This post was originally published on Hackernoon.
A “remote-reliant” or “partially distributed” organization relies on both co-located employees, at one or more offices; and distributed, or remote, employees, often working in their own homes or at coworking spaces. The topic is close to my heart because I lead engineering at a remote-reliant organization, Manifold.co. I have also worked remotely at other partially distributed organizations for over 15 years.
In a previous blog post, I presented my thoughts on the fundamentals — the costs and benefits — of a key business decision: should your company be remote-reliant, supporting remote work as a first class component of building a team?
My answer is yes! For this post, we’ll assume that yours is too. But as I described it before, if that’s your choice, you have added significant new constraints and opportunities to your business. The situation is complex. How can you make this work?
One approach that I believe can improve complex situations is to focus on simply reducing costs and amplifying benefits, prioritizing your options for value relative to cost. This puts you on a path to action and can be used in a feedback loop for continuous improvement.
In my previous analysis of remote-reliant organizations, costs were centered around interactions between multiple people. You have challenges around empathy, communication, and alignment. Benefits were centered around individuals: you naturally get greater focus, autonomy, and candidate availability.
Once we identify the costs and benefits of remote-reliant work, what can we do about them? That’s my focus for this post. For both costs and benefits, I’ll look at ideas pertinent to the organizational, team, and individual levels. My background is in software development, which colors my perspective, but I believe many of my ideas are pertinent to any remote-reliant organization.
Reducing Costs in Organizations
I recently had a video call with someone on our partially distributed team about a frustration he was having. We’ll call him “Lucas.” Lucas wanted to land a code cleanup, but felt that the feedback from a coworker, whom we’ll call “Max,” was blocking him unnecessarily. Moreover, he didn’t feel comfortable talking to Max about it. He even felt a little intimidated.
Lucas and Max hadn’t crossed paths significantly except at more critical moments. When they did, they didn’t have a relationship that helped them build a feeling of mutual respect and understanding. That led to silent frustration and friction, rather than open discussion and progress.
In discussion, Lucas and I agreed that the key long-term step that he needed to take was to build a relationship with Max. He needed to invest in the three costs I highlighted above for distributed teams: communication, empathy, and alignment.
The punchline, though, is that Lucas and Max were co-located in the same office.
Empathy, alignment, and good communication are well-studied challenges for every organization. Therefore, my first, and perhaps most important, advice, is that partially distributed organizations should invest in general-purpose organizational best practices. I’d argue that the only difference is that you’ll need to apply them with more rigor and energy in a partially distributed team. You’ll then reap benefits with everyone, co-located and remote alike.
I attempt to adhere to many standard organizational rules. Write important things down, in a place everyone can find them. Talk to one another clearly about goals and expectations. Be as transparent as possible about the reasons behind decisions. Have an agenda for meetings, and respect start and end times. Have regular one-on-ones. Find a structure and a process that allow people as much autonomy as possible while being aligned with their team and the company, providing drive and meaning. Build in opportunities for individual, team, and organizational growth.
Andy Grove talks about these basics and much more in High Output Management, for instance. The same could be said of Ray Dalio’s Principles. I also like An Everyone Culture, Reinventing Organizations, and more. None of these books are about remote work, but all of them, in my opinion, present important fundamentals and innovations for a highly functioning, meaningful organization, whether it’s distributed, partially distributed, or co-located. Start here.
From the other side, the CEO of Doist, a fully distributed company, tells us that remote-first companies need to pursue trust, decentralization, communication, and transparency.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly. But to me, this is generically good advice for any organization, not just for a fully or partially distributed company.
That said, accomplishing some of the standard organizational goals may be trickier in a partially distributed company. For instance, while enabling individual growth is a standard organizational goal, I do find that it can be tricky for partially distributed companies. It’s difficult to make sure that remote employees are not disadvantaged.
For one thing, make sure that remotes have equal support for learning. Pairing is certainly possible remotely, but doesn’t have as high of a communication bandwidth as working side by side. On the other hand, lunch and learns, mentoring programs, and other learning opportunities can work well, should be available to everyone, and can be recorded when appropriate and feasible, for even greater shared benefit.
Also, make sure that remote employees see that they can actually grow in the organization. Is your exec team partially distributed? Are top technical, product, and marketing leaders partially distributed? If not, remote employees may not perceive opportunities, or get the support they need. Remotes will ideally see that their perspectives are represented and understood throughout, and that they have people who can coach them in being successful in a remote environment. Being remote ideally won’t limit the company’s appreciation of their work, or their opportunities to explore new responsibilities and roles.
Tools, Equipment and Infrastructure
Beyond these best-practice guidelines that are largely applicable to any organization, at the top level you’re left with a lot of tool, equipment and infrastructure choices to support partially distributed teams. Many of these are well-tread ground, so I’ll move through them quickly. I’ve included a few you might not have considered, so I hope they are at least worth a skim.
- Trello. It is so flexible and handy in so many ways that it approaches being a must-have for me. Remotes can be on an equal footing for live planning exercises, long term high level tracking, or organizing events in a simple, visual way.
- Cloud docs with strong online collaboration capabilities, like Google docs.
- Social tools. We currently use Slack and Blogin, along with HeyTaco, donut.ai, and a potpourri of Bitmoji.
- Other standard domain specific tools, like Github/Gitlab, cloud runtime and developer services, and so on.
Equipment and infrastructure for everyone
(consider supplying, reimbursing, or otherwise supporting these)
- Webcams (video calls make a huge difference)
- Headphones (supports music in the office and quality calls for everyone)
- Reliable, fast internet (sometimes making the obvious explicit is important)
Equipment and infrastructure for co-located workers
- Desks for visiting remote employees
- Areas, times, and/or technology support for people to talk with remote workers without bothering other people in the office
- If you are considering an arcade machine, pool table, or table tennis for the office, consider instead one or two game systems loaded with networked co-op games. These can open co-located workers to relaxing and playing not only among themselves but also with remotes, if they have the same system.
- A spare computer to use when someone has to send theirs in for repairs
Equipment and infrastructure for remote workers
(consider reimbursement or other support for some or all of these)
- Tethering (even good home internet goes down sometimes, and tethering can keep you working)
- A good place to work conducive to focus and calls
- A way for remote workers to get a fast temporary replacement computer when theirs has to go in for repairs
That’s it. Like the best practices I listed above, none of these tools and infrastructure are particularly unusual, and most or all of them will probably feel like common sense.
In sum, organizations don’t necessarily have to make unusual choices to mitigate the cost of distributed work — neither the processes nor the tools I listed would be out of place in a co-located work environment — but leaders do have to make considered choices, listen to feedback from all sides, and iterate to achieve organizational goals.