The Asymmetrical Advantage of Distributed Teams

I’ve talked before about BiTE’s completely distributed team, and how I think this is one of the keys to our success. Not only does it vastly open up the talent pool when looking for new team members but it decreases turnover while increasing productivity and flexibility.

I’m often asked how we deal with the “inherent inefficiencies” of a fully distributed team, which underlies the sad assumption that unless you make the trip into an office every morning, you’re not really working – you’re slacking off. This just simply isn’t true. But why?

No useless meetings

Everyone has been stuck in an interminable meeting, after dutifully shuffling to the conference room during. Offices seem to breed meetings, and because we are not at our desks the meeting can not be about collaboration but rather a discussion about what has been or needs to be done. We see evident that this is not working in almost every meeting where people are on their laptops or smartphones doing other work. Once a meeting is done everyone heads back to their desks to all start separately working on their tasks. If there’s a question, update or suggestion, we have to use email or the sneakernet to figure stuff out. These meetings waste time, and we’ve found they’re frequently pretty useless.

In our distributed team, meetings are solely for the purposes of collaboration or completing tasks. The tools we use every day (Slack, Google Hangouts, Google Docs) help us solve problems in those meetings, not talk about solving it and then regroup later to discuss the solution.

The best example is comps and wireframes. In a traditional shop, we’d do a wireframe/comp review provide feedback and wait until the next meeting where the process would repeat. This takes days (sometimes weeks). Mobile needs to move much faster. When we review wires/ comps, we collaborate on a hangout and see our changes being made to the documents in real-time. Not only is it fast (usually accomplishing in 1 or 2 meetings what tooks days/weeks) but it is better. We are able to see what works and what doesn’t immediately. Avoiding rabbit holes and dead ends that are the standard for traditional on site reviews.

Work better, not longer

With our model, we’re able to work longer on each client’s project without increasing our total work hours. How? Easy. We’re more efficient.

If we get blocked on a task, we message someone in Slack. Need a meeting, we start a hangout. Need to get a surprise RFP or an emergency change to the website done in an hour? There’s no need to book a conference room for a meeting – start a Google Doc and have the company swarm on it. These tools mean our cross-country teammates can work more closely than people in adjoining cubes.

And what’s the biggest time thief? The commute. According to the US Census, the average commute is just over 25 minutes with larger cities (those where most tech companies need to be to attract key talent)  trends into 45-60 mins each way. With a fully remote team the commute is zero. Nothin’.

The time we save not getting to and from doesn’t just disappear. It’s banked.  We use it. We work longer on each project without having to sacrifice time spent with our families, at the gym, or you know, on our lives. We’re fresher, happier teammates who get more done because we don’t waste 20% of our days commuting. This helps us retain highly sought after resources while delivering more quickly for our clients.

Five years ago, this kind of efficiency wasn’t possible. The tools hadn’t evolved to where we could be just as close from a thousand miles away as we are in the same room. But with the proliferation of cloud-based productivity tools, the ability to work collaboratively and efficiently from anywhere has grown. At this point there’s simply no reason to waste your hard-won revenue on office space.

One more thing: I think I’ve successfully explained why our distributed team works, but I haven’t answered that implied question, “how do you know when people aren’t working?”. Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust but verify.” Our team is amazing and we trust each member, but we do have ways to verify. The very collaboration tools that make it so easy to work together also make it easy to see if one person is dropping the ball. Having connected collaboration tools means everyone can see what everyone is working on – all the time. Nobody can hide behind these cube walls.

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