Four and a half years ago, Alaena VanderMost joined School of Motion. In that time, she's learned a lot about running a distributed team.
Dear School of Motion Alumni, Students, and Friends,
It’s been nearly five years since I joined the team at School of Motion. When I first came aboard, my focus was on our Learning Management System and handling a small number of courses. Now, as we enter the finale of 2020, I’m designing and implementing all of our behind the scenes operations. It has been an incredible experience, and we are just getting started.
As we head into the Winter Session, I wanted to take some time to reflect on our progress so far. 2020 has been a year of challenges, but also of tremendous growth and opportunity. Like many organizations, we faced unprecedented obstacles and had to make changes to address the new landscape. However, we were already positioned to emerge successfully...since we have operated as a distributed workforce since Day 1.
Our school is possible thanks to the hard work and dedication of 27 full-time and 47 part-time employees that work across several continents. In fact, this past year we added 13 new team members across three different time zones. Although we experienced some speed-bumps and challenges, we took them on together and collectively worked to become stronger and better-positioned to support our SOM community.
One of the ways we can provide support is by sharing lessons learned about developing functional distributed teams and cultivating a strong and supportive culture. Without these things, we undoubtedly would not be where we are today. If you are currently exploring opportunities within a distributed team, these lessons can be invaluable in deciding when and how to move forward.
Remote VS Distributed
First, you have to understand the difference in terminology. We often see "remote" and "distributed" used interchangeably, but they do actually mean very different things from an employer's perspective.
A Remote Employee belongs to a local office. They perform the tasks that another person inside the building could do, but they work away from the main site. As COVID shut down numerous commercial buildings around the world, many employees became "remote" without really knowing what that would mean.
Remote employees still have a workplace, and are often required to make an appearance from time to time. Moreover, the rest of the staff is centralized within that office, which can cause a bit of a communication lag time where meetings are concerned. Remote employees are also required to keep the same hours as their peers, and be available at a moment's notice for a call or conference.
From the employer's perspective, it can be easy to grow cynical about the work ethic of a remote employee (you shouldn't!). Since you can see the rest of your staff working hard, you might be tempted to think of that other employee sitting on the couch in a bathrobe and feel some resentment.
A Distributed Employee belongs to a Distributed Company. Take School of Motion, for example. We have a "home base" in Florida, where we do keep an office/studio for recording and some work. However, that office is not operating 24/7. There is no secretary at the front answering the phones and directing traffic toward Joey's massive office in the back.
We do operate Eastern Time, but our full time employees cover every time zone in the US. Our part-time employees span the globe, and we don't require them to be at our beck and call for every issue.
While we do hold some virtual meetings, the majority of our communication is through quick emails or messages on Slack. When we do have a meeting, they are designed to be focused and concise so everyone can be back to their own work schedule.
A distributed network tends to be a bit slower paced, but that doesn't mean you accomplish less. Far from it. In our experience, we've been able to pick up incredible momentum just by affording our team the freedom they need to succeed.
How to start a Distributed Team
Make no mistake—running a distributed team is not as easy or glamorous as Twitter would have you think. We’ve operated this way for over 5 years now, and we’ve learned that distributed teams and brick-and-mortar companies are quantifiably different—and they must be treated as such. There are risks and rewards, challenges and luxuries, and distinct rules to playing the game and playing it well.
Managing a distributed company means letting go of many traditional in-office securities, such as collaborating project ideas in real-time, in the same room with your coworkers, with a whiteboard, taking a needed break with some chit-chat around the office water cooler (do people still have water coolers? Substitute coffee pots, pingpong tables, or kombucha kegs as needed), or grabbing a drink after-hours with your coworkers. In some ways, running a distributed team may be harder; it requires more than just incorporating technology and collaboration tools. Running a distributed team successfully requires a full cultural shift.
But the decision to operate remotely can also unlock some invaluable benefits for your company and your team. Distributed teams operate with a freedom and flexibility that could never be replicated in a traditional office, and this can allow your team to reach record-breaking goals if it’s cultivated in the right environment.
To help you decide whether distributed team building is for you, I’d like to share 5 key lessons I’ve learned from building a distributed company.
It’s likely not going to be cheaper or less complicated than an IRL office
If you’re contemplating distributing your team to save money, you’re going to have to be very granular with your budget. For every dollar you save on rent or office supplies, you’ll end up spending it on collaboration tools, travel budgets, and coworking spaces. Running a business will always have expenses, and moving your team online simply shifts those expenses around. However, going distributed after renting offices in San Francisco or New York City will likely keep a few bucks in the bank.
In some aspects of your business, be prepared for things to get more expensive or complicated when going distributed. For example, registering your business in a new state for every hire can be a huge PITA. Some states make it incredibly difficult (looking at you, Hawaii) and others have so many rules, you’ll feel like an HR professional by the end of the registration (ahem, California).
Bonus Tip: Use a service like Gusto for your remote team. Their staff members are certified HR managers who will help you maintain compliance in all things HR across all 50 US states.
