A Charter for Distributed Teams

Lessons learned from making a 19 time zone spread work

Many years ago, back in my life at Google, I ran a (circa) 30 person team split between Mountain View, London and Sydney. There were operational reasons for our geographic spread which I won’t go into here but it was obvious before we began that the distribution of people was going to present some challenges.

Looking back I realise one of the things which went well was we were open about the challenges and deliberate about how we solved them. This distils handily down to a number of rules which others may find useful.

  • First rule. Minimise how this impacts your real life. It was impossible to regularly meet over VC without one group of people sacrificing their personal lives. So we didn’t do this. Instead we had London<>Sydney, Sydney<>Mountain View and Mountain View<>London meetings. That way there was no frequent hammer blow to sleep / personal life.
  • Second rule. There has to be compromise on all sides. For example during winter in the northern hemisphere there is an 11 hour time gap from London->Sydney meaning there is no single good time to meet up. To address this our bi-weekly meetings would rotate times between bad for London (early) and bad for Sydney (late) so people only had this happen once a month. Which leads to…
  • Third rule. Disruptions need to be predictable. No last minute late/early meetings. No last minute requests for status updates or general bureaucracy. The way this goes wrong is people justify that their last minute request is a one off and important — it isn’t. Experiments with rats and cocaine show that putting an intelligent animal in an unpredictable environment leads to self destructive behaviour.
  • Fourth rule. Regional autonomy wherever possible. People need to be empowered to make decisions locally. Over time you can learn to make projects work between two or even three (or more) regions but it takes time to build the relationships to let this happen. If you’re waiting for a decision from another time zone then you’re going to hate life. If decisions affecting you are made without your involvement too often you’ll start to despise the people making them. Facebook do this very well, albeit at smaller organisational scale (it’s a conscious decision for them when starting a project or a new office). Google does not :(
  • Fifth rule. You need to like each other to make this work as it requires give and take. Spend time in person, build rapport, get to know each other. This is the foundation of being able to see the best in each other when your relationship is reduced to textual communication. Remember people will frequently be skimming communications when tired, distracted, caffeine deprived or some combination of the above. Care and attention is required on the part of both the author and the recipient. Having a real human relationship gives a broader and more generous range of interpretation.
  • Sixth rule. Talk about team culture/dynamics regularly. The “how” you do things is really important and discussing this is worth your time — if there are behaviours that are askew then follow up and deal with them. There should be no surprises and a common purpose and context (this means plan together and report progress/success/failure together). If you lose alignment then bad things start to happen. In SRE terms — you should be able to run a DiRT with one region and no loss in context. Organisation success needs to be aligned across locations (ie. “everyone must be able to win”) and make sense to people “sense of purpose rather than urgency”)
  • Seventh rule. Say “thank you”. A lot. Showing appreciation means people continue to be willing to see the best in each other, go the extra mile and compromise. You are also each others’ cheerleaders locally. If you’re not speaking well of each other that’s an early wanting sign (then bad things happen)

The more people you have the harder the seven rules are but also the more important they are. We managed to make it work with circa 30 to the extent where people are still friends with each other and stay in contact after leaving the team. Making this kind of set up doesn’t happen overnight and requires investment from everyone involved. But, if you ignore the need to actively cultivate your team culture across remote teams then you will wind up with the kind of toxic tribal behaviour you see across companies on a depressingly frequent basis.

There’s also manager’s addendum here that needs to be mentioned.

  • Rule eight. DO NOT TAKE SIDES. People will come to you with concerns or complaints about other team members or work being done in other locations. When this happens you have to ask the person bringing the concern “Have you talked it through with the other person(s)?”. If not refuse to talk to them until they’ve spoken or offer to be in the room and facilitate if there’s a power imbalance there. If you tolerate one sided escalations even a tiny bit then you will wind up with a globally distributed game of thrones. Yes you may need to make decisions but only when people escalate together and are capable of disagree and commit. Resist the temptation (in particular) with local team members to represent them or you remove the incentive for them to resolve their own issues with team mates and make the remote teams feel disenfranchised. Hold people to account for this.

Finally… the road to hell (and the good intentions it is paved with). You want to assume good intent from people but I find many conversations about unhealthy behaviours start with “assume good intent” as an admonishment to whoever is calling someone on their behaviour. Fix the behaviour and the frequency where good intent has to be assumed diminishes to the point where it’s negligible. Behaviour is easily fixed and the correct response when confronted with your own (when you mess up) is “thank you for pointing out my broken behaviour”. Every time someone is too tired or distracted to assume good intent you’ll risk getting an extreme reaction and this will erode the good will between teams and team members over time. This is why the 6th and 7th rules are so important as you need to renew these bonds regularly and discuss what frictions have arisen between people.