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How to Manage, Build, and Nurture Distributed Teams

This blog post was adapted from Dizzy’s OSCON 2017 talk, “Managing, Nurturing, and Building Distributed Teams”.

There’s a lot of talk out there about what worked for one company or another when it comes to distributed teams. The challenge we all face is how to make successful, distributed teams reproducible. Lots of companies have made it work—by luck or by force of personality. I, however, want to engineer it using effective communication.

And at the end of my life, I want to look back and know I made the world a tiny bit better for people who create amazing things. This is the work of a manager—to create environments in which people do the best work of their lives. It is especially important in a distributed team since you can’t rely on personality or stage presence; you must be disciplined and focused, and work deliberately to construct these environments. Most importantly, you have to understand the forces you face and how to counteract them.

How Distributed Teams Differ From Other Teams

A distributed team can be succinctly summed up as: “People + Work - Location; United by purpose”.

There are lots of implications related to the removal of location. Without location, managers have to find something more fundamental to bind people together. As managers, we must consider how to unite distributed teams by rallying them around a collective purpose. There are forces at work making it difficult for distributed teams to unite—and stay united—around any purpose. Thankfully, there are ways to counteract these forces, too.

  • The Challenge: Navigating Space and Time. When we say “space”, we really mean location, and “time” refers to the various time zones people live in. Dealing with a distributed team means keeping these forces in mind, since every action you take as the manager of a distributed team will be impacted by these forces. We must artificially introduce supporting structures that provide the same benefits as common-location rituals, such as lunch or clocking in at the same time.

  • The Counterbalance: Effective Communication. Effective communication provides a framework for teams to bind around purpose. It’s like a trellis that enables vines to grow. Communication does not solve the purpose problem; it just provides structure for the team to grow in a unified direction with purpose. It is also the one tool managers have to get their distributed teams to work together more effectively across space and time.

Dimensions of Communication

Communication always takes the easiest path. Being cognizant of this will save you a lot of pain as a manager (this is also a reason why many distributed teams fail).

Consider how having a team mostly in office with a few dispersed remote team members affects communication. It might be easier for people in-office to walk over to someone—or yell across the table—to discuss something versus typing away in Slack. Or if it’s difficult to set up a conference call, the group of people may choose to run a meeting without waiting for the remotes to log in. At DigitalOcean, every conference room has a Hangout-equipped computer, so it’s never hard to get a meeting going with everyone.

When running a distributed team, it’s helpful to think about communication in three dimensions:

  • Latency: How frequently do exchanges occur?
  • Throughput: How deep are the exchanges?
  • Cost: What’s the overhead of the exchange?

With these dimensions, we can begin characterizing the common forms or modalities of communication:

modalities of communication graphic

It’s important to remember that all modalities matter, and choosing one over the other means making explicit tradeoffs. Where possible, seek balance (e.g., choosing only IM as a form of communication but no email might mean deeper thinking is discouraged). All of this framework is important to consider as you manage and nurture a team, since conversations may need to span some or all of them, so choose your modalities wisely.

Make sure your team is using the right modalities for the communication they need to have. Guide conversations to the correct forums. Set guidelines, like knowing when to start a Hangout. Moderate the amount of face to face to give people time to think and ensure everyone who needs to be a part of the conversation is present. If you don’t, communication will be slower and far less efficient, taking you off the rails.

How to Keep Distributed Teams Moving

There are (at least) three things you need to be doing in a distributed to keep things moving:

  • Stay aligned with what’s happening
  • Stay in touch with people
  • Keep an eye on the horizon

Stay aligned. Alignment means that you and your team(s) have a shared contextual view of the (business/operating) world that allows them to function despite being out of time sync or in different locations. Staying aligned means paying attention to the following: progress (what, why, blockers), priorities (what’s most important), and people (offering praise and feedback, and addressing challenges).

Stay in touch. Where alignment ensures the team can operate without physical presence, staying in touch ensures the team can remain human in the face of space/time differences. Staying in touch includes scheduling regular 1:1s to connect with a person individually, schedule leadership syncs to connect with the leaders in your business, and holding office hours.

Keep an eye on the horizon. If you’re paying attention to the people and the work they do, the final major step is making sure you’re not overwhelmed by the details. You can’t lose track of the purpose when the details threaten to overwhelm you. A few simple things you can do to that end are asking when a task will be done (to drive urgency and encourage an environment open to discussing problems) and carving out time for thinking and planning.

In conclusion, remember the forces at work against all distributed teams—space and time—and focus on creative effective communication practices to counteract those forces. Staying aligned and in touch will help you foster communication, and keeping an eye on the horizon will get you in the habit of talking through problems and setting aside time to think ahead.

Dave “Dizzy” Smith is a senior director of engineering at DigitalOcean. A software industry veteran with over 21 years of experience, he has a broad range of experience across real-time messaging systems, identity federation and authentication, and low-latency peer-to-peer data stores and has been an active contributor to many open source projects. Follow him on Twitter at @dizzyd.