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Working remotely is like parenting. It's not for everyone and there are a million "right" ways to do it.

If you’ve ever worked for clients remotely or with a team set up in a different location, then you’ve worked “distributed”. Either you were distributed or they were or you all were. I know, really tight logic there — I’m a smart cookie.

I’m just barely wise enough (learning from the many mistakes I’ve made) to tell you anything absolute about distributed working. If you’ve been in a parenting discussion with me before you’ll know that I have some great stories to tell about some strategies that have saved our asses many times over. But here’s the thing, I’ll tell you they saved our asses, I have no idea what it takes to save your ass in parenting or with regard to how you work.

Many people vehemently propose that a distributed workforce is either for the birds or that if you want to succeed you need to fully adopt the remote lifestyle so you can get the best talent who prefer to work from an aviary in their backyard rather than move to San Francisco (a zoo of a different variety). I don’t care to take this kind of stance, instead I’m just going to share my experiences, cuz they’ve saved my work-ass a few times over.

The highlights below are just that, highlights. Collectively they are things you can use to assess your own fit for distributed work — or you can blaze your own trail. It’s up to you.

Personality matters

In twenty years I might not need a lot of control or reduced ambiguity, but right now I do. That’s me. Consistently good communication and clear expectations are absolutely paramount for me to feel good about work. I want to have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening and how people feel and what needs to be done. It follows then that I have to work a lot harder to make a distributed workplace one where I feel comfortable and clear about what’s happening.

In twenty years I might not need a lot of control or reduced ambiguity, but right now I do. That’s me. Consistently good communication and clear expectations are absolutely paramount for me to feel good about work. I want to have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening and how people feel and what needs to be done. It follows then that I have to work a lot harder to make a distributed workplace one where I feel comfortable and clear about what’s happening.

It takes two to tango

I’ve worked at four separate product teams now in various roles as designer, Chief Creative Officer, and Creative Director, and VP of Product. For all of these I’ve been in Greenville, SC and the majority of the teams I was part of or leading were hosted elsewhere. I’ve also run a design studio where the only local client I worked with was my favorite pub for which I traded beer and pizza for design services (awesome). So I’ve been distributed in one way or another for the last ten years. one thing has become abundantly clear to me.

For distributed to work well, everyone has to dance distributed together.

What that means is that if you are distributed but the majority of your team isn’t then you’re likely to experience a second-class relationship to your team. The communication will be a reduced fidelity experience for those who are distributed compared with those who are together geographically. Distributed communication can be really good, but it’s really different, and if you’re not all using the same kinds of communication is creates rifts and can really kill motivation and culture. Many times over this happened for me.

I found that for distributed to work well for me everyone needed to be using headphones and sitting in their own space for visual or phone meetings. Everyone needed to be using slack or similar for symetrical communication (all together), and tools like Voxer or Email for asynchronous communication (dispersed throughout the day).

If your team doesn’t do this, then you’re sort of dancing the tango by yourself, which — be honest — is just not as fancy or fun.

Some roles work better than others

Another factor I’ve unearthed is that your responsibilities and your role can play a huge factor in whether or not distributed work will be effective and sustainable for you. If you’re expected to lead your team, and you’re leading as a distributed team member, but the rest of your team isn’t that’s friction city. There’s an imbalance of what your team is experiencing as obstacles and successes during the day that you simply won’t be able to bridge as well as someone who was in the room with that team.

If however you’re all distributed, then you’re all experiencing the flow of work life similarly and you can lead empathetically.

Your ability to lead your team depends on your connectedness and shared experiences with them, not just your talent. This is likely a similar experience for project managers.

Friendship is the stock that makes the soup work

So if you’re making soup you need the ingredients and some good stock, whether its vegetable or beef or whatever fits your tastebuds, but if you lack the stock its just a pile of ingredients — edible, but not delectable. The same seems to hold true of friendship or friendliness in a successful work culture. When working distributed, creating friendliness is just harder and takes more intention because the line at the bathroom, or the watercooler just doesn’t exist in the same way.

Thankfully we have places like the #random channel on Slack, but that requires some willingness to play there. Many introverts are likely to hold back.

One trick I learned when I was building a team at Relay Foods was to tell jokes to finish out our meeting. There was something that cut the “businessy” side of things and kept us human.

Another tool that Matt Cook and I use while working with The Fathom & Draft clients is to kickoff our projects in person wherever our clients may be. We take them out to dinner, we get to know each other. This last week we shared family photos with a potential client, and that empathy goes a long way in developing the familiarity necessary to add a little depth to the any eventual emails that might otherwise be utterly flat and easily misinterpreted.

Lessons Learned

  1. Distributed work can be amazing, but it might not be amazing for you or your company. One size does not fit all.
  2. Ask people you’ve worked with and your friends and family if working remotely seems like a good fit with your personality.
  3. Find out from your team what they are committed to doing to make working remotely effective. If they’re only half way committed they aren’t committed at all (in my opinion).
  4. Assess whether your role can be fulfilling for you and effective for your team if you’re distributed. Some roles work better than others.
  5. Be intentional about creating friendliness and find out what life outside of work is like for your team and your clients. It has huge returns!
Matthew Smith May 29, 2015