Find out from first-hand experience how to build cohesive teams even when people are spread out
For several months in 2015, I worked at a start-up I had been an advisor to where I was the only person in my city as the rest of the team was in the Mid-West and India. We made it work as best we could, but when people asked me about the toughest part of it, I always said it was being separated from the team.
Having worked in open floorplan environments for over a decade now, I know first-hand the amount of benefit you get from the osmosis of hearing what everyone is working on, and being able to just turn to someone and ask a question when you need an answer or jump into something on the fly simply because you happened to be there.
While the productivity impact may be obvious, the cultural impact is perhaps even trickier to solve for when people are dispersed. As you know if you have read other articles I’ve written, I believe culture is the single most important asset any company has, so this is a big deal to me.
With the growing number of people working remotely, this is an issue that is growing rather than shrinking, so I thought it was an important subject to turn to some experts in the trenches to bring meaningful advice and insight.
Aside from my own experience in the start-up world, I spoke to Dan Meyer, co-founder of Pocketdoor and Tim Harsch, co-founder and CEO of Owler. If you are not familiar with them, here’s a snapshot of each company.
Pocketdoor helps homeowners have a better experience with renovations and other home projects. Some have described it as a sort of Pinterest for home improvement that adds in the rest of the process rather than just images and articles of things you like. They have employees, contractors and advisors across three continents and six time zones. As an early stage company that operates very lean and makes product changes daily, this creates unique challenges and opportunities. You can start your next project or get their Chrome or mobile apps at pocketdoor.com.
Owler is a competitive intelligence platform that is powered by its user-community. With over 2M active users contributing tens of millions of insights on companies, industries and trends, Owler has become a critical business tool for companies large and small including 96% of the Fortune 500. While Pocketdoor is in its early days, Owler was founded in 2011 (as InfoArmy), and has lived through and grown from the various challenges facing start-ups – especially those with dispersed workforces. You can learn more about them at owler.com.
Real World Problems
Tim and Dan shared some of the challenges they face from having a spread-out team and how they are coping with them. There were some common themes across both companies, which suggests there are real steps you can take to help ensure success in your dispersed organization.
Time Zone Spread from Customers
Harsch shares Owler’s history of where it had its developers and data management team. While having engineering working when your customers sleep means they can fix a problem before anyone starts using your product, Owler found there was a cost that outweighed much of that benefit. The key is to have people working to solve problems when your customers are using your product, which is when they arise in the first place.
Working different hours than the customer base is a huge problem, especially for enterprise offerings such as our APIs, where uptime is critical and any issue needs to be acted on quickly.-Tim Harsch, Co-Founder, Owler
Bridging the Cultural Divide from a Distance
Replicate co-location. I try my best to be aware of the things I would pick up by osmosis if we were all co-located. For some things, we can replicate as if we were co-located.
-Dan Meyer, Co-Founder, Pocketdoor
- “Read” Body Language Out Loud
When one doesn’t see facial expressions and body posture in the office, one has to deliberately and directly ask how people are doing.
- Be Local-Smart
A great trick Meyer employees is to read the local news for where his teams are based so he is more likely to know of major issues affecting the entire team. He set up some simple Google news alerts to automate the task.
- Be Clear, Write It Down and Ask
He tries to be very clear in communication. When something is important, he will try to explain it two different ways, and documents it so the team can go back and review it. There are many collaboration tools to make this easier like Slack or Trello. Meyer reminds us that we don’t get to see confused looks on people’s faces over Slack, so he forces himself to ask if his communication is understood whenever possible.
- Use Video for Small & Large Meetings
There are many great (and several free) video conferencing options. While it may not be as good as in-person, it is better than phone-only or webinar meetings. Use tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Zoom, BlueJeans, Cisco Jabber or one of the other various options out there. Set this as the default approach for how meetings are done, and be sure everyone has the necessary software on their devices.
- All Hands on Deck
Owler goes a step beyond just using video for smaller meetings, holding monthly all-hands meetings via video. This helps get everyone on the same page in terms of company mission and direction.
The biggest headache we’ve faced is keeping everyone on the same page with everything going on as well as staying focused on the mission.
-Tim Harsch, Co-Founder, Owler
- No Substitute for Being In Person Sometimes
For Owler, they have regularly-scheduled cross-office visits. This helps for both specific projects and also rapport-building – perhaps the main thing you struggle to build if no one ever gets together. They make a point not to just have this go one-way, with people only going to the headquarters or only people from the main office getting to travel.
Respecting People’s Time(zone)
The pace of start-ups is notoriously fast, and cannot always wait for the team or key people in another time-zone to wake up. However, a successful start-up cannot have its people burn out because they are regularly being woken up in the middle of the night because people elsewhere are in the middle of their work day and need something. Both Owler and Pocketdoor face this issue, and Meyer shares some things they are doing to try to limit this issue proactively.
- Establish boundaries
Set clear expectations and boundaries on work time for the team. For Pocketdoor’s team in California managing product, that means starting the day early and avoiding late nights when possible.
- Set a Cadence
Within those boundaries, try to set a regular cadence for the design and development process (or whatever you have in your industry). Meyer also carves out time for particular functional responsibilities such as product development and marketing.
We use a couple hours early morning Pacific time when I am typically available and responsive for the engineering team; mid-morning for the meat of my to-do list; the afternoon for creative marketing; and later hours for interacting with the design team.
-Dan Meyer, Co-Founder, Pocketdoor
- Plan ahead
Start-ups live in constantly-evolving environments where it can be hard to look forward more than one or two weeks. Whenever possible, try to plan ahead. This allows leaders to communicate to the team what is coming and parse work into appropriate chunks while recognizing conflicts that people know will arise in that period.
- Build For It
Knowing that their developers are not online most of the time their customers are, Pocketdoor purposefully built their application to be more robust than it may need to be at this point in its lifecycle to create resilience. They also try to be extremely deliberate and diligent during their development, test and release cycles so things are not getting missing that could turn into customer problems when the only solution would be waking an engineer up.
A Piece of Advice: A Clear Mission is Key
Both Meyer and Harsh agreed that the best strategy is to begin by focusing on the mission. Meyer says, “We view our company vision as how we want the world to be, and our mission as how we are going to get the world closer to that vision.” That makes it easy to point to the mission for major events and decisions, but he reminds us that we also have to remember the mission when making decisions that affect the next day. Or the next hour. This keeps everyone going in the same direction.