Managing Distributed Teams

At Automattic, I lead a fully distributed product development and engineering team. This post will cover some of my personal practices for managing teams and if/how this is different in a distributed environment. These practices are probably more useful to newer managers running distributed teams for the first time.

I recently listened to Matt (Automattic’s CEO) and Raj Choudhury’s (Prof at Harvard Business School) discussion about the future of distributed work and the ‘Work from Anywhere’ movement which were the inspirations for writing this post.

DISTRIBUTED PRACTICES

The principles of managing a distributed team are the same as managing a team in person, but a few of the practices are different. People are still people, whether they are sitting right next to you or halfway around the world.

Here are a few practices that I’ve found helpful:

  • Trust: Start from a place of trust. Assume positive intent in written communication, and assume your team is working and trying their best regardless if they are sitting right next to you or they are working from home.
  • Expect Asynchronous Communication: Don’t expect a response immediately, even over chat tools like Slack. Learn how to use Slack asynchronously, and set the same expectation on your teams. I deleted Slack from my phone (because I would miss things), and close Slack on my computer when I want to remove distractions. I respond to messages in batches, and use the reminder feature if I need to come back to something later.
  • Focus on Output: Don’t falsely assume someone is more productive because they work longer hours (even when working in person). Focus on the quality and quantity of the work produced by an individual vs. the number of hours worked.
  • Clear Goals, Roles, Expectations: Develop clear goals and a shared understanding of the ‘why’ behind these goals, roles and responsibilities and what is expected of managers (and their teams) in terms of output. Extreme clarity here leads to more empowerment, not less, in my experience (one of my takeaways from Essentialism, by Greg McKeowen, which I recommend).
  • Project Kick Off: For new projects, with new groups of people working together or working across different teams it’s good to get alignment right at the start. I suggest experimenting with a kick off call with project stakeholders and participants followed by a written summary. The call may be difficult to schedule, and less conducive to working across time zones. but project kick offs are infrequent enough that I think these calls are worth it.
  • “Grab a Room”: If you sense a real time conversation is going off the rails in Slack and if it was in person you would ‘grab a room’ to chat it through, do the same over Zoom for 10 minutes. It helps if your team is not inundated with regular meetings so this can happen more seamlessly. I personally also leverage ‘office hours’ to skip level meetings a few times a quarter. 
  • Hiring: When hiring folks who are distributed, put extra weight on the quality of their written communication and their ability to work in a self directed manner. Documentation becomes even more important in a distributed environment.
  • Feedback: Give frequent, specific feedback both positive and developmental over Slack or in your regular 1x1s (both personal and project related). Write up more thoughtful feedback every 6-12 months. We all have recency bias in the longer reviews, so I keep a record of the small pieces of feedback in a running document. At Automattic, we have a tool called ‘Kudos’ which allows folks to send public thank you messages to a few colleagues a month. It’s a nice way to show appreciation.

MANAGEMENT DURING A PANDEMIC

Managing a distributed team during a global pandemic (Covid-19) requires greater care and empathy. Many folks who are working from home had it forced on them and it may have felt jarring. They may have additional responsibilities of looking after their children, caring for sick/old folks or dealing with loss either directly or indirectly. There is also a psychological toil that is hard to quantify, and simply not knowing when we will return to “normal” can weigh on people. As a manager, simply recognizing these issues explicitly and then being empathetic to their circumstance can go a long way.

I would encourage your teams to take the time they need for self care, and be accommodating to more flexible hours. If individuals or teams are going to experience a productivity hit, adjust goals accordingly (and publicly) as long as your business can afford it. It will pay off in the long term with improved happiness, productivity which will translate to better employee retention.

I’ve noticed extra output from some folks who are now simply working more to fill the extra time they have, and less output from others who are more affected. Teams realize and recognize this asymmetric contribution and much like any small community there are times where we need to contribute more to help out our colleagues. That’s ok, as long as it’s not permanent.


For more on this area check out the companion post around managing performance.

This series from Greylock is excellent as well – https://greylock.com/workfromanywhere-podcast/

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