I will be speaking on working and designing with distributed teams at this year’s IA Summit in Baltimore, MD.
As the author of a book on collaboration – a book that touts the benefits of collocated teams – the reality of distributed teams is not lost on me. In fact one of the main questions I get asked each time I present on Lean UX is how to make it work with remote teams. While the benefits of in-person collaboration and communication are clear, it doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved with remote colleagues.
There’s been no shortage of coverage lately about the different strategies companies employ when it comes to their distributed work force. Certain companies, like Automattic – makers of WordPress, have an entirely remote workforce and swear it’s the only way to work. Other companies, like Yahoo!, have made headlines recently when CEO Marissa Mayer demanded all remote employees come back to the office. LivingSocial has promoted a distributed team environment under the leadership of now-departed SVP of Technology Chad Fowler. The poster children for distributed teams, 37 Signals, swear by this approach to the point that they’ve written a book on the topic. What has been missing from the conversation to date is context – the context of the work these companies are doing and the context of their current environments.
Let’s look a little deeper.
In Yahoo!’s case, Mayer asked roughly 500 people (out of a workforce of over 11,000 employees) to stop working from home. This is indicative of a subset of the workforce that has split from the hive and clearly wasn’t providing the same quality of work as their office-bound counterparts. What was happening here was what Jason Fried warns about – the creation of a “here” culture and a “there” culture. In an interview in Quartz magazine, Fried says:
“A big part of it in my opinion it comes down to culture. If you have one remote worker and 35 local workers, that’s a problem because there’s a real disconnect between people at the office and that one lone person. The culture splinters into the “here” culture and the “there” culture. It becomes almost like there are two companies, and that’s what you have to avoid.”
Yahoo!’s culture, as it currently stands, is clearly a “here” culture and needs to stay that way in order to right their lilting ship (according to their CEO).
In the case of companies like Automattic there has never been a “here” culture. From their inception they’ve built a “there” culture and assimilated new hires into that context. They do this through an initial trial onboarding project with a new employee and, if that works well, they transition into a full-time role. That is their normal context and clearly it’s been working for them.
What’s interesting, even the most ardent promoter of remote working – the aforementioned Mr. Fried – speaks to the demands of context when it comes to working face to face or not. When a new employee joins 37 Signals, they bring her into the office for a month to gain a sense of how this new person works, what their strengths and weaknesses are and, perhaps most importantly, to establish a familiar bond with the new hire. It’s this bond that translates into a more successful remote relationship, they’ve found.
In another context, there may be a project that requires an intensive dose of collaborative thinking. In these situations, the 37 Signals team gets together in person to generate this creative spark for a period of time (a few days or a week) before departing with the output of that session to their remote offices.
It seems that, as with most things design and UX, the answer to the question, “Does remote working work for software development teams?” is, it depends. Context and culture seem to be the determining factors but there’s another sub-element of culture that can’t be ignored: trust – specifically the trust between managers and their employees.
Fried continues, “”A big part of it comes down to trust—we’ve found that companies that work remotely trust their employees more. And what’s interesting about that is that when you’re trusted more as an employee, you work better.”
In February 2013 I ran a brief and informal (read: unscientific) online survey to gain a sense of how prevalent remote working was in my tech circles. 108 people responded. Here are some of the results of the survey:
43% of respondents were designers
32% of respondents were engineers
12% of respondents were product managers
The rest were distributed between C-level executives, other managers, coaches, QA, project managers and copywriters.
Amongst all the respondents there was an average tenure, in the tech industry, of about 11 years.
Here’s the interesting fact: 100% (yes, everyone) of respondents were currently working with or had recently worked with a distributed team. In other words, this is a reality for all of us today.
There were at least 5 remote team members for every respondent on average. This means that on an average, 2-pizza team (i.e., a team you can feed with two pizzas), at least half the team is split from the other.
The most fascinating insight for me was the distribution of respondents who said they’d be happy to continue working with distributed teams. Only 55% said they’d want to do it again. The other 45% said they’d much rather collaborate with their colleagues in person on a regular basis.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest challenges the respondents listed for remote collaboration. Then we’ll dive into specific ways to solve some of these challenges.
