Distributed Teams – Why Now?

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Anyone who follows me here will already know I blog, speak, and mentor on the mechanics needed so humans can work well together even when they are physically apart. As I wrap up writing my book, I’ve been focusing on chapters that cover important context around distributed teams, so this post is slightly different to my usual.

Why are so many more people now talking about distributed teams? Over the last year or so, I’ve been giving a series of presentations on the business, social and environmental benefits of distributed teams. One question I hear over and over is “Why now?”. Here are the three biggest reasons I’ve seen so far:

1) Money: Software startups used to raise money for a data-center and a physical office building and staff payrolls. Only then could people start working on The Next Big Thing. Regardless of what your product will be, creating your data-center takes time to setup and has risks – a data-center that is incorrectly sized for future anticipated traffic or with operational problems could kill your company. You could also kill your company by choosing to setup a physical office in the wrong location (limiting hiring) or choosing an office that is too small (disrupting hiring until you relocated or setup a second office location) or too big (needlessly increasing your burn rate). Since Amazon Web Services became mainstream, it eliminated the lead time for building a data-center. You still pay money for AWS, but it instantly scales up/down as your customer demand grows/shrinks – and some clever engineering can significantly reduce your AWS bills.

You could also kill your company by choosing an office in the wrong location (limiting hiring) or too big (needlessly increasing your burn rate even when your cash flow is tight) or too small (disrupting hiring until you relocated or setup a second office location). Since Amazon Web Services became mainstream, it eliminated the lead time for building a data center. You still pay money, but can scale up/down as your customer demand grows/shrinks. Now that the cost & lead time for a data-center is off the list for most companies, the cost & lead time for a physical office is a expensive outlier that people are starting to question as they look for funding.

2) Social/Economic change: The idea of “a job for life” is no more. People expect to change jobs throughout their career. When people working at high-profile organizations like Google, Facebook, Uber, etc leave after an average of 1.2-1.8 years, that means a person entering the workforce can expect to change companies ~20 times in their ~40 year career. Moving house for your first few jobs might be fun, but after a while most people want to set down roots with a partner, buy a home, grow a community of friends, start raising a family and taking care of parents. Over time, moving becomes harder.

3) Environmental awareness: Requiring everyone to live within commute distance of an office means a lot of commuters. No surprise there. What is less obvious is the ripple effect. As more high-paid people pay more for housing to reduce their commute, it forces displacement of everyone else, so the people who are needed to make a city function are forced to live further and further away. In practical terms that means cops, medics, firefighters, teachers, artists and others all commute longer hours each way to their lower-paid jobs. The term “mega-commuter” is now used to describe anyone who commutes >2.5 hours. Each way. Each day. No wonder traffic in the San Francisco bay area has spiked up 70% since 2010, even though the population “only” increased by 10% in that same time frame. All this traffic has a measurable toll on quality of life, for sure. However, it is also explicitly worth noting that of all the CO2 emissions from the US, the largest portion of emissions (27%) is from cars, buses and other transportation. Reducing the need for people to commute is an important way for us all to reduce our carbon footprint. Put another way: instead of reducing pollution by buying the latest electric car, you could instead reduce pollution by working from home and commuting less often.

Each of these are important reasons in their own right. And that’s not even taking into account all the other good business reasons for distributed teams (hiring, retention, diversity, etc). No wonder starting fully distributed companies is becoming mainstream. Hopefully, this book will help them start with the practical mechanics needed to succeed. As more distributed companies succeed, they each help improve the narrative for others who follow.

(This is an extract from my upcoming book “Leading Distributed Teams”. For more on this, see oduinn.com/book.)

John.

“Distributed” ER#15 now available!

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I’m excited and a little stunned to say that this update includes the last incomplete chapter! I’ve now written the complete book??!?

To get a free copy of this latest version of the book, just signup on my zero-spam, low-volume mailing list here: oduinn.com/book.

