Why Distributed Teams are Making Your Traditional Office ObsoleteFeb 2, 2011 • Josh Cramer
Your company has probably been operating under a handicap for its whole existence. It’s a handicap that has been so common that the vast majority don’t even see it as such. The handicap is this: most companies are limited in their ability to find and hire the right people by a fixed geographic radius set up around their central office. We will call these type of companies “Geographically Challenged”. Your geographically challenged company may have attempted to overcome this handicap by opening branch offices in multiple cities or paying for a new employee’s relocation or maybe even introducing flextime into the mix. Though these steps help the situation, you are only slightly mitigating the root problem.
At Cramer Dev, we’ve been building things on the web for the last decade. We are a virtual distributed team with members spread across 7 states and 4 time zones in the US. Being distributed as a team has been a pivotal factor that has enabled us to become what we are. It has enabled us to find and hire the right people, the best people, regardless of where they happen to live. We haven’t always been distributed. At one time, we only hired people in our small local community. Being driven by a desire to get results for our clients caused us to think outside the box and to remove the location restriction from our talent searches. The results were significant almost immediately and we have been able to deliver solutions and results to our clients that we never would have been able to before.
Although not every industry may be able to build a distributed team, those that are willing and able will outperform your geographically challenged team. Here is why this works for us and others:
Don’t Box Yourself In
Geographically challenged companies are boxed in by a major limitation when it comes to hiring new talent. Limiting the talent pool to a radius around a physical location causes these companies to make compromises when hiring new people. The end result is that these geographically challenged companies end up hiring some of the wrong people just to fill the position. Not that they’re mediocre human beings, it’s just that they’re not the best fit for the particular organization which they now happen to now be working for.
In a distributed virtual team, there are no holds barred when searching for the right talent. These new teams don’t care where you live or whether you can make it into the office every day or not. They only thing they care about is: are you the right person for the job?
No matter where your company happens to be located, the pool of available talent will always be larger if it is not limited to a travel radius around your office. Because of this, distributed virtual teams will always have the talent advantage over companies that require employees to report to duty in the flesh every day. Jim Collins said in Good to Great that one of the most important factors in making your organization great is getting the right people on the bus before deciding where to go. Jason Fried says in Rework, “Geography just doesn’t matter anymore. Hire the best talent, regardless of where it is.” Being willing to hire anyone, no matter where they live, gives your company an advantage over those who box themselves in .
The other thing about geographically challenged companies is that their office spaces, by nature, force every worker who enters them each day to give up some control over the inputs that will command parts of their days. In other words, when you enter your office building, you’re essentially activating the big red interruption button at your desk and inviting anyone who may feel the urge to stop by and press it, thereby pausing or derailing your productivity. Arecent study by Workplace Options even reveals that many workers are coming in early or staying late just to get some distraction free work time. Further, over one half of all workers feel that their productivity is impacted by distractions in the workplace.
No matter what kind of office environment you may have crafted, distributed teams will always have the advantage in creating an interruption free work environment. This is because each worker is in total control of their surroundings and can completely block out distractions and interruptions should they so choose. This is not a choice for people in most places of work. A distributed virtual team comprised of self-lead, motivated, and disciplined individuals will always have the opportunity to work in a less distracting environment.
To get ahead in this competitive industry, it often takes more than working the standard 8 hour days. When you’re working for a start-up that’s trying to make a go of it, you’re often encouraged to work long hours at the office. Slaving away on the next release, trying to meet that deadline, trying to hash through the final details. This lifestyle may be well suited to young single people, but people with families often find this pace unsustainable. Because of this, you’ve either created an environment that breeds burnout, or you’ve eliminated a portion of your potential talent pool. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a study last year that showed remote workers are absent less, more healthy, and more productive.
A distributed team has the luxury of creating an environment that is truly family friendly. Remote team members can get moments away with their family, and then return to work after the kids (or wife/husband) have gone to bed. Work is as near home as it could possibly be and is as accessible as necessary for everyone on the team. It will always be easier for members of a distributed virtual team to make it into the office at critical times.
The Ideal Office
Another advantage distributed teams have over geographically challenged teams is the reduced overhead. Most people (especially in our industry) already have a home office, a computer, and an internet connection. In a growing number of industries, this is really all that is required for work. As shown by a report from The Telework Coalition, businesses can save an average of $20,000 per year for each employee who works remotely. A geographically challenged company is always trying to find new office space as they grow. They’re trying to make their office space as cool as possible to attract top talent. They’re stocking their offices with snacks, drinks, fancy furniture, and the like. If you step back and take a look at what’s happening here, you realize that these companies are trying to make the office seem more like home. Well, let me tell you what you already know… there’s no place like home.
