Like many companies today, our startup operates as a series of distributed (or virtual) teams. Our product team is in Brooklyn, while our sales and marketing team operates in Manhattan. We have found that if we let engineers and product designers work in Brooklyn, not only are they more likely to accept our offer employment, the current employees are then able to recruit other creative thinkers to the cause.
For a time we tried all being in Brooklyn, but the need to see our customers -- many of whom are in Manhattan -- made being outside New York’s most famous borough unworkable. Marketing and sales people tend to live in Manhattan or are comfortable commuting to the borough from places like Connecticut and New Jersey.
Despite the advantages, operating in distributed teams has some unique challenges. Here’s how we’ve made it work:
Communication. The biggest challenge with distributed teams is communication. If you’re not in close proximity to one another, it can be more difficult to express ideas. Technology can be a big help here, and we rely extensively on instant messaging and other collaboration platforms. Most of our employees are Millennials (born after 1980) and seem to have a natural affinity for communicating through text.
One unanticipated benefit of distributed teams has been not having salespeople and engineers on top of each other. Instead of a salesperson coming back from a customer meeting and insisting on changes to the product roadmap, feature requests tend to be more measured.
Trust. Ultimately, the most important element in making distributed teams work is trust. If people do what they say they’re going to do, over and over again, the issues with not being together in the same room go away pretty quickly.
Roadmap. Having a product roadmap is essential to keeping everyone on the same page. As our organization has gotten larger, we’ve focused more on keeping this document up-to-date and available.
Leadership. Organizations today tend to be very flat, but I believe that every distributed team must have a leader. When an issue comes up, it’s best to have the option of speaking with someone in person for faster problem resolution.
Bonding. Even though we all don’t all see one another every day, we do make an effort to get together. Each week many of us get together for a company lunch. Holding monthly, in-person, all-company meetings will also be important going forward.
Working from home. Unlike at Yahoo, we don’t have a formal policy against working from home. However, our people are encouraged to come into the office each day to work alongside their team members. Everyone seems to want to do that, which is a good sign.
By allowing people to work in distributed teams, we have been successful thus far in recruiting people in a very competitive market for talent. Distributed teams also enable us to be more efficient. Our employees spend less time commuting and more time working together to solve complex problems.