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Building distributed teams

At the General Services Administration’s 18F, we’ve seen that remote work can make teams happier, more productive, and more inclusive. Organizing ourselves in a remote-first way has improved our morale and allowed us to recruit and retain talent from all across the country. But building great distributed teams takes real work. 

18F has been a distributed-first organization—that means designed for remote work, not just able to accommodate it—for all of its six years, and we pride ourselves on modelling effective remote teams. We were talking about distributed team best practices in 2015, and we’ve learned a lot more since then about how we make a distributed-first culture work.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how we collaborate with one another and with our partners. What we find is that building effective distributed teams is very much a matter of cultural values. 

Inclusivity

Successful distributed teams don’t happen by accident. They require thoughtfulness and intent. 

One important component of successful distributed teams is inclusivity: making sure that nobody is being accidentally left out of conversations and that decision-making is equitable. Communicating proactively and equally is also important, to help keep people in the loop about what’s going on. Creating documentation of decisions as they are made helps others who can’t attend a synchronous meeting for whatever reason, as well as new teammates who may join in later.

While “distributed team,” “virtual employee,” “remote work” and “telework” are often used interchangeably, at 18F we like the idea of “distributed first.” That means even when there’s a mix of people remote and in-office, we’re being thoughtfully inclusive of everyone involved. If you have a mix of people in the office and remote, be sure the focus stays on the people who aren’t in the room. Your distributed team is only fully engaged when everyone is engaged.

Accessibility

Not everyone communicates the same way. When you work to make a distributed model inclusive, it is best if you can de-center yourself, your norms, and your experience, and start thinking primarily in terms of the experience of others. For example, how would a person with an auditory processing disorder experience a video meeting? A deaf person? A blind person? What avenues are there to make communication effective between all people?

In terms of accessibility, many remote-friendly strategies and tools exist, ranging from simply sharing meeting notes and transcripts, to specialized tools like live event captioning services and video relay calls for deaf and hard of hearing co-workers, though keep in mind that automated captions are not a replacement for accessibility services. 

Accessibility benefits everyone: for instance, captioning is useful for people with dyslexia, ADHD, or a crying baby in the background. Also, having a transcript of the meeting helps when other people may be late to the meeting or have to run out for a bathroom break.

Trust and patience

On distributed teams, everyone needs to practice extra patience with their colleagues. When we’re working out of sight, it’s easy to make unkind assumptions when we don’t get immediate responses to our questions. 

You wouldn’t expect someone in an office to respond to every email immediately. Similarly, someone working from home may not respond to a message right away. That should be okay.

Staying present

Video chat is essential for distributed teams. It helps you catch the facial expressions and body language you’d miss on calls or text chats. However, video chat only works when everyone turns their cameras on. It can be scary to be on video at first, but relationships are easier to build and sustain when you can see each other. 

Come to your video meetings prepared and paying attention. Try to limit distractions such as email or other chat conversations. Treat your video meetings just like you’re talking to people in person. And remember, it’s rude (and evident!) when a person splits their concentration from the meeting at hand to answer a question coming in from another venue, especially in a 1:1 meeting.

As more people are distributed and may only be “meeting” people via video conferences, being present, making eye contact, and enjoying each other’s company is a huge advantage. Take time to check in on your colleagues and allow social time on your meeting agendas. 

Making space for everyone

Video chats are better than calls and text, but they have limitations, too. For example, there’s a gap between when someone speaks and when everyone else hears them. This lag can make it difficult for people to jump into the conversation because they’re worried about talking over someone else. Encourage pauses to make room for others to join in, and watch for signs that someone wants to speak (such as someone unmuting their audio). You can also ask the room to agree to signals such as raising your hand or messaging the chat function in the video meeting. 

Be wary of “unmoderated caucus” meetings. When speakers can claim the floor by speaking first or by interrupting, it creates frustration and reduces inclusivity. Instead, favor facilitated meetings with clear paths for participants to add agenda items and express their thoughts. Be certain your introverted colleagues are being heard, and that extroverts aren’t getting a disproportionate share of speaking time. 

And be sure to leverage all the capabilities of your video tools. “Whiteboard” features let everyone write and draw together for collaborative brainstorming sessions. The ability to record a meeting lets you include teammates who aren’t able to attend, so they don’t get left out. 

If your tool offers breakout rooms, facilitators can split participants into smaller groups for discussion. Some teammates who have important thoughts to share might feel more comfortable sharing them with a teammate or a smaller group first before sharing them with an entire team. 

Whatever video tool you choose, take advantage of all the features available to you to increase presence and make your remote meetings as inclusive as possible.

Communicating

Distributed teams thrive on communication. Frequent and open communication is the cornerstone of remote work, and for most teams a messaging app is how that happens. It’s how your team will maintain connections with the work and with each other, and how they’ll resolve problems as they arise. 

18F uses a messaging app to group conversations according to team, topic, interest, and business function. This helps keep conversations focused and allows people to come and go from channels as needed to find information and participate in discussions. We also invite staff members from our partner agencies into project-specific channels where we collaborate in a centralized area so that information isn’t siloed or lost. 

By focusing conversation into these many channels in the messaging app, we’re sharing a lot of knowledge that would be nearly impossible to access and search for in email. Chatting brings us together in serious, professional, and personal ways that work well for our remote, distributed team. 

The messaging app is also an excellent place to begin recreating the office watercooler – a place for the informal conversations that aren’t really work-related, but are crucial for establishing interpersonal relationships and trusting, high-functioning teams. 

Respecting time

With team members distributed across time zones, we consciously try to find common times for remote co-working sessions which allow us to align and create more refined work. When scheduling meetings, be aware of time zones of everyone you’re inviting. Don’t ask your coworkers to come to meetings that are ridiculously early or late in their time zone. Encourage everyone to include some geographical information in their profiles, so everyone can take this into account.

When we can’t resolve time zone issues and work directly together, we use asynchronous efforts to keep work moving. An example of this is when our colleagues on the East Coast are done for the day, our West Coast team members can work on items to have ready for review and further work when the East Coast-ers arrive the next morning. 

Being intently human

For distributed teams to work well, you’ll rely heavily on technology to recreate things that people just do naturally when they’re in the same place. You’ll want to do this intently and thoughtfully, and you’ll need to create space for those interactions to flourish.

Encourage “virtual coffees.” Participate in “watercooler” chats and channels. Be human, and be thinking about ways to encourage others to be human, too.

The tools are just tools. It takes an intentional culture to make distributed teams effective. You must make sure that all the right people can see and participate in decision-making, so err on the side of oversharing. You must trust your colleagues to do their jobs, so practice patience and empathy. You must continue being humans, so keep joking around and being social in your team times.

We humans need social interaction. It’s part of who we are. Social interactions are what build our relationships and create the bonds that allow us to trust and work together. These values and this sort of culture take time to instill, and are a muscle that needs constant work. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it exactly right immediately; just start building intentionally, and you’ll be well on your way to creating effective distributed teams.

Working together remotely is one of 18F’s core strengths. If you’re in government and want to learn more from us about how to do it well, contact us at inquiries18F@gsa.gov.

Thank you to Anne Petersen, Abbey Kos, Alex Soble, Carter Baxter, Greg Walker, James Tranovich, Mark Trammel, Nick Ng, and Robert Jolly for participating in the conversations that led to this post and providing feedback

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