A lot of us work in teams, but these teams are not necessarily people from our own organisation or people who are based at the same geographic location.
Virtual or Wide Teams require a different type of handling from a team that see each other most days.
For decades, workers in the US have been satellites of their jobs. If we are tech workers, we move to one of the big tech hubs like San Francisco or Seattle in order to find work in the first place. Then, if the company decides to open a new plant, or consolidate operations, we move where they tell us to go. Community, if we can find it, is a temporary byproduct; a transient perk. We get used to seeing extended family only once a year. The notion of a “sense of place” is all but forgotten.
This isn’t the life I wanted for myself and my family. I wanted to choose where we lived based on something other than what software companies were nearby. I wanted to be part of a long-lived community, while still having the freedom to take long trips from time to time.
I realized years ago that in order to make this dream a reality, I would have to become a remote worker. As a first step, I found an employer that was willing to let me telecommute for part of the week. That was a big step, and enabled me to start learning the skills necessary to work productively with a remote team. After that company, I joined a startup that was completely distributed. And after a year with them, I moved on to be a freelance software developer working exclusively with geographically distributed teams.
As I made this journey from traditional commuting to remote work, I realized that there were a lot of other knowledge workers in the same boat as me. There was a nascent movement towards remote work and dispersed teams, but everyone was for the most part feeling their own way: there was no central forum for discussing the practices and adjustments necessary to make distributed teams work. I started dreaming of a central place where remote workers could share lessons learned and compare notes.
In June 2010, I launched Wide Teams – a blog and podcast for dispersed teams and remote workers. I hoped that with this site I could begin to form a community around remote work, where we could discuss the tools, techniques, and practices that make for effective distributed teams.
In order to kick the site off with more than just my own observations, I started off by interviewing people in software development community, particularly the Ruby on Rails web development community, who were working in distributed teams. I was immediately blown away by the feedback I got. Everyone I talked to was so eager to talk about their experience with remote work! It was as if they had been saving up for months or years to share their thoughts on this topic. Everyone I spoke to was very excited to give their perspective and tell of their experiences, and eager to hear about how other distributed teams were operating. Clearly, I had hit a nerve!
Since then, I’ve interviewed everyone from developers to CEOs to nonprofit community managers about their work with remote teams. I’ve learned that there are many reasons to form a distributed team, including:
- Being able to find the perfect job candidate by widening the net to include people outside one metropolitan area.
- Holding down costs by hiring team members who live in areas where the cost of living is lower.
- Maintaining a presence in multiple time zones.
- Making jobs available to people who would otherwise be unable to work, such as stay-at-home parents or people with disabilities.
- Forming low-overhead startups by holding off on buying a brick-and-mortar office and instead working entirely from home.
- Eliminating the environmental impact associated with a daily commute.
- …and many other reasons.
The people I’ve talked to have shared a wealth of insights into how to make dispersed teams work well. I could never share all the tips I’ve learned in one article (for that you’ll just have to subscribe to the blog!) but a few lessons that stand out include:
- Making sure your team members meet up in person at least a couple of times a year.
- Maintaining a level playing field for both remote and in-office workers – for instance, by making sure everyone uses the same communications tools, even if they are in the same room with each other.
- Setting aside time for culture-building activities, even if they don’t contribute directly to the bottom line.
Those are just a few examples of the lessons I’ve learned both firsthand and from the remote team members I’ve interviewed.
Almost six months into this adventure of writing and podcasting about dispersed teams, one thing is clear: remote work is here to stay. More and more companies are embracing this model, and reaping the benefits. There are unique challenges associated with distributed teams, but none of them are insurmountable. The more we can share our experiences, on sites such as this one, the more we enable a future wherein the work can come to the worker instead of vice-versa.