July 9, 2015

Working with Distributed Teams

For this month’s Connect theme, we are highlighting some of the speakers, facilitators, keynotes, attendees, sponsors, and scholarship recipients of the 2015 Leading Change Summit in Washington, DC September 13-16.

Information technology (and especially the Internet) have helped to remove geographic barriers that once defined working teams. Organizations of all sizes are finding that the benefits of distributed teams outweigh the risks and weaknesses. At Community IT, we have come to rely on distributed teams as core to our business operations. For us, this started with long-time staff moving away from the Washington, DC area. These incredibly talented and experienced staff remained committed to the mission of the company and wanted to continue working from their new location.

A decade ago, this would not have been possible, given that our primary service was on-site support of nonprofit networks. The tools did not yet exist for doing this work remotely. That limitation has since changed significantly. Some of the main technological factors behind this change include:

  • Evolution of IT specific tools for remote network management (including remote access tools, like LogMeIn)
  • Evolution of general technology tools that allow for virtual collaboration (in particular enterprise chat and video conference software—in our case Skype for Business)
  • Affordable, high-bandwidth Internet
  • Increasingly remote nature of the clients we serve

The last point is worth emphasizing. As many nonprofit organizations also move to a distributed work model, it became increasingly important for us to be able to support them remotely. The organization may be based in Washington, DC, but they might have a field office in Chicago, and three other staff working in Denver, Charlotte, and Philadelphia.

Building the capacity to work as and with distributed teams is becoming less of an option, and more of a requirement for many organizations. In order to remain competitive and relevant, and in order to work effectively with other organizations, understanding how to support distributed teams is essential.

There are a variety of specific issues to consider when building, expanding, and/or managing distributed teams. For the purposes of this article, it is helpful to think of these issues in terms of people, policy, and technology.

People

Not every person or every position is suitable for a distributed team. For some, it could be their temperament or work style; perhaps they need more structure than a distributed team can provide. Staff who are early in their career, or new to their positions, may require more guidance and training than is available in a distributed environment. I personally believe that leadership teams are more effective if they meet in person on a regular basis. And for some organizations, there may be positions that cannot be performed effectively in a distributed way. In my role as CEO, I try to spend as much time as possible meeting with our clients; in my experience, there is no substitute for having those meetings in person.

It is important to be clear, as early in the process as possible, which positions and roles can be performed in a virtual, distributed manner (ideally as part of a written policy.)

It is also important to understand and establish clear expectations about how distributed staff and teams are expected to work.

Policy

Labor laws vary from state to state. Make sure that your HR team is aware and has the capacity to manage employees in multiple states. Does your health insurance provide coverage nationwide? Does your payroll system allow you to easily manage state tax across the US? What about internationally-located staff? Are your staff exempt or non-exempt, and what impact will that have on expectations around working hours?

Having to address these issues can sometimes be addressed with “1099” self-employed workers rather than the standard “W–2” employed workers. In fact, as the so-called “sharing economy” starts to move into the area of labor, it is possible to do more small-scale contract-based work. This, of course, raises other questions about the commitment of staff to the mission and the ability to establish and foster a strong working culture. At Community IT, we have resisted the industry trend to outsource our help desk overseas. Although the cost savings could be significant, commitment to mission and customer service are core to our business. So we have a strategic imperative to maintain an in-house help desk.

How does your organization’s strategy impact the approach you should take to your distributed teams?

There are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all answers. Some trial and error is probably also inevitable for any organization looking to build up its ability to work with distributed teams.

Who provides the bandwidth connection? What about equipment and office supplies? We originally had our employees provide their own equipment. A few years in, as the number of distributed staff started to grow, our management team expressed some concern about this policy. After studying more closely, we realized it would be more effective for us to provide and manage the computer for most of our distributed staff.

There is a wide variety of issues resulting from working in distributed teams. It is vital to involve the operations team throughout the decision-making and implementation aspects of this approach. I strongly advise developing a solid written (though living and evolving) policy pertaining to all relevant issues. Having a well-written HR policy that outlines expectations and requirements for both the distributed staff, as well as the organization, is not just a best practice—it can help organizations be more deliberate in getting ahead of these issues.

Technology

There is an unprecedented number of tools to pick from for facilitating the work of distributed teams. Our primary tools at are special-purpose applications, such as our ticketing system and our endpoint management software. Your organization will likely benefit from a few special-purpose systems as well.

There is also a variety of more general productivity tools that will prove important for organizations looking to foster distributed teams.

By way of a brief survey of what is out there, following are just a few examples by category.

  • Communication
    • Email
    • Skype for Business
    • Google Hangouts
    • Slack
    • Yammer
  • Video communication and desktop sharing
    • Skype for Business
    • Google Hangouts
    • GoToMeeting
    • Adobe Connect
  • Project and Task Management
    • To do lists: Basecamp, Asana, Todoist, Wunderlist (now MS)
    • Kanban Board: Trello, Jira
    • More advanced: Smartsheet, Podio, SharePoint Online
  • Document collaboration
    • Office 365 SP Online
    • Office 365 OneDrive
    • Box
    • Dropbox
    • Google Drive
    • Use a dedicated purpose tool
  • Note-taking and tracking
    • Office 365: OneNote
    • Evernote
    • Use another solution for note-taking

I am not endorsing any of these tools for your organization or situation. I will be surveying the entire sector at the upcoming Leading Change Summit in my session on Working with Distributed Teams, and helping to lead attendees through the process of making decisions around their IT solutions.

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Johan Hammerstrom
I have always been interested in using technology as a force for good that can improve our world. In college, I pursued this interest through science, first studying Chemistry, Physics and Biology at Stanford University where I graduated with Honors with a BS in Chemistry. I went on to study Biophysics at Johns Hopkins University and received a Masters Degree. The time I spent in Baltimore convinced me that there were more pressing and immediate problems that technology could and should be used to address. I left academic science and pursued a career in Information Technology, with the express goal of improving our communities and our world. I started at Community IT in 1999 as a Network Administrator. Since that time, I have been a Network Engineer, a Team Lead, the Director of Services, Vice President of Services, Chief Operating Officer and now President & CEO. Working directly with over 200 nonprofit organizations, to help them plan around and use technology to accomplish their mission has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of my life.