The Two Generations of Distributed Teams

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

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When we were building Loop Team pre-COVID, we classified remote teams into 3 buckets:

Co-located: These teams were often global and primarily worked together in an office but may have also had a few team members who worked full-time from home.

Partially Distributed: Mostly because of the scarcity of engineering talent, these teams typically had a core office and then full-time remote engineers usually working within similar time zones of HQ.

Fully Distributed: This was a more rare configuration but had the most vocal advocates of remote work. They were often very small companies with globally distributed team members.

As we were interviewing these different remote workers, there was consistent thematic feedback, especially amongst those in co-located and partially distributed teams, citing a sense of disconnect from the mothership — a la feeling “out of the loop.” However, when interviewing fully distributed team members, the feedback was different. Many were quite happy and were actively evangelizing their best practices and playbooks.

Consistent in many of these playbooks was a general push towards heavy documentation and sharing. This intuitively made sense, if you’re distributed across a lot of time zones or otherwise, it’s simply good practice to capture everything and disseminate since your team primarily operates asynchronously as there is no geographical center of influence. Workplace video meetings tended to be scheduled but the best practice was to leverage that medium only when necessary. One to one video was for team bonding versus collaboration. The default behavior was to document, share and operate more asynchronously whether via text or pre-recorded video.

Enter COVID

As many have said, almost a cliche now, COVID has accelerated remote work 10 years in 3 months — but the COVID generation of distributed teams are different. Whereas pre-COVID the number of fully distributed teams over 25 employees was far and few between; today, a great majority of medium to large organizations are now remote.  And even more interestingly, most of these teams are fully distributed while also in similar time zones. In addition, unlike the first generation of distributed teams, these companies onboarded the better part of their teams in-person, at an office and previously worked and collaborated together in a physical location. These teams enjoyed the benefits of office camaraderie and hallway conversations and also some of the negatives of in-office work like noisy background conversations and frequent interruptions.

The default expectation for many of these overnight distributed organizations was to look at the best practices of successful teams working fully distributed pre-COVID, but the largest examples of these remote work pioneers (eg Invision) may have only been ~1K employees with no more than 25% of their workforce in any given country. In addition, they were often remote-first on day 1 and onboarded their new teammates remotely — it’s a vastly different experience from the COVID-19 transition and their remote work playbooks reflected this.

The new generation of distributed teams have pre-existing trust from their “in-office days”, value synchronous communication, have the capacity to meet offline when COVID subsides, and likely will return to the office in some hybrid capacity.  We’re still in the early innings in terms of learning and creating new best practices for post-COVID distributed teams, but new playbooks are being written that expand on fully-distributed best practices for this second generation. I, having previously managed a first generation partially distributed team, am excited to see the next set of productivity tools being developed for these teams.