Principles for building a distributed team

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SketchDeck was built on the idea that great graphic designers live around the world, frequently not in the same place as the clients who need them. Over the last 4 years, our community has grown and created amazing work for leading brands – all remotely.

At the start of 2018, we started an experiment to see if distributed work could benefit our HQ team too.

The following are the principles that made our design teams successful, which we are now applying to HQ:

Encourage communication

In a normal office environment, communication happens naturally as colleagues bump into each other in day-to-day activities. When the team goes remote, this does not happen. Lack of communication leads to misunderstandings, which leads to anxiety, misalignment and hard feelings.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Communication in a distributed team needs to