3 Disadvantages Distributed Teams Have That Make Them Stronger

Lately, I’ve observed a startling fact about many high-performing teams I admire:  they don’t work together in the same office. In fact, many of them don’t even have an office.

Team LKR

Companies like LKR Social Media,37signals, WooThemes, and Buffer used to be the exception, but their success has blazed a trail resulting in an explosion in the number of companies made up of distributed teams.

What’s most surprising is that in addition to being successful, these companies have the tightest-knit company cultures you’ll see anywhere.  Conventional wisdom dictates that culture is built and strengthened by playing foosball and eating together in a shared physical space. So I was incredibly curious to find out how virtual companies do it.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know people like Laura Roeder and WooThemes founder, Mark Forrester.  As I studied their companies, I learned the unexpected reasons why their distributed teams are so successful, and the ways they turned what many deem a disadvantage into a trump card.

Here are 3 fundamental drawbacks that distributed teams face and why they actually make them stronger.

1. You can’t tap someone on the shoulder to have a conversation, so you’re more deliberate about using technology to communicate.

Obviously it’s easier to communicate in a shared office.  You can walk over to someone’s desk to have a chat or have a casual conversations with people in the hallways, which gives you a strong ambient sense of what’s happening in the company.  Since you don’t get any of this with a distributed team, miscommunication and work loneliness can become rampant.

The downside of that obviousness is that co-located teams often take communication for granted. It’s easy to lull yourself into a false sense of security around communication just because you sit next to someone. Distributed teams are forced to put in extra, deliberate effort to ensure that they’re communicating well, flipping that communication weakness into a major strength.

Photo Credit: Sqwiggle screenshot

At Zapier, one of the web’s hottest startups, the team doesn’t just use email, end of story, like so many teams in a shared office.  They use10+ tech tools to help them communicate including Sqwiggle for always-on video chat, Campfire for text chat, and and their own tool,Zapier, for connecting services together.

Similarly Laura Roeder shared an interesting insight with me, explaining why they use over 6 different tools for internal communication at LKR Social Media.  When a team works virtually, it loses the power of shared physical space and the communication that naturally flows from it. Instead, technology becomes that shared space.

Think about it. A company has an office area, a water cooler, a conference room, a break room area — different types of physical space to catalyze varied forms of employee interaction.  To make up for those places, a virtual team must use a number of different tech tools to facilitate those varied employee relationships and interactions. This requires deliberate thought on how the team needs to communicate.

So at LKR Social Media, they’re using Yammer for water cooler conversation,iDoneThis to keep everyone in the loop on work status, Google Hangout for video conferencing, Skype for one-on-one calls, PBworks as an internal Wiki, and Wrikefor structured conversation about projects.

2. It’s harder to work together in real-time, so you learn to work asynchronously.

With a distributed team, you’re rarely working at the same time as your colleagues, given that you’re spread across multiple timezones and you’re on flexible work schedules.  It’s tough to communicate and solve problems in real-time, and that’s a major reason people find distributed teams to be less efficient.

Zach Holman, a developer at GitHub, takes the opposite stance. GitHub didn’t have an office for the first two years of its existence, and Holman considers that to be a blessing in disguise.  During those formative years, the GitHub team learned to get work done asynchronously, using apps like Campfire for chat and GitHub for software development. What Holman learned was that the asynchronous mode of working is extremely powerful,  so much so that he implores other companies to “be asynchronous” — and here’s why.

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Having someone stop you in the hallway to have a conversation or tap you on the shoulder when you’re trying to concentrate to get your input all interrupt what you’re trying to get done.  Individually, they may just take up a few minutes of your time, but in the aggregate, they take you out of what Holman calls “the zone,” that sense of flow you get when you’re in the rhythm of getting stuff done. Asynchronous tools like Campfire and GitHub, on the other hand, make it easy for people to request your attention and share information, which you can get to on your time instead of someone else’s.

Here at iDoneThis, we’re believers in the power of working asynchronously, as we’ve seen how our product helps make syncing up a snap for distributed teams like LKR Social Media (and ourselves).  It’s like having a daily standup but without having to schedule a Skype call across multiple timezones.  An asynchronous sync-up allows the team to communicate what’s getting done, without having to interrupt others or fretting about performing in front of their peers, like you so often see in standups.

3. You can’t play ping pong together, so you build a more tight-knit culture through deeper, shared values.

Google taught everyone that a fun, vibrant company culture is defined by the ping-pong tables and yoga balls in your office and free food in your lunchroom. Culture is cultivated by those small, daily interactions you have with co-workers in the office.  With a distributed team, you don’t get any of that.

However, with a co-located team, you encounter one major restriction when it comes to company culture: you can only hire people who are either in your city or willing to move. That cuts out a huge portion of the population. On a distributed team, you can hire anyone regardless of location, but because you can’t watch over their shoulder at work, you must hire someone you can trust who you know is aligned with the values of your company.

At WooThemes, a distributed company that began outside of a major tech hub in South Africa, they’ve made hiring for their remote team into an advantage, as it’s made it possible for them to “hire top talent from anywhere in the world.”  That means they’re able to hire for culture fit regardless of location, rather than limiting the pool to find both culture fit and location.

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Sqwiggle takes this a step further by emphasizing that a distributed team’s ability to work well together is built upon a foundation of trust.  The inability to see your employees come into work from 9 to 5 every day can actually become a strength, because then you know you have to trust your employees.  That creates a much tighter-knit culture of a shared enterprise.

It’s true that these days technology helps make distributed teams viable, but it can’t do the job of managing people and creating culture. That’s up to the people in those companies. And when those people care about addressing fundamental issues that so quickly arise from the distributed nature of their teams, they gain the standout advantages of deliberate, thoughtful communication, protected space to focus and get into a flow, and a meaningful drive to consider company values.