A distributed team is able to offer the one comfort that everyone truly longs for. And that is the comfort of every member’s very own home. And if cabin fever sets in, a member of a distributed team can engage in co-working, a coffee shop, or mooch off a friend’s office space for a bit. Or if they like, get a closed door office in a co-working space to use whenever necessary. Members of a distributed virtual team will always have the opportunity to create a work environment that is more flexible and comfortable for each member of the team.
One of the obvious advantages of having a team all under the same roof is a perceived ease of collaboration and communication. We as human beings find communicating face to face very natural, pleasant, and easy. This is definitely one area where traditional teams seem to excel. But what we often find is that processes needed to efficiently manage and ensure progress in a team are omitted in favor of ad-hoc communication. This leaves gaps in communication that make actual progress on projects sometimes suffer. We’ve all felt trapped in the middle of huge projects at times with no apparent way to regain control or to fix what’s wrong.
In a distributed team, the lack of adequate processes becomes painfully obvious almost immediately in any project. If a distributed team has not created an efficient and organized framework within which adequate communication is forced to happen, the project will fail spectacularly and quickly. Ad-hoc communication may work for a while in a distributed team, but very soon, the physical separation of the members of the team will eventually lead to total annihilation of any efficiency that may have been hoped for.
A distributed team, by its nature, must establish efficient project management and communication processes in order to be successful. This more strict process allows distributed teams to:
- Quickly identify team members who are not adequately participating in these processes
- Quickly expose any weaknesses in your processes
- Force the team to communicate enough, but not too much
A distributed virtual team will always have a greater tendency to develop a formal process for work that addresses communication gaps. They have to in order to survive.
Getting Stuff Done
Another perceived benefit of having an geographically consolidated team is that managers are able to more closely monitor the performance of workers on the team. This is presumably because they can actually see, with their own eyes, if the team member is working efficiently or not. There are two problems with this approach:
- If the team member’s contribution needs to be verified by manager eye balls in order to be validated, then you don’t need that member on your team to begin with
- It’s not any easier for managers to promote the efficiency of on-site workers than it is for off-site workers
A distributed team must set up performance metrics that can be objectively measured from afar. This means that the team is logging activities in online team chats, ticketing systems, code commits, time tracking systems, or other work management systems. It’s easy to see an activity log for any given worker should you have any concerns. Gaps in the activity logs plus over-active social networking activity may be exposing a lack of effectiveness for a given employee. All of these things are way more visible for members of distributed teams. After all, not many of us keep water coolers in our homes.
None of us can deny the effect of the Internet on our lives. From Google to Facebook to Ebay to Email. The Internet has made finding things, staying in touch, buying things, and communicating significantly more efficient. In recent years, the same types of tools have been developed to have a transformational impact on our work lives. The end result of fully integrating these tools into our workflow is similar to the effect it has had in other areas of our lives. Our work experiences will become more efficient the more we begin to use these tools.
Geographically challenged companies will be the last to fully adopt these tools and will use the old forms of communication and collaboration as a crutch as they slowly limp along in this new age of work. Meanwhile, distributed teams, willing and able to adopt any new tool that helps them work more efficiently, will surpass the ailing, dying, traditional companies that are all stuck in the mud of traditionalism.
In spite of all these arguments against face-to-face collaboration, having some deeper connection with people is still necessary. After all, most of the people that you interact with online are people that you have actually met in person at one time or another.
A distributed team can still obtain this level of connection by conducting meet-ups or summits periodically. Bi-annual or quarterly in-person meetings that include a strong element of recreation and relationship building are enough to fuel the culture essential to maintain a good working report among members of the team. These meet-ups also make for some epic times and memories that easily compete with the lame corporate Christmas party events that are the extent of any geographically challenged companies. In addition, these times can be used for strategic planning sessions that are often helpful to have in person because of the deeper emotional connections possible to create in person.
Recent advances in technology and corporate philosophies have enabled companies to overcome their geographic handicaps. Companies willing to hire anywhere have been able to adapt their company culture and build more effective and agile teams. In distributed teams, the key factor is not that all team members must reside outside of the company’s geographic radius, the key differentiator is that this talent can reside outside the radius. This simple change in company philosophy rips the lid off of the traditional model for building a company and unleashes a new wave of potential.
Traditional office based companies may always have their place, but their period of dominance is fast approaching an end in this emerging creative class society. The company of the future is a distributed company. Distributed teams can be more competitive, more flexible, more comfortable, and more skilled. Those that embrace this change will do well.