Woman works from home

How distributed teams work together

The internet has made the world a much smaller place, with it easier than ever before for people to stay in touch with their family and friends across the globe, and work from anywhere. The freedom from geography has seen the growth of so-called “distributed companies”, where the “office” is virtual and the employees able to work from anywhere with an internet connection.

One of the companies at the forefront of the distributed revolution is Automattic, the company behind the hugely successful WordPress content management system and web platform that powers around 30 percent of the web, including this very website. The web unicorn has more than 950 employees based in 72 different locations from Morocco to Melbourne. Instead of the office the company provides each employee with $250 a month to pay for a local coworking space nearer to where they work or a continual supply of caffeine at their local coffee shop.

So how do they do it? How do they manage to create a successful work environment that delivers results when so few of them live in the same country? By focusing on what makes teams tick, doing that remotely, and them always scheduling one “grand meetup” of the whole team in one place once a year.

It sounds paradoxical that a distributed workforce would still meet, but the human condition means that bonds are best formed in person, and these relationships are what keeps the gears of the company well oiled. We are ingrained to believe that we can better rely on those with which we have shared an experience, and in a billion-dollar company like Automattic, the employees need to know that they can rely on each other to fix issues when they inevitably arise.

Matt Mullenweg, who’s name is the Matt in Automattic, sees the distributed office as more inclusive as it means anyone with the ability can do the job, no matter if they live in a different country or need more flexible working times and locations because of family responsibilities. And it seems that his ideas around a distributed office are popular with employees. The company is never short on applicants when looking for new staff, is rated extraordinarily highly by current and former staff on Glassdoor, and so few employees ended up choosing to work in the office in 2017 that the company decided to close its San Francisco HQ entirely.

As anyone who has had to work with people in other time zones will tell you, the keys to working in remote teams is scheduling, communication, and trust. Automattic use a variety of tools built in-house and commercial to make sure their employees know when they need to be available and when their tasks are due to be finished, and are all in constant communication via Slack. Most importantly, each member of the team trusts that every other member and the management are working to the best of their abilities and towards common goals, as just as in a traditional office if trust breaks down then the company will falter, but with a distributed team there is less oversight.

Indeed, not everyone is so supportive of remote teams. Former Yahoo CEO was famously against the idea and banned employees working offsite because she felt there was a more collaborative environment when all employees were in the same location. IBM too, once the poster-child of remote working in the 1980s has since made an about-turn and recently told its US marketing team that remote work was no longer an option.

The wild variations in attitudes to remote work by companies is also reflected in the research, where different studies have come to opposite conclusions. In a 2011 study into the so-called “water cooler effect”, researchers found that science papers were cited more often when the authors were in personal contact or even just worked in the same building. However, a more recent study by Stanford researchers directly into productivity of employees at a Chinese travel website found that those who chose to work from home for nine months were 13 percent more productive and happier in the work, with the quit-rate cut in half. Happy employees are not just more effective at their jobs, but less likely to move to another company, which means firms with a happy workforce can spend far less on training up new employees, which is a secondary bonus to the increased productivity.

Many C-level executives still frown upon remote working, as traditionally it has been seen as a way for employees to slack-off and relax instead of doing their work, but the reality does seem different today. It is easier than ever to monitor the productivity of employees, and as long as these targets are met employees should have the freedom to work as they please. If companies and employees can efficiently schedule this time so they are always available when needed to Skype-meetings or Slack chats with colleagues, then maybe remote work will become a more common option in the future.

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

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