate the impact this decision will have on your budget. Make sure you do your homework and plan accordingly, so there are no surprises down the line. You will have to consider questions like, how much will you budget for travel expenses and new benefits? Or, how much the potential loss of regional test credits and other legal fees will cost you? How does that fit with your compensation philosophy? Will you pay everyone the same regardless of location or will you follow a market based approach? It will be really interesting to see in the future, if benchmark data continues to be representative and useful. Once your employees make personal choices based on your guidance, it is very costly to reverse those decisions. You might have to terminate someone's employment or suddenly introduce unexpected cost savings measures. Before you open up your policies, please do your homework for the sake of your business and your employees. Be super clear what the options available are, the criteria for eligibility, and the associated benefits and any constraints.

What Are You Optimizing For?

Vanderburg: It should be clear that we don't think any of this is a decision to take lightly. It's pretty fundamental to who you are as a business, your operations and your costs. It impacts decisions about investment in real estate, budgets, compensation, onboarding processes, hiring, organizational design, advancement, travel policies, and of course, how you do your work day to day. How do you choose? How do you know what will be the best fit for your company, in your context? Think about what you're optimizing for. Start with your employees. That's a good idea in any case, but especially now. There's been a bit of a power shift. As location becomes less important, good employees have more options than ever before. You need to think clearly about what employees you want to attract and retain, and plan for how to recruit and keep them. Before you ask, you can no longer restrict it to people who want to commute for an hour to the office every day.

We've acknowledged that some employees will want to return to an office environment, but many will not. Why? What's important to them? Chances are they value company mission and vision, work culture, and also flexibility. They might want more flexible hours or to move to a different city to get to see their family during the day. There'll be many variations. None of this takes the place of fair compensation, monetary incentives, or opportunities for growth and advancement. Mission, culture, and flexibility have become more important than they were before. You need to decide where you stand on these things, and communicate that clearly to current and prospective employees. It's ok to start modestly, as long as you make clear that this is just a starting point.

Learn to Walk Before You Run

Gutierrez: We believe that opening up your options will provide long term benefits to your business and better quality of life to your employees. As with everything, it's always good to get the foundational work right first, so learn to walk before you start sprinting. You are going to have to adapt in many ways as a business over the coming years, and you will learn a lot during this time. Think big. Have a strong vision for the long term. It might be wise to start small. Rush and uninformed decisions might lead to very painful situations down the line. Be clear about your current challenges and risks you are trying to mitigate, and adapt your policies accordingly. For example, if you are optimizing for retention, you might want to start supporting work from home arrangements for your existing employees that need it before you hire more people in that situation. Or, if your challenge is hiring, maybe start with more compatible time zones or code hours until you get much better at it. Taking this approach will give you the time that you need to evolve your ways of working.

Then, as with everything, continue to reevaluate your situation, and monitor the impact. Is attrition becoming a problem? Are you struggling to get offers accepted? Are there engagement concerns or more performance issues that you used to have before? Are you hitting your business goals? Whatever decisions you make, always aim to communicate clearly what you learn and get your employees to help you move in the right direction. Ultimately, it's in everyone's interest to build a successful business with high engagement. This is your chance to make intentional decisions instead of being forced to react. In a world full of uncertainty like what we are experiencing today, you want to regain as much as possible control over your destiny.


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Recorded at:

Jul 01, 2021