Working in a distributed team


Published June 3, 2019 by Martin Rosvall

Infobaleen was born in an interdisciplinary research lab at Umeå University, where our lives intersected a few years ago. One day we were researchers with a common interest in complex systems. The next day we were also co-founders with a new mission. However, the two-body problem separated us, and now we are spread across five cities in two countries.

As a result, we benefit from productive working hours without interruptions, distractions, long commutes, or limiting 9 to 5 office hours. We take breaks when we need it and go into deep work mode when we can. Forget micromanagement. We are immune. Moreover, we can work from whatever place we want as long as there is a reliable internet connection. Yes, it works, thanks to a shared vision and unconditional dedication.

Of course, working in a distributed team also comes with challenges. While the number of deep work hours has stayed constant, we did not manage to align those hours until we started to use the management framework Objective and Key Results (OKRs). Our quarterly OKRs give everyone a clear direction, but they are no bandwagon for increased autonomy and productivity by themselves. Real traction happened when we combined the OKRs with a solution that separated us from the competition.

So much for unlimited individual freedom. No one in the team praises the absence of commutes on days when we see exceptional results in split tests. We also think that it is OK to be interrupted by happy customers.

Other challenges persist. Those who claim that video meetings can replace face-to-face meetings have not met Andrea. While collaboration tools have come a long way, no one can do Andrea justice when he wants to share his intuition about a problem. Give him a whiteboard, and the show begins. Unfortunately, laptop cameras and screens crop, flatten, and distort body language. For Andrea, that means washing out half of the information.

Also, the barrier to initiating conversations is higher when we work in different places. Shooting away messages or setting up video calls are simple one-button clicks that work well for scheduled meetings and urgent issues, but less pressing thoughts rarely trigger video meeting clicks, and casual conversations do not happen unless we force them.

We make casual conversations happen. Each quarter, everyone asks everyone else two questions in a series of pairwise video calls:

What is one thing you think I do well?

and

What is one thing I could change that would help you do a better job?

These questions not only help us to become more productive, but they also stimulate causal conversations that help us to align and unite.

What if the next generation collaboration tools can successfully transmit Andrea's whiteboard shows and complement the merely binary active or not active user status with an automatic time-for-causal-conversation status update? Could we then abandon our physical get-togethers when we evaluate old and set new OKRs? Perhaps, if all we did was to care about productivity and alignment, but then we would forget why we started this journey: We have a lot of fun together.

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