An Ode to Distributed Teams

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By Janet Choi

There’s not much mystery behind how a distributed team works. We show up, in our respective locations, talk to each other, and make stuff happen. The alchemy of coming together to make it work is the same that any team experiences when they build something together. There are a lot of ingredients that go into that magic, and these days, people’s physical proximity to each other is not necessarily one of them.

Like many of the teams we serve, our own iDoneThis team is dispersed. While we experience both the challenges and benefits of the form, what stands out is how naturally that form compels teams to consider and resolve the process of daily collaboration. When we get down to it and count the ways we love distributed teams, we see the alignment of four elements — company culture, communication, productivity, and the right people — that help make the magic happen.

 half of the magic-making iDoneThis team

1.     The Company Culture Advantage for Distributed Teams

Despite having reached that fuzzy buzzword point of meaning whatever you desire, company culture is widely acknowledged to be, as Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, put it, “the defining issue that will distinguish the most successful businesses from the rest of the pack.”

Company culture is not made of ping-pong tables but of a mission and vision, shared values, and a meeting of minds on how to (and how not to) work together. VC Mark Suster points to supposedly weaker company culture in claiming that distributed teams are less effective. “The best companies are built on common beliefs and culture – a common sense of purpose,” he writes, and those commonalities are built through “human connections.”

Yet, human connections are exactly what technology has been so great at facilitating. Ravelry, whose close-knit distributed team has created a site and network that gathers a tight community of approximately 2.8 million zealous users, is just one example of the power of such connections. How does Ravelry make it work? They found the right people and “tools that work for the business to stay in touch” to advance their shared principles and priorities of utility, connection, and fun.

Without a physical space to connect, distributed teams are bound by a strong sense of common purpose. People have to get on board and ride in the same boat with that sense for it to move forward.

2.     The Communication Advantage for Distributed Teams

One of the most prominent challenges of any organization is communication, which the mere fact of everyone being in the same place does not resolve. There’s always potential for miscommunication and lack of transparency leading to unequal information, politics, trust issues, and overall weaker company health. Even within an office, think about the game of telephone that can play out when distributing information, the people whose last names you hardly know, the manager who speaks solely through e-mailed memos, the meeting that spends one hour to impart five minutes of information.

Though communication tools can address those issues and lower the coordination cost involved in making sure everybody is on the same page and communicating well, the right communication tools become even more vital for distributed teams as shared technology becomes its shared space.

Toni Schneider, of Automattic, illustrates the communications trade-off that happens with a distributed team:

[A] chat conversation is simply not as rich as a real life one. But there are advantages as well. A chat conversation can be archived, searchable, and visible to the entire team, whereas in person conversations in meetings and hallways are often lost to the ether. Being distributed is a good excuse to abolish inefficient meetings, conference calls, and email silos, and get the whole team to use better online collaboration tools.

Such communication methods can also provide the benefit of adding to transparency and work culture. For example, the ability to build a visible record, as iDoneThis has for Reddit’s distributed team, helps both to keep everyone in the loop and to build a company narrative.


3.     The Productivity Advantage for Distributed Teams

Jon Buckley, a developer on one of Mozilla’s software teams, sees an additional advantage to the ability to communicate across time zones and silos: “You don’t have to worry about being in the same room at the same time. That asynchronous nature of updating people is very helpful.”

Asynchronous communication allows conversation to continue at a pace that supplies breathing room for people to get actual work done. People need substantial blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate and to get in a flow at work. It’s impossible to get in the zone, fully immersed and focused, when you’re constantly being interrupted by noise, chatter, and meetings, or disruptive questions and conversations — no matter how well-meaning or on-point they are.

Without the obligation to hover around the hive and be a good worker bee, you gain space and quiet to concentrate on work, exercise high autonomy, which further drives our motivation, and retain flexibility over your work schedule, which boosts productivity and improves health.

4.     The People Advantage for Distributed Teams

You can hire the very best without having to consider location. As Jason Fried of 37signals, known for its company culture, states in Rework, “Geography just doesn’t matter anymore.”

Laura Roeder, founder of LKR Social Media, agrees, finding that a distributed team is actually a competitive advantage, because it grants her more flexibility to hire for quality and fit. Similarly, Ravelry has a competitive advantage in being able to hire from within its own community people who arrive on their first day of work with the deep-set intrinsic motivation of working on something they love.

The success of distributed teams relies on its people. Physical distance can highlight any inherent weakness in a team and how its run, and every advantage of a distributed team can just as well be a drawback. Flexibility, autonomy, and communication tools, when misused, mismanaged, and in the wrong hands, can produce an ineffective team with little spark.

It comes down to hiring disciplined, autonomous people that fit your company best, who can use tools to effectively communicate and collaborate to find individual and collective workflows that work and flow.


Distributed teams understand the unique nature and value of in-person interaction. It’s why we make efforts to meet for work retreats and social events and use video chats so that we can see each other’s lovely faces. We still acquire the camaraderie of working together and working hard to grab for the gold ring. 

So when it comes to distributed teams, something so dependent on the quality of its people and nature of relationships is not lacking human connection as some missing puzzle piece. That connection is what holds it together and helps it succeed.

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