This marks the start of the next phase for this book-writing project – working with editors to cleanup any typos and errors in the text, finding illustrators to replace the screenshots, and going through a long list of “remember to fix…” todo items. The three big items on the list are 1) to start blogging and outreach work to get the word out about this book. 2) update a few remaining chapters to the same consistent structure/format and 3) figure out how to generate PDF and epub versions. Yes this update is still only available in kindle/mobi format, so for now, to read this latest update on your laptop or iphone, you’ll need the Kindle app.

I’ve honestly no idea how much work or time this will take, although I am all-too-aware of the 20/80 rule about “the last 20% takes 80% of the time”. The optimist in me believes that all the great feedback I’ve received so far on all the previous updates will help. A lot. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

As always, if you have any comments, ideas, concerns, etc., please don’t be shy to contact me. I love the contact and feedback so far, and would like to hear what you think. I again note how great the ongoing moral support and encouragement and excitement from each of you has been through all this. It literally keeps me going. Thank you. Each and every one of you.

John.

“Distributed” ER#14 now available!

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I’m excited to write that update#14 is now available – still in time for those of you looking for some quiet reading over the holidays!

This latest update includes yet another chapter – “Culture, Conflict and Trust” – one of the last two chapters that were left to write. Now, there is only one more chapter to go! I’ve also finished converting my manuscript to the new publishing format, so now all remaining weird SGML syntax errors should be fixed and all links to footnotes, links between chapters, etc, now working.

As I mentioned before, I’ve formally switched publishers and revised the release date to Jan2018. This change means that if you bought any of the previous versions of my book, you will not get automatically updated to this new update#14. To get a free copy of this latest version of the book, signup to my zero-spam, low-volume mailing list on oduinn.com/book.

As always, if you have any comments, ideas, concerns, etc., please don’t be shy to contact me. I love the contact and feedback so far, and would like to hear what you think. Meanwhile, its time for me to take a walk outside in the fresh air, brew more coffee and get back to writing!

I again note how great the ongoing moral support and encouragement and excitement from each of you has been through all this. It literally keeps me going. Thank you. Each and every one of you.

John.

“Distributed” ER#13 now available!

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There’s been a lot of significant changes since my last post – in life, in work and in book – without me having any time to blog/post about them. More on all those in other posts. For now, in this post, I want to focus on just one thing.

My book.

Since my last post, I’ve quietly kept working on my book-in-progress and now have another update ready. This latest update (update#13) is exciting to me, because it includes the freshly written SingleSourceOfTruth chapter. This topic is crucial to the practical logistics for distributed teams, so it feels like a real milestone to finally include this. It is also one of the last three chapters left to write, which is encouraging. This update also includes continued restructuring of other existing chapters so they all have a consistent structure. At this point, Chapters 1-8 feel “consistent”. Oh, and of course, there’s a bunch of typo-fixes, cleanups and general refining.

Between my last post (update#8) and now (update#13), I’ve formally switched publishers and revised the release date to Jan2018. This means that if you bought any of the previous versions of my book, you will not get automatically updated to this new update#13. So, if you *did* buy an earlier version of my book, please contact me, and let me know. I’ll immediately send you a free copy of this latest update#13 and all future updates including the finished book when its done. My way of saying “thank you” for your support from the outset!

Speaking of support – when I started writing, I heard from many people that “writing a book was hard”. The exact definition of exactly *how* hard was not clear, but I’m starting to get a better grasp now. Even as I suspect there are yet more surprises lurking ahead. I say all this to show how important it has been to me to have the ongoing moral support and encouragement and excitement from each of you through all this. It literally keeps me going.

Thank you. Each and every one of you.

John.

“We are ALL Remoties” (Nov2017 edition)

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Since my last post on “remoties”, I’ve done several more presentations and workshops – but havent had a minute to blog about any of them! I’ll fix that soon. But first, some readers discovered links to previous presentations were broken (thank you for catching that!). Without further ado, here is the latest version of this presentation – including yet another major restructuring.

Without further ado – you can get the latest version of these slides, in handout PDF format, by clicking on the thumbnail image.