- Poor Communication – this was, by far, the biggest complaint for distributed teams. Colleagues felt like they were not included in decision-making activities and were unclear why those decisions were even being considered. They didn’t know their colleagues that well and felt awkward interrupting them during the day and providing critique on their work.
- Slow progress – many respondents complained that their teams felt like they were moving slower. At the very least it was clear that the perception was one of slower progress.
- No team-building or camaraderie – some team members never meet in real life. Without some level of shared experience outside the realm of “the project” there was a distinct lack of camaraderie amongst remote teammates. We spend the majority of our awake time working. For many folks, this is their only social outlet. When the office component is removed, all that’s left is the work. Jason Fried touts this as a benefit as it leaves nothing but the work to judge the merits of an employee’s contribution. However, for many folks this is starkly missing from their work experience.
- Lack of collaboration – different time zones, languages, priorities and obligations leave many distributed teams working on their own. Productivity may soar in these situations but many survey respondents seem to miss collaborating with their colleagues.
- Language and culture barriers with team members in other countries – while this can certainly fall into the poor communication bucket, the challenges with foreign colleagues are unique enough to warrant their own category. Building rapport with colleagues from your own country can be difficult enough. When you need to build that rapport with colleagues who speak a different language, follow different customs and have culturally-different approaches to work it becomes exponentially more difficult.
These are only five of the big issues teams have when working in distributed situations. It’s in no way a complete list but, from my survey, these are the biggest challenges.
So, what does work with remote teams? Here are some of the ways successful distributed teams have solved these challenges and thrived.
1. Skype, video conferencing, virtual presence and video portals
It probably goes without saying but teams need to see each other. Facial expressions and body language add nuance to conversations that can’t be captured in email, IM or voice-only calls. The natural tools for this typically include Skype and Google Hangouts.
However, there are some unique ways to use these tools to make them even more effective. One interesting idea is to have Skype on, full screen on a monitor for each remote person. In other words, you’ve got a talking head version of your colleague on screen, next to you at all times. It’s a virtual presence that allows you to be “next” to each other throughout the day without having to plan explicit conversations.
Similarly, for teams that are all remote from each other, leaving a Google Hangout on all day for everyone on the team allows them to drop in and out of the conversation and team dynamic as needed throughout the day. In this case, the name Hangout actually means exactly what the team is doing and how they’re using the product.
Some companies, like Foursquare, leave a permanent video portal open to their remote offices. It functions like a virtual conference room where members of teams, separated by continents, can pull up a chair and have a conversation or a daily stand-up meeting.
Two other interesting companies are pushing the idea of virtual presence further. Double Robotics is offering remote controlled wheels for your iPad. Their (pretty amazing) product mounts an iPad on a stand with wheels that is remote-controlled by the remote worker allowing her to adjust position, height and move around the office as if they were there in person. The camera and screen function as a way to show the environment to the remote worker while displaying their face to the rest of the groups.
Anybots is also providing a similar virtual presence experience albeit slightly more retro designed and, well, dorkier.
2. Get together at the beginning of an initiative
Personal connections make the difference between failed and successful remote teams. One way to build strong bonds on a remote team is to kickoff the project in person, together. Bring all team members to the same place and have them get to know each other over a week of kickoff activities. Facilitate the week to encourage brainstorming, collaboration and group problem solving. Let the teams get to know each others’ strengths and communication styles.
Next have them go out and talk to customers together. This activity builds empathy for the customer and shared experiences team members can fall back on to make sure the long distance relationships endure.
Finally, make sure this time together has plenty of opportunities for socializing. Build in some dinners and even a party to give the team an opportunity to have fun together as well.
Combined, these bonds can create a remote team that feels very closely connected.
3. Hire the right people
Perhaps this one also seems obvious but it’s worth nothing that the characteristics you’re seeking in remote workers are different than those for the collocated team. Two specific traits to ensure in your remote team hires are responsibility and good communication.
