Distributed Teams Best Practices: 9 Lessons Learned

As distributed teams become more widely accepted, especially in the tech space, we thought it would be beneficial to share some insights on what it takes to build and run an effective distributed team.

While we could simply draw on our own experiences, we also thought it would be beneficial to reach out to a few of our industry partners. We asked them to share some feedback and no-holds-barred tips on distributed teams best practices and building, managing & working in a distributed environment.

Brad Williams launched WebDevStudios back in 2002 while sitting around a coffee table with Brian Messenlehner — back then it was a part-time venture. Their company has since grown to the point where they have 35 remote employees, spread across the US.

I also chatted with Jake Goldman who founded 10up back in 2011. He knew from day one that he wanted to build a distributed team — taking advantage of the opportunity to bring together a group of talented people from within the WordPress community, regardless of their geographical location. Today his team consists of 120 full-time employees from around the globe.

I’ve narrowed the list to down to the top 9 most important distributed teams best practices. These are issues that were either unique or resurfaced often enough to make them obviously important.

1. Communication Skills Are Vital

You might think this was an automatic requirement and you’d be right. But there are some nuances that come into play when hiring for a remote position.

Being comfortable on camera is important for Jake at 10up. Remote employees will spend a lot of time video conferencing with co-workers and clients.

It’s also worth considering a remote worker’s ability to communicate effectively when writing. In a remote environment, much of the written communication is stored and reviewed by other team members at a later time or date.

The ability to communicate is important, but so is willingness. Keeping co-workers up to date with progress, using Hip Chat during the work hours and as well as Slack and zoom.us are all popular methods of closing the communication gap.

2. Building a Distributed Team Requires Trust

In 2013, Yahoo was widely criticized for their internal memo that essentially ended their employees’ ability to work from home or remotely. David Heinemeier Hansson from BaseCamp and Adii Pienarr from WooThemes, both used the opportunity to bring up the importance of trust when working with remote employees.

“Great work simply doesn’t happen in environments with so little trust,” said David. In a co-located environment, managers are often taking mental notes about who’s sitting in the chair working and who’s chatting at the water cooler – as if one denotes productivity and the other does not.

Working as a distributed team requires that you establish a level of trust in the fact that the work will get done. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not hours “worked” that matter, it’s results and happy clients.

Brad at WebDevStudios ranked trust as the second most important quality (behind communication) when hiring a remote employee. Once trust diminishes, the relationship will likely be short lived.

3. It’s Easier to Find Talent as a Distributed Team

Talent is expensive. One of the very first points brought up by Jake Goldman from 10up was that he knew scaling their team in a co-located, large metropolis environment would be difficult beyond the first 10-20 employees. Large cities mean more talent in a concentrated area, but it also means more competition.

As a distributed team, you’re able to source talent from around the globe. The ability to offer a flexible and remote work environment also means you’ll be able to attract higher quality employees who might not be interested in a co-located space with heavy management oversight.

4. Your Clients Will Benefit From a Remote Team

While there are plenty of advantages for the company when it comes to being distributed, there can also be huge benefits for clients and customers.

“We would never have been able to scale as quickly, or efficiently in a co-located environment nor would we be able to deliver the same level of service or quality to our clients,” said Jake.

Working as a distributed team forces you to get really good at communication — that’s something clients will benefit from even if they don’t realize it. There is also significantly less communication friction in a remote environment. Meetings are easier to coordinate, waste less time and stay on-point.

5. The Right Tools Are Important

Tools are important but even more important is how you use those tools. Everyone I talked to brought up the communication challenges that can arise from lack of face-to-face contact.

As you’re probably aware, it can be difficult to interpret someone’s tone when communication is in the form of text. Humor, sarcasm and simple jesting can easily derail a normal conversation.

10up tries to negate this problem by hiring people who exhibit a high degree of empathy. Nevertheless, misinterpretations will happen and, when they do, it’s important that the parties involved are willing to jump on a quick Skype or video call in order to keep the air clear. Don’t let issues fester.

6. A High Degree of Patience Is Required

Working in a distributed team, especially beyond North American time zones will require an added degree of patience. People, answers and solutions won’t necessarily be available exactly when you need them.

To compensate for this, distributed teams need to adjust their workflow management — making sure that alternate projects are available to work on when answers are not.

7. Hire Good Remote Workers

Great employees aren’t necessarily great remote employees. Successfully building a distributed team relies on your ability to hire people who have some unique qualities.

Specifically, 10up looks for employees that are confident in their skills and who are capable of getting their work done without excessive oversight. They also like to see new hires who have a social circle and family living close by. When your colleagues are across the country or on another continent, it’s tough to socialize with them outside of work.

Brad at WebDevStudios loves to hire ex-freelancers, “they’re typically self-regulating, productive and are great at dealing with clients.”

At Pagely, our own Sean Tierney was quick to point out that things can get outright lonely when you’re working remotely. It’s important that people have the ability to mix up their work environment on a regular basis. Face to face interactions can help to keep you productive and it’s mentally healthy as well.

8. Find New Ways to Measure Productivity

In a co-located environment, productivity is, in some ways, easier to measure. Chronic slackers stand out like a sore thumb and it rarely takes long for people to figure out that the water-cooler is actually capable of holding itself up.

Managing productivity in a distributed environment requires more of a bottom line approach. If sites are being built, customer service tickets are being closed and task lists are turning over, it’s usually a sure sign that things are getting done.

WebDevStudios relies heavily on the first two items on this list: communication and trust. Although they provide employees with a flexible work schedule, they also like to see people logged in and available during the work day unless they have something important that needs dealing with.

Regular meetings can also help to keep people on-task and productive. Pagely has a standing weekly meeting as does WebDevStudios — a Friday afternoon scrum keeps everyone accountable. Companies like Zapier close out the week by reviewing everything that was shipped for the previous week – keeping people accountable and maybe a little competitive.

Productivity isn’t hard to manage, it just requires creativity and a high degree of trust.

9. Maintaining a Company Culture Requires Extra Work

A common challenge for distributed teams is building and maintaining a company culture. It can be challenging, no doubt, but from the feedback I received, it’s far from impossible.

At Pagely there is a philosophy that “if we do good, the money will come.” It’s a very different strategy than many companies who prefer to put dollars first and relationships second.

Making sure employees are in-sync with our company values means treating them the same way we’d like them to treat our customers. For the most part, it’s a self-regulating system that keeps everyone working towards the same goal and weeds out the bad apples with amazing efficiency.

During the workweek, it helps to keep things fun. WebDevStudios lightens up to mood with Halloween costume contests and fundraising events like Movember. Charities have proven to be a great way to build a purpose that goes far beyond developing and launching WordPress sites.

Regular corporate functions (semi-annual or annual retreats) where teams members get together to socialize and build relationships are also seen as crucial.


There are certainly a few detractors when it comes to the idea of building a business with a distributed team. Although for every drawback, there seems to be an equivalent advantage. The impression I got from talking to three very successful companies is that if anything, being a distributed team forces you to iterate. Systems, procedures and ways of communicating can always be improved upon and the results benefit both company and client.

If you’re currently managing or working in a distributed team, feel free to share your distributed teams best practices in the comments.

3 Comments

  1. John Locke
    John Locke

    Hi Daryn:

    I’ve been a remote worker since I started doing web development full-time in 2012. As an independent consultant, I’ve been a part of a few ongoing remote teams (nothing as large as Jake’s team), but the same principles have to be in place to make remote work successful.

    I agree with the panel that Communication and Trust are bedrock elements that must be in place to make a remote team succeed.

    Many of the team leaders I works with have the same pain points when it comes to finding good team members.
    “People go radio silent and don’t communicate.”
    “Many independent developers don’t manage their time efficiently.”
    “It took me forever to find people I could TRUST to get the work done.”

    Those these are small and mid-size shops with remote teams, I have to imagine the same concerns surface on larger, full-time teams.

    Some final tips: Always be crystal clear in your communication. Don’t leave any room for misinterpretation. Overcommunicate so that the tone and voice of your written communication is 100% understood. Listen for cues and clues in the communication of other team members. Do what you say you will do. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Give yourself ample time margin to make sure you deliver on your word.

    Thanks!

    Reply

  2. Daryn Collier
    Daryn Collier

    Thanks John,
    There are definitely some common threads that came up during all three conversations and they are echoed by your experience and feedback.

    Cheers,
    Daryn

    Reply

  3. Saqib Sarwar
    Saqib Sarwar

    Hi,

    I am managing a small team of 5 people and I have learned some good points from this read.

    I want to share one thing with respecting to “Measuring Productivity”. I think a decent automated tool like rescuetime really helps in keeping a vigilant eye and in result making your team more productive.

    Thanks

    Reply