As always, if you have any questions, suggestions or good/bad stories about working remotely or as part of a geo-distributed teams, please let me know (either by email or in the comments below) – I’d love to hear them.

Thanks
John.

Now Home

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It’s been almost a year since I last had time to blog here.

The work I did at U.S. Digital Service was intense, high stress, all-consuming, incredibly meaningful work – and worth every minute of the bizarre bi-coastal commuter-life I lived. It also meant my ability to blog here was practically zero. More on all of this in upcoming posts.

I returned to SanFrancisco late night on 18jan2017 but it took a few days before I realized I could actually put away my well-worn carry-on bag. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time recharging (some say hibernating?!), decompressing, reconnecting with friends as well as generally figuring out next steps in work and in life. For now, I’ll just say – it is both surreal and great to be back home, with no immediate plans to get on another plane anytime soon. This long weekend included a hill walk in the fresh air, catching up with some friends and watching Karl-the-Fog.

How great is that?

John.

“Distributed” ER#8 now available!

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“Distributed” Early Release #8 is now publicly available, about Book Cover for Distributed6 weeks after the last EarlyRelease came out.

This ER#8 includes a significant reworking and trimming of both Chapter 1 (“The Real Cost of an Office”) and also Chapter 5 (“Organizational Pitfalls to Avoid”). I know that might not sound glamorous but it was a lot of slow, careful, detailed work which I believe makes these chapters better and also helps with the structure of the overall book.

You can buy ER#8 by clicking here, or clicking on the thumbnail of the book cover. Anyone who already bought any of the previous ERs should have already been prompted with a free update to ER#8 – if you didn’t get updated, please let me know so I can investigate! And yes, you’ll get updated when ER#9 comes out.

Thanks again to everyone for their ongoing encouragement and feedback so far. Each piece of great feedback makes me wonder how I missed such obvious errors before and also makes me happy, as each fix helps make this book better. Keep letting me know what you think! It’s important this book be interesting, readable and practical – so if you have any comments, concerns, etc., please email me. Yes, I will read and reply to each email personally! To make sure that any feedback doesn’t get lost or caught in spam filters, please email comments to feedback at oduinn dot com. I track all feedback and review/edit/merge as fast as I can.

Thank you to everyone who has already sent me feedback/opinions/corrections – all really helpful.

John.
=====
ps: For the curious, here is the current list of chapters and their status:

Chapter 1 The Real Cost of an Office – AVAILABLE
Chapter 2 Distributed Teams Are Not New – AVAILABLE
Chapter 3 Disaster Planning – AVAILABLE
Chapter 4 Diversity
Chapter 5 Organizational Pitfalls to Avoid – AVAILABLE
Chapter 6 Physical Setup – AVAILABLE
Chapter 7 Video Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 8 Own Your Calendar – AVAILABLE
Chapter 9 Meetings – AVAILABLE
Chapter 10 Meeting Moderator – AVAILABLE
Chapter 11 Single Source of Truth
Chapter 12 Email Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 13 Group Chat Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 14 Culture, Conflict and Trust
Chapter 15 One-on-Ones and Reviews – AVAILABLE
Chapter 16 Hiring, Onboarding, Firing, Reorgs,
Layoffs and other Departures – AVAILABLE
Chapter 17 Bring Humans Together – AVAILABLE
Chapter 18 Career Path – AVAILABLE
Chapter 19 Feed Your Soul – AVAILABLE
Chapter 20 Final Chapter
Appendix A The Bathroom Mirror Test – AVAILABLE
Appendix B How NOT to Work – AVAILABLE
Appendix C Further Reading – AVAILABLE
=====

“Distributed” at trad.works

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to speak at the TRaD.works conference, here in Washington, DC. This featured a great mix of industry leaders and change agents from startups to multinationals to government agencies to non-profits… across all sorts of industries. All swapping tips-and-tricks on what did/didnt work for their organizations as they transitioned into more distributed organizations… warts-and-all… and doing this in very down-to-earth, approachable way. The trust, respect and tone between everyone here was great, and helped make the entire conference special. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm for all things Telework-Remote-And-Distributed across this wide range of organizations and industries.

