Making Distributed Working Work
Four years ago, I started working at a small startup called Snyk that’s based in two locations – London and Tel Aviv. The founders made it clear they wanted to grow headcount in both locations at the same rate, and for the design and engineering skillsets between the two offices to be evenly spread. We’re now at over 200 people and we’re still staying true to that vision, but only by completely changing how we were used to working. The trend for fully distributed teams is on the rise – companies like InVision and GitLab have entirely remote employees. Snyk is somewhere in between, with small hubs of global team members in homes and shared offices globally alongside our main London, Tel Aviv, Boston, Ottawa and Bay Area offices. Our R&D teams are based entirely in London or Tel Aviv, with a few employees working around Europe. Rather than have Team A working in one office and Team B working in another, we’ve deliberately designed it so that no R&D team at Snyk has all its members in one location. We could design our teams to be all co-located so that everyone’s in the same room, but we don’t. When I explain this setup to people, I’ll often get a response of bewilderment – why do it this way? It sounds like a pain! Increasingly though, the reaction is positive – usually from people who’ve worked in a distributed team before where departments are split neatly between locations. They’ve experienced an “us vs them” culture, with work being thrown over the fence to designers or engineers in different timezones. They’ve been at the mercy of the decision makers who are all in the head office. This is exactly what we wanted to avoid. We wanted the company to feel like one team, across many locations. It’s not perfect – I do miss the things that working in the same location brings such as collaborating on a whiteboard, or having planning documents stuck on the wall for the team to refer to. Pre-distributed working, I used to sit next to a designer and we’d bounce ideas off each other. Now I have to make the extra effort to schedule something in. Managing people remotely is also tough – I can’t easily see that a team member is having a bad day and make them a cup of tea. But on the whole, it works pretty well for us. The time difference between London and Tel Aviv is a comfy 2 hours, and in Tel Aviv, the week runs from Sunday to Thursday, meaning there’s just a single day in the week when all our teams aren’t working. This makes the week feel like the ebb and flow of a tide – my Mondays are very busy, but on Fridays, half the team is off so there are barely any meetings – ideal for deep focus time. So how do we make this distributed-but-also-co-located hybrid thing work? Level the playing field Firstly, that “us vs them” mentality I mentioned is the key thing to avoid to maintain a positive distributed work culture. Avoid the term “remote team”, as that has a sense of otherness. Instead, refer to your team as “distributed”. It’s such a small change that has the effect of bringing everyone onto the same level. Also, consider your video conferencing etiquette – if you’ve got a large part of your team in one location, with just one or two members who are dialling in, you could end up with a very one-sided conversation. The room with the most people in…
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