Remote workers are given an implicit level of trust. Finding individuals for the team who can be responsible with that trust increases the likelihood of an efficient distributed team. Look for signs your candidate’s previous employer gave them high levels of responsibility.
The second trait you should look for in remote team candidates is the strong communication skills. Remote teams only have their communication to bind them together. Hence, teammates who don’t feel comfortable or find it necessary to over communicate with their colleagues won’t do well on distributed teams.
4. Use a good project tracking tool
The tool must be web-based and accessible to everyone – regardless of OS. The goal is to have a centralized system the whole team uses to keep track of the project status.
The most popular recommendations from our survey respondents were:
Pivotal Tracker – the granddaddy of web-based Agile project tracking tools, Tracker continues to be a popular choice for collocated as well as distributed teams.
Trello – a newcomer to this category it’s quickly gaining popularity with its ease of use and non-industry specific flexibility.
JIRA – Atlassian’s bug-tracking tool has become the go-to project management app for many teams. The fact that it’s easily accessible from anywhere makes it a popular choice with many more-technical teams.
Basecamp – the tool 37 Signals built for themselves has been a popular choice as well for years now.
5. Shared servers and folders
Provide your team with the tools they need to get files to/from each other as efficiently as possible. Many teams use shared servers internal to the company. Many others rely on cloud-based services like Dropbox (get the corporate account), Github for source control, and Google Docs for everything from spreadsheets to asset repositories.
6. Knowledge management systems
Centralized knowledge management systems allow new teammates to onboard quickly and provide a consistent place to go for decision-making history. Wikis fulfill this need rather well. Many of our respondents recommended Confluence by Atlassian as their main knowledge portal. I’ve worked with Confluence myself and, while it lacks a bit of UX polish, it has a tremendous feature set and flexibility to make it worthwhile.
Any version-tracking CMS with a commenting system will work well though. WordPress can do it thought the P2 theme – the one the WordPress team itself uses – has some clear benefits for team collaboration.
7. Instant Messaging
Whether it’s iMessage, AIM, HipChat, or Campfire your teammates need to coalesce around one instant messaging tool. Once there, this veteran communication method still proves highly valuable with today’s distributed teams.
Some teams have moved to Yammer to create a more real-time conversation thread.
8. Collaborative sketching software
Sketching together is an exercise in explanation and collaboration. It’s important to keep this tactic alive with a remote team. While there are multiple solutions to this problem including software and smart boards, I’ve found Google Drawing to be the easiest and most effective product to date.
You simply start a new drawing and invite your colleagues. Everyone has the ability to sketch on the virtual canvas and everyone can see what they’re doing. Combine this with a Skype call or event just a phone call and you’re running remote design studios with ease.
9. Virtual Happy Hours
At the end of the week you want to blow off some steam with your team. Unfortunately it’s hard to take your colleague from another continent to the pub. Instead, try a virtual happy hour. PJ Camp Malik recommends that teams set aside time to not only collaborate via video conference but to also drink together. These virtual happy hours bring the team a slightly closer sense of camaraderie.
10. Share videos of team activities
There will be times where some team members take part in an interesting activity or view a customer demo that the rest of the team can’t be a part of. If possible, take video footage of the event and then share that video with the team members who couldn’t attend. Give them a sense of what transpired and how you think it affects the project.
This simple technique reduces the knowledge gap between teams and still allows everyone on the project to feel involved.
11. Pinterest to share designs, inspirations
When it comes to design, nothing beats a wall of ideas, sketches and explorations. Unfortunately there is no wall for distributed teams – until now. Pinterest serves as a tremendously helpful “wall of ideas” to keep and share with your team. Teammates post and comment on elements as their posted providing the entire team a window into the inspiration for the design.
These are some ideas to help bridge the gap between long-distance colleagues. They seem to work for our survey respondents and I can certainly vouch for some of them as well.
What’s worked well for you? What has your remote team experience been like? Share in the comments.
P.S. – I’ll be teaching a class on Lean UX on May 20-21 in Stockholm, Sweden. Details and registration here.