I was on a panel discussion about supporting managers of distributed teams – a topic that is obviously near and dear to my heart! I enjoyed the lively interactions between Amy Freshman (ADP), Jeanne Meister (Forbes and FutureWorkPlace), Nicole McCabe (SAP), myself and the entire audience. The lively discussions continued long afterwards, first in corridors and coffee breaks then after in emails and video calls. Excellent, excellent stuff.

Big thanks to Sara Sutton Fell at FlexJobs for making this happen, and to Mike Gutman for handling a million-and-one details with calm grace and humor. Well done. Very well done.

Highlights of some press coverage so far:
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/274702

http://www.hrdive.com/news/panel-reveals-the-keys-to-creating-a-strong-remote-work-culture/420965/

“Distributed” ER#7 now available!

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“Distributed” Early Release #7 is now publicly available, a Book Cover for Distributedmonth after ER#6 came out.

This ER#7 includes a significant reworking of the first section of this book. Some chapters were resequenced. Some were significantly trimmed – by over half! Some were split up, creating new chapters or merged with existing sections of other chapters later in the book. All slow, detailed work that I hope makes the book feel more focused. The format of all chapters throughout were slightly tweaked, and there are also plenty of across-the-board minor fixes.

You can buy ER#7 by clicking here, or clicking on the thumbnail of the book cover. Anyone who already bought any of the previous ERs should get prompted with a free update to ER#7 – if you don’t please let me know! And yes, you’ll get updated when ER#8 comes out.

Thanks again to everyone for their ongoing encouragement, proof-reading help and feedback so far – keep letting me know what you think. Each piece of great feedback makes me wonder how I missed such obvious errors before. And makes me happy, as each fix helps make this book better. It’s important this book be interesting, readable and practical – so if you have any comments, concerns, etc., please email me. Yes, I will read and reply to each email personally! To make sure that any feedback doesn’t get lost or caught in spam filters, please email comments to feedback at oduinn dot com. I track all feedback and review/edit/merge as fast as I can. And thank you to everyone who has already sent me feedback/opinions/corrections – all really helpful.

John.
=====
ps: For the curious, here is the current list of chapters and their status:

Chapter 1 The Real Cost of an Office – AVAILABLE
Chapter 2 Distributed Teams Are Not New – AVAILABLE
Chapter 3 Disaster Planning – AVAILABLE
Chapter 4 Diversity
Chapter 5 Organizational Pitfalls to Avoid – AVAILABLE
Chapter 6 Physical Setup – AVAILABLE
Chapter 7 Video Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 8 Own Your Calendar – AVAILABLE
Chapter 9 Meetings – AVAILABLE
Chapter 10 Meeting Moderator – AVAILABLE
Chapter 11 Single Source of Truth
Chapter 12 Email Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 13 Group Chat Etiquette – AVAILABLE
Chapter 14 Culture, Conflict and Trust
Chapter 15 One-on-Ones and Reviews – AVAILABLE
Chapter 16 Hiring, Onboarding, Firing, Reorgs,
Layoffs and other Departures – AVAILABLE
Chapter 17 Bring Humans Together – AVAILABLE
Chapter 18 Career Path – AVAILABLE
Chapter 19 Feed Your Soul – AVAILABLE
Chapter 20 Final Chapter
Appendix A The Bathroom Mirror Test – AVAILABLE
Appendix B How NOT to Work – AVAILABLE
Appendix C Further Reading – AVAILABLE
=====

Human etiquette for more effective group chat

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Group chat is a tool that helps people communicate, just like email, phone calls, and meetings. Used correctly, these tools help people work more effectively. Use incorrectly, they hamper work. Jason Fried’s post about group chat as yet another interrupt generator started a lively discussion — some interesting posts are here and here and here, but there are many others. This is clearly a topic people care about.

