Can we all agree that companies who call their remote workers back to the mothership are simply delaying the inevitable?

Remote work is here to stay. No matter what product you sell, people are your most valuable asset. And being remote-friendly is a good way to maximize it for a number of reasons:

  • You have a better shot at hiring the perfect candidate if you’re flexible about where they live.
  • The tech to support remote work is getting better by the minute. (Stride, anyone?)
  • Decades of experience has shown us that being under a microscope doesn’t lead to intrinsic motivation.
  • Urban office space ain’t getting any cheaper.

Instead of sticking their heads in the sand and wishing it away, smart leaders are devoting their energy to making sure their companies are poised to take advantage of remote work’s upsides – not to mention mitigating its downsides.

Got remote? Then you’re a distributed team

The key to all of this is actually to stop thinking about “remote workers” per se, and start thinking in terms of “distributed teams”. With that tiny mental shift, you’ve gone from focusing on an individual – an edge case, perhaps – to taking a holistic look at what’s going on at the organization level.

Once you embrace the idea of being “distributed” you realize it’s not just about your company’s own employees. Suppliers, partners, and clients don’t have desks at headquarters, either. And yet, they are integral to your success. They are, in other words, a part of your extended team. So building muscle around distributed work benefits your relationships with them, too.

What’s more, you can lay the groundwork for being awesome at distributed teams even if your company is 100% co-located right now. (Which we agree is a temporary situation, right?) Turns out, the three key ingredients for successful distributed teams also make for successful co-located teams. Two birds, one stone.

Treat team health as an investment – not a tax

There’s no magic formula for calculating the pay-off of investing in team health, but you know in your gut it’s going to be positive.

Back when I first started at Atlassian, we got really curious about the fact that some teams in the company were crushing it, whilst others were struggling to hit even soft-ball targets. Same company, same culture, same tools and tech… so why the difference?

After an extensive internal study, we found the healthy, high-performing teams had several things in common. Unsurprisingly, the low-performing teams had few (if any) of these traits.

Fast-forward to today, and we encourage all our teams, whether co-located or distributed, to look after eight areas. For example: 

  • Shared understanding – The team has a common understanding of the problem they’re solving. They’re confident they have what they need, and trust each other.
  • Full-time owner – There is one lead accountable for results, and champions the mission inside and outside of the team.
  • Balanced team – The team has the right blend of people and skills. Roles and responsibilities are clear and agreed upon. 
  • Value and metrics – The unique value in the team’s work is understood. Success is defined as a measurable goal that both the team and stakeholders agree on.

This framework (which we call the Team Health Monitor) is what turns good teams into amazing teams. It’s also what pulls failing teams back from the abyss. 

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Whilst team health is important for co-located teams, it is absolutely vital when you go distributed. Problems – whether with the work itself or with team dynamics – are amplified by distance. 

Get comfortable with autonomy

If you don’t already have a culture of delegation and decentralized decision-making, now is the time to build one. You’re going to need it when your team sits in different timezones.

The most successful companies I’ve worked with are the ones where leaders recognize that, 90% of the time, the best people to make a decision are the people closest to the work it affects. By contrast, companies where leaders hoard decision-making authority move at a snail’s pace and (surprise, surprise) can’t hold on to talented people.

When the risk is high, the context is complex, and/or the impact ripples across the whole company, decisions should be owned by leaders, with input from subject matter experts. Everything else can be entrusted to the teams and individuals doing the work.

Think “open by default”

We all like to think we’re open, but most companies are actually built on information silos and hoarding. The negative effects of this get amplified with distributed teams who miss out on all the tid-bits shared in water cooler conversations.

To work effectively in a distributed team, information and insights need to be shared in a timely manner. Without this, hours (days?!) get wasted on work that isn’t relevant. Plus, everyone needs to base their work on the same version of the truth.

Creating great customer experiences requires sharing information internally.

I’m a big fan of using an internal wiki instead of Google Docs or (horrors!) MS Word. When project plans, policies, updates, drafts, and reports are simply created as pages, information isn’t just accessible – it’s discoverable. The result is a free-flowing exchange of ideas and feedback that sharpens everyone’s work.

Distributed teams aren’t easy at first. It’s a bit of an acquired taste. But you can set yourself up for success by embracing the principles of transparency, autonomy, and continuous improvement. Try it with your co-located teams now and get a taste of the future of work.

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For more on how to embrace remote work, grab this handy ebook from the Trello team. They’re over 60% remote, so they probably know what they’re talking about 😎

Check out the ebook


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How to prepare for the remote-friendly future of work