Six tips for working in an all-distributed team

A while back, Ann Bordetsky prompted me to answer a question about how to communicate within an all-distributed or global team.

When considering how to communicate inside an all-distributed company, I think it’s not dissimilar to communicating inside any global company operating at a scale of any significance.

Unfortunately it’s hard.

It’s not easy to do compared to being in the same room and in the same time zone and breathing the same air and smelling the same things and simply working together. So there’s no single right way to stay aligned when you aren’t 100% IRL-ing it. So you have to experiment a lot.

And what happens when you try out a lot of things with a lot of people? Well, you can really tire out all the people that you’re working with. I’ve certainly done my fair share of Automattic-internal test-iterates in order to find the right methods.

Finally after 2 years of NIRL-ing it all the time by leading the world’s largest all-remote design team, I have a few basic practices that seem to be working:

  1. Choose async over sync whenever you can — but always 2-way. I learned this from our designer hiring lead Brie Anne Demkiw who is the one who taught me how to get comfortable with NIRL-ing all the time. I throw in the “but always 2-way” part because an async convo may not happen with the immediacy of a realtime one as it’s played more like a chess game than pinball, so you need to be sure to remember to return to the last move you made … or … you will slow everyone down.
  2. If you have to use Slack, make tents as makeshift conference rooms. We use Slack a lot, and it frankly makes me wonder why we don’t just use email instead. I won’t go into explaining why I feel that way, but suffice it to say we have a solution for the waterfalls of text that seem to litter a Slack channel. Anytime we need a “conference room,” instead of making a new Slack channel we just prepend with a and a short “Subject:” line (like in … email). And then we hop into a threaded convo within the tent. IRL-analogy: Think of it meaning “conference room” with glass walls so anybody can look into it.
  3. Learn from YouTubers how to make sharable videos quickly. In answer to Ann’s original question, I simply use Screenflow as it’s amazingly robust and easy to use. The downside is that the manufacturer has gotten a bit greedy with charging for a phalanx of incremental upgrades at a much higher cadence than they did in the past. That said, I haven’t found a tool that’s easier to use than Screenflow for editing quick videos. The other one is Apple Photobooth for quick “status videos.” In all cases I ask team members to immediately compress to 480p and be as brief as possible.

If you are ready for more advanced methods that I’m using these days:

  1. Have a beer-cake-kombucha list by which you can treat a teammate. If you have a site you can easily install a Simple Payments button (yes that’s my voice in the Support video — I actually made that video <wink>) to take a payment. All of my designers have a choice of their favorite item worth USD $5 that they all wouldn’t mind getting a free beer or piece of cake or Berkeley-brewed kombucha from me. We’re not like Google with all sorts of free food stashed everywhere — so it’s quite meaningful when I zap a colleague a free drink or snack as a personal kudo and/or expression of thanks. 
  2. When on a video call with a large audience, ask for cameras on and always call on folks by name. It’s hard to talk to a bunch of folks on a videoconference when their cameras are turned off — because it isn’t obvious whether they understand you or not. So what I will do is ask for people to keep their cameras on, and I’ll be certain to pull individuals into the conversation or topic at hand. First and foremost my goal is to ensure that everyone says something while ensuring that no single person can dominate the group conversation.
  3. Use shared time as a surrogate for shared space by MTW-ing it regularly. When you’re working in NIRL, it’s hard to have mutual references. It’s much easier when you’re working together IRL because you have common spatial references (like a lobby) and also common spatiotemporal relationships (shared daylght). So one thing we do in Automattic Design is adhere to a cadence of three posts that come from me at the start of the week into the hump day (Wednesday).

    Monday is about the topic of Art — an artist is selected and reviewed together as a way to open our minds. Tuesday is about the business results — it’s important for designers to understand all business terminology. Wednesday is about the strategies we’re using for People, Processes, and Projects — that’s a framework that our Design Ops Head Alison Rand has brought to how we operate. We stick to this cadence religiously to ensure we have a shared MTW experience that is: 1/ emotional (Art Monday), 2/ financial (Business Tuesday), 3/ pragmatic (Tactics x Strategy Wednesday).

Lastly, if you want to get even more advanced … then one practice I suggest you do is to collect all the feedback from all your team members and then publish it inside the company internally. It’s an important practice because in an all-NIRL team a lot of imagination can happen with the majority of your days talking with each other via just async test. So I’ve found that by gathering all the negative things folks might say about me in one place, and then for me to comment on it, then it all can get resolved all at once.

One of my happiest moments happened just last week after an open call I gave to gather feedback about me. It’s been anonymous until now, but for the first time I offered an option for folks to leave their name together with the feedback. For the past two years I’ve worked to build a design culture where Kim Scott’s Radical Candor doctrine could become the norm. So I was especially stoked when I noticed how 85% of the non-anonymous commenters critical feedback was no different than the 15% of folks who gave anonymous feedback. It reminded me of that saying by the late Coach Pat Summitt:

“The absolute heart of loyalty is to value those people who tell you the truth, not just those people who tell you what you want to hear. In fact, you should value them most. Because they have paid you the compliment of leveling with you and assuming you can handle it.”

Coach Pat Summitt

So … that’s a few beginner and advanced practices to get you going all-NIRL or in a globally distributed time. And now I’ve got to get back to work NIRL. —JM