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What Founders Should Know about Building a Distributed Team Ashley Dotterweich

There are a lot of great things about building distributed teams, including tapping into fresh pools of talent to help you build a better team, faster. It’s not surprising that many teams are embracing this model as they grow. But distributed teams have their own challenges. Whether you’re considering making a transition towards a distributed team, or you want to include remote hires in your company from day one, going in with a game plan will help ensure a smoother experience for the whole team.

In a recent episode of To Be Continuous, Edith Harbaugh and Paul Biggar discussed their experiences and thoughts on distributed teams. Here are a few noteworthy challenges that every founder should consider if they’re interested in growing a distributed team.

Communication is the Biggest Hurdle for Distributed Teams

In the early days of any startup, “high-bandwidth” communication is important. Things move fast and change frequently, so keeping a small team continuously and consistently in the loop is essential. Incidentally, this is why many teams opt not to go build a remote workforce in the early days. If you’re going to have a distributed team, keep in mind that communication will be the biggest challenge you face. In order to combat this, you need to be hyper-aware of potential opportunities for communication breakdowns and take action to prevent them.

Documentation Habits Need to Be On-Point

To help combat the communication issues, successful distributed teams put a premium on documenting processes, activities and other important information thoroughly. The structure of that information is as important as the information itself. Whether you build an internal wiki, implement expert-level Google Drive organization or invest in a knowledge management solution, the entire team should have the ability to access and understand the information they need, when they need it.

Done well, internal documentation can be a boon to distributed teams. “In particular, what I think that you get from a distributed team is that you are forced to write things down, and there’s a lot of benefits from that,” said Paul. “The people who find out about it aren’t just the people who sit nearest you or are in the right meetings, everyone in the company gets aligned on the same page.”

The Remote Experience Must Be Level with the In-Office Experience

Anyone who has taken a video call from home (or on the road) has probably suffered the pain of trying to participate in a meeting with a bad connection. It’s easy to take in-person communication for granted when it’s readily available. Any team with even a few people who aren’t physically in the office should consider the impact of their conferencing set up on remote team members. Edith shared her experience of being on the receiving end of a bad remote culture:

It would drive me nuts, I was working at a San Francisco company that got bought by a company in another region and we would do calls and we couldn’t understand them. We were like, “We can’t hear you. We literally can’t hear you.” And they would say, “We don’t care.”

To build empathy for their remote counterparts, some teams with distributed teams hold remote weeks periodically and have members of the in-office team work remotely. Others level the playing field with all-remote All Hands to ensure everyone has the same experience, or have distributed team members come into town for activity-filled onsite weeks with a focus on team bonding. Whatever approach you take, taking the remote experience serious is key.

It’s Never Too Early to Think about Scale

As with most processes, tools and practices, what works for a company of 10 likely won’t work the same for a company of 100. If you’re going to build a distributed team successfully, you’ll need to safeguard your team against growing pains as you scale. Keeping an ear to the ground for potential issues and checking in regularly with remote team members to spot points of friction early on. “When it’s easy for someone in the office to do a thing that it’s not easy for someone remote to do, that starts to breed problems,” says Paul.

Learn More about Creating Effective Distributed Teams

There’s no one right way to build a distributed or remote-friendly culture. Having a remote team can be a goal to work towards, a short-term solution to a problem, or an integral part of your team’s culture. For more on the journey to (or from) distributed and remote teams, check out To Be Continuous: The Evolution of Local vs Remote. Want more insight into what successful distribute teams look like? Revisit our panel on Building an Inclusive Remote Culture for insights on how a few more organizations approach managing and maintaining their distributed cultures.

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