The distributed opportunity

A new reality

After a surge of optimism about re-opening the world and all of its offices, we’re now in uncertain times again with fourth waves of Covid-19 raging in many countries.

In March and April 2020, many knowledge workers were suddenly thrust into a new way of working. For some, this meant having to work at the kitchen table while taking care of young children — not an ideal environment for doing your best work or for taking the best care of your children. For others, it meant suddenly having a lot more autonomy over how to weave their work into their life and being able to create an environment that truly lets them do their best work. Some moved to different cities or countries to be nearer to family or just to live in a place that works better for them.

There was high variance, too, in how teams adapted to suddenly being distributed. Teams that already had high levels of trust and autonomy likely had smoother transitions than teams that already struggled with alignment and decision-making when they were co-located. These teams were already broken in the office.

Don’t waste the opportunity

Some anxious execs are eager to get their staff back into the office where they can be “collaborative, innovative, and productive”. I think it’s worth examining that claim and whether it might just be code for “Help, I don’t know how to lead a distributed team!”

It’s true that leading distributed teams is harder. It requires more empathy, more asynchronous communication, better tooling, and some emotional intelligence. It’s also true that there are as many ideal working environments as there are people in your company, and asking everyone to work in the office because some of your leaders don’t know how to lead distributed teams ignores a massive opportunity to let everyone do their best work by choosing their best work environment. If and when the scourge of this pandemic subsides, don’t waste that opportunity.

I’ve been working in distributed teams for almost twenty years, including a few years of consulting, five years as a founder, ten years at Automattic, and now at community and events company Bevy. I have not worked full-time in an office since the last millennium.

Create sparks, then execute

I understand that some people get energy from working in the office. Being in person with your co-workers is energizing. Sometimes creative sparks happen easier and faster when you’re together. But if we’re honest, work is not about letting creative sparks fly most of the time. It’s about turning those sparks into goals and then designing and executing and iterating and shipping. The sparks to execution ratio is maybe 1:50, so don’t over-optimize for sparks!

You also don’t need an office for making sparks. Being in an office all day every day is a one-size-fits-all environment that is exhausting and decidedly un-sparky for many people. Instead, bringing your distributed team together in meetups (week-long [Monday-Friday] in-person gatherings) is great for unleashing bursts of creativity and creating strong relationships that fuel distributed work for the rest of the year or quarter or whatever the cadence of your meetups is. Doing activities and having meals with your colleagues is better for forging human connections than hanging around the proverbial or real water cooler at the office. To me, the connections I’ve made with my remote colleagues at in-person meetups are deeper than ones I’ve created in the office.

Different people thrive in different environments. Some people need social interaction more than others, but I’d argue that for most people, spending the majority of our work time in an environment that’s quiet by default and affords flexibility and autonomy leads to better work and healthier, better-functioning teams.

I realized that even though I’ve been leading distributed teams for more than fifteen years, I haven’t written much about it. I’m still learning, but if I have time I’ll share some advice in future posts.

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