Group chat imageGroup chat, in various forms, has been used by specific groups for literally decades. However, as this technology goes more mainstream, the human etiquette is still evolving. Here are five guidelines on group chat etiquette that I found helpful me over the years, and which I hope help others:

1. Ensure everyone is using group chat. Email and phone calls are successful because they are ubiquitous and interoperable technologies. For group chat to work, everyone should be using the same shared group chat. After all, the idea is to reduce barriers to cross-organizational communications. Find a chat system that most people in your organization like and standardize on that. Once this is done, you can easily and quickly message someone in a totally different part of the organization, be confident they will see your chat message and be able to reply.

2. Carefully create a minimal viable set of channels. Having too many channels, or too few channels, encourages interruptions. Too few channels means each channel has a lot of unrelated cross-chatter noise. Too many channels make it hard to figure out where to post about a particular topic, leading people to use whatever channel feels close enough — which in turn means others cannot tell which channels to monitor.

Here is a “Goldilocks” arrangement (not too many, or not enough, but just the right number of channels) that has worked well for me:

  • Private group channel: Membership is restricted to employees reporting to a specific manager. Each group has its own private channel. This channel is the pulse of the team, where you all talk about various internal team projects, as well as the socially bonding small talk that happens normally within a group throughout the day.
  • Public group channel: This public channel is where other co-workers, in other teams across the organization, can reliably expect to find your entire group. People from other groups will join/leave as they need. The name of this public channel should be posted on wiki pages and distributed widely, so everyone in the company clearly knows where to find your group when needed.
  • Public cross-group role-specific channel: This is a separate public channel for each recurring cross-group event. For example, channels here could include topics like production outages, release-day-logistics, recurring weekly company-wide meetings, and company-wide social chit-chat. Even if there is no production outage right now, having these channels created and well-advertised in advance means everyone knows where to go when an emergency suddenly arises.

3. Moderate the channels. Once these channels are created, they need active moderating. Small amounts of social banter is normal in any work environment (including meetings, conference calls or group chat) and helps us to remember we are all human, build a sense of community, and defuse tensions in high-pressure situations.

However, if social chatter starts to get in the way of doing work, politely and firmly move the off-topic chatter to another channel, so work can happen in the appropriate channel. Consistently moderating like this raises everyone’s overall awareness of group chat etiquette. Once the social norms are well understood, most people will do right by default, reducing the need for future moderation.

4. Remember that group chat is transient. If a discussion in a group chat channel reaches a decision that others may care about, that decision needs to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders. You’d do the same thing with an important decision reached over lunch, on a phone call while driving, or chatting at the coffee machine. Summarize the decision into a group-wide email, a project tracking system, or whatever is the single-source-of-truth for your organization. Sometimes, a quick copy-paste of the group chat discussion is good enough, but sometimes the act of summarizing a brilliant impromptu chat will uncover crucial missed assumptions. The important point is to keep everyone informed, without requiring everyone to continuously read every group chat channel for possible decisions that might be of interest later.

5. Mention people by name when appropriate. If you have a topic you want a specific human to read soon, then mention them by name. This will ensure they get notified and can quickly find where they are needed. However, be careful when you do this. This is almost like calling someone’s cellphone — you are choosing to interrupt without knowing the importance of what you are interrupting. Consider the urgency of your discussion, and consider if using another, less intrusive, medium might be best.

If you aren’t careful, group chat can become yet another endless stream of interruptions that people struggle to keep up with. However, with a careful combination of good technical organization and good human etiquette, group chat can speed up internal discussions, reduce email churn, and reduce the need for some meetings. A recurring daily gain for everyone, especially people in distributed organizations!

There are, of course, other things you can do to make group chat more effective… If you have suggestions for other ways to improve group chat, please let me know – in the comments below or by email. I’d be very eager to hear about them.

John.

(Modified from my post on medium.com, and my forthcoming book “Distributed”, published by O’Reilly later this year.)

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