Addressing the challenges of partially distributed engineering teams

As companies begin planning their approach to post-pandemic life, patterns are starting to emerge.

Some companies are planning to return to their offices and carry on as they did before. Others are adopting a partially distributed structure, reopening some of their offices but not assigning desks or requiring employees to work there. Some companies have even switched to being fully distributed.

In a fully co-located team, every member is in the same office near each other, nearly every day. A fully distributed team has every member in a different physical location almost every day. Everything else is partially co-located/partially distributed. Even if you all work in the same physical office, if people are there on different days, you are only partially co-located.

The tech industry has consistently demonstrated creativity and innovation in how work is structured. Companies like Automattic, GitLab, and others have long shared lessons on how fully distributed teams can be effective; decades of business books have addressed the challenges of leadership in co-located teams, but there isn’t as much published wisdom on leading partially distributed teams beyond the suggestion of treating them as fully distributed.

I have led fully co-located teams, fully distributed teams, and partially distributed teams. I have always said that the latter is the hardest to do well.

The problems with being partially distributed

Inconsistent communication speeds

The most significant problem with being partially co-located is that you quickly fall into asymmetric communication patterns. Folks in the same physical locations have very high bandwidth conversations, but everyone else communicates at a fraction of the efficiency.

The bandwidth issue extends beyond group meetings where some are in a conference room and others are on video, and permeates spontaneous meetings, too: people talking at the coffee machine, at lunch, or bumping into each other in the hall. People are more inclined to call out to a colleague they can physically see rather than trying to reach one over chat or video.

These spontaneous conversations might inspire solutions to team challenges that don’t involve the larger group, creating friction. The team can splinter as the people who follow similar schedules end up working together more frequently. Distrust builds within the team, especially if some are in other cities or have other commitments preventing them from being present when their peers are. Parts of the group may feel isolated or left out of the decision-making process.

This inconsistent communication bandwidth can significantly impact the design of the team’s deliverables due to the effects of Conway’s Law: ‘Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.’

Unequal visibility of work

People naturally have a recency bias, tending to prefer recent events over historical ones. They also have more of a personal connection with those they interact with in person over those on a video call (a familiarity bias). Both biases work against those who are physically present less often. The lack of direct visibility of you or your team relative to other groups can be a significant disadvantage for you, the team, or individuals when it is time for performance reviews or recognition. Even if the team members have worked hard to achieve a goal, if they were not literally visible and other individuals were, you will have to overcome those biases to justify raises or promotions.

Inconsistent working hours

If your team is spread over many time zones, you get the classic problem of people having to wait on others when they need assistance, clarification, or to hand-off work. This problem can also happen with teams in near time zones if part of the team works from home to better incorporate their outside-of-work responsibilities or have a more flexible schedule. Unless addressed through restructuring the way work flows or introducing other constraints, work stalls in the team and people get frustrated.

Addressing the challenges

Create consistent expectations of availability

If most of the team plans to work two or three days in the office each week, have the team agree on which days that will be. So that when the group is in the office, most of the people are there.

If people need to accommodate their time zone or outside-of-work commitments, mutually agree on shared working hours. During those times, people are expected to be online and available for discussions or questions. Those hours do not need to be contiguous!

Ensure that people on the team are proactively communicating their availability so that others know when they can reach out or expect faster responses. It may be helpful to have a shared team calendar where every member puts their expected working hours for the week and adjusts that calendar if something comes up.

If possible, avoid being partially distributed

If nearly everyone on your team plans to return to the office, it might make sense for the people who plan to work off-site to switch to a mainly distributed team and vice-versa. It may seem extreme to suggest that people switch to another group, but it will make things easier for them and for their teams to be fully distributed or fully co-located.

Make sure that your team is visible

The adage, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ speaks to a truth about human nature. Suppose your organization’s leadership is working from the office, and you or members of your team are primarily working from other locations. In that case, it is vital to make sure that the individuals’ and teams’ work is visible.

Invite your manager to your virtual team demos or ask them to stop by your team meeting or standup. Proactively tell your boss when individuals exceed your expectations. Invite your manager to set up occasional skip-level meetings with the distributed people in the group. If your boss has office hours, encourage members of your team to attend from time to time. These strategies to increase visibility are helpful even for entirely co-located organizations, but they are crucial for partially distributed teams.

Take opportunities to build empathy

Video meetings can become very transactional, especially when it seems like the workday is full of them. Without the spontaneous conversations and connections that arise from chance meetings in an office, you can start to forget that the people on your team are actual humans and not just pixels on a screen. Take time in your meetings for small talk, and don’t feel like you have to force people immediately back to the agenda if the team digresses into talking about their favorite TV shows or places they want to visit. These human details remind everyone that their co-workers are people with lives and motivations. It encourages empathy.

When the whole team can travel safely and without concern, bring them together on a regular cadence (the frequency determined by the travel budget and people’s freedom to travel). Spending time with each other will encourage much more profound empathy between the people on the team.

Move communication offline as much as possible

Co-located teams avoid many meetings by stopping by each other’s desks for a five-minute chat. When you can’t see the person, a very natural thing to do is to book a 30-minute meeting for that conversation instead and invite several others who might have input while you are at it, thus guaranteeing that it will use all 30 minutes (and may run over).

Fully distributed teams have long favored written communication as the primary tool to document decision-making and be more inclusive of colleagues spread across time zones. This model was also pioneered and perfected by large open source projects where wide geographic distribution is the norm.

Enforcing an offline-first communication and decision-making process within your team helps ameliorate the challenges of non-overlapping work schedules and brings increased symmetry to communication speeds.

Take a remote-first approach to team meetings

As I mentioned above, a common suggestion for partially co-located teams is to have everyone dial into group meetings even if they are sitting near each other; treating all as if they are distributed helps put everyone on an equal footing in the discussion. Still, it is not always possible if there are no adequate facilities in the office to support that. Alternatives would be to have whoever leads the meeting always dial in from another location or have the bulk of team meetings on days the group has decided to work from home.

We’re not done changing; this is an opportunity!

Just over a year ago, most companies were comfortable with their ways of working or were evolving them slowly – but the pandemic forced all companies to adjust to new ways of operating immediately. Finding a ‘new normal’ will be a much more gradual process, with much uncertainty.

As an engineering leader, there is a massive opportunity to find new ways for your team to be effective in this new world of work. You and the group should approach the challenge with flexibility and a willingness to experiment.

Share the ideas you learn with your peers and the larger organization. If companies struggle to make this new flexibility in work successful, they will quickly move back to their old ways of doing things.

You can help your company be a leader in providing flexibility and freedom to its employees while also being effective at delivering value to your customers. When you figure things out, please share them with the rest of us; we’re on this ‘new normal’ journey together.

[Originally posted at https://leaddev.com/managing-distributed-teams/addressing-challenges-partially-distributed-engineering-teams]

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