Your hiring pool immediately increases, which can make it easier to find those A+ players
SOM hires employees for full-time work that live anywhere in the US and for part-time work that live anywhere in the world. This flexibility means that we can pick from the largest possible group of qualified applicants and build out an amazing team. Even with the ability to select applicants from all over, diversity in hiring is still a major issue. Here at School of Motion, we’re always trying to do better on this front as we grow and hire.
Millennials are increasingly looking for remote work or location-independent positions, so having a fully distributed team also helps you attract the highest caliber talent in your industry. As you build out your team, don’t use location as an excuse to pay less than they are worth. You are attracting and selecting the best talent in your field, so be prepared to pay a competitive rate to keep them motivated. We pay our TA’s the same rate regardless of the average rate in their local economy because we pay based on ability – quality employees demand quality pay.
The setup of your distributed team requires just as much attention to detail as your physical office
When looking for physical office space, you’ll likely consider everything from aesthetics and geographic location to common areas and utility costs. While you may not be picking out window treatments and carpeting for your distributed employees, your virtual infrastructure needs just as much thought and configuration.
Since your team will be living online, you should supply at a minimum all of the hardware they need to do this comfortably. SOM staff members get an office setup budget when they are first hired, and we’ve seldom declined the purchase of essential equipment such as an ergonomic chair or standing desk. The equipment your team will use on a daily basis has a direct impact on their ability to perform at a high level, so it’s worth the investment.
In addition to equipment, you’ll want to think very hard about your processes. Your team will need tools for every part of the job – from communicating and collaborating to document sharing and interfacing with customers – and there are hundreds of solutions for every aspect of your business. These run the gamut from completely homebrewed to simple done-for-you solutions and everything in between. I suggest trying several and getting to know the limitations of each before bestowing them on your team.
When operating distributed, project management systems and appropriate tech stack are your lifelines. Here at SOM, we use:
- Slack, Zoom, or Google Meet for communication
- Jira, Confluence, and Frame.io for Project Management
- An array of hardware, Dropbox, Cloudflare, and a wish and a prayer for file transferring
- Dropbox and Amazon S3 for file storage
- Airtable, QuickBooks, and Bill.com for finances
- A homebrewed system that meets our unique needs for learning and content management.
It took a lot of tweaking and configuring to find the right balance of everything above to meet the needs of our team. We got through by listening to each other, allowing feedback and suggestions from the whole team, and making adjustments where necessary. When implementing your distributed project management system, do not forget to bake in plenty of time for training, mistakes, and setbacks. Every team member will learn and adapt to the new system at a different rate .here will be growing pains with new implementations, but now that we’ve got it going, we’re accomplishing more than ever.
Bonus Tip: Try to approach your company’s project management system holistically. Start by imagining what would break the process with your current choice, and think about how you will address those issues as you roll it out to your team.
Trust your employees implicitly, and treat them like the adults they are
Employees perform better at different times of the day than others. While your office will likely still need to operate during “normal business hours”, give your employees the freedom to structure their days how they believe is best. If you are using the right tools (see lesson #3), it won’t matter whether your employee is at their desk all day. As long as clear expectations are set and you trust your employees to do what is needed to perform at their best, the results will rarely disappoint.
At SOM, we are busiest from 11:30 - 6 pm ET every day, but our east coast people generally work earlier, and our west coast people generally work later. As long as the majority of team members are around to be contacted or consulted during our prime hours, our business operates efficiently and our team is happier for it.
Emotional Latency is real. Have a check-in system that includes daily/weekly rituals and face-to-face video calls
Emotional Latency refers to the ease in which any coworker can hide their actual feelings or emotions within a distributed team. One of the downsides to operating remotely is the feelings of isolation or neglect that distributed team members can experience. Unfortunately, these aren’t always easy to detect, especially when a majority of your team communications are via chat or email.
To combat emotional latency and maintain the health of your team, incorporate regular rituals, and scheduled face-to-face meetings. At SOM, every meeting is a video call. This allows team members to see those they work most closely with and provides an opportunity for small talk before or after a meeting. We also have rituals that include bi-weekly project planning and an annual retreat with lots of inside jokes.
Bonus Tip: Every Monday, we schedule an all-hands meeting. The first 15 minutes is optional and is just for conversation. Next, one person shares a PechaKucha – a method where someone shares 20 slides for 20 seconds each on any topic of their choosing. Every other week, team leads share a slide where they update on their current projects and highlight their team’s accomplishments. There’s really no other point to this meeting, but it starts off every week with face-to-face interaction. Sometimes fostering the team dynamic is reason enough.
I hope these lessons have been helpful to you, and my wish is for you to take them to heart as you consider distributed operations within your own teams, even if the situation is temporary. I invite you to share your thoughts, challenges, questions, and successes as you implement remote work within your own position or team.
At SOM, we've learned a ton about how to successfully operate as a distributed company over the last 5 years...and we're still learning. The freedom this has allowed us to grow into a powerful voice for this wonderful community. We're thrilled to add new members to the family, and we can't wait to see what 2021 holds for all of us.
Alaena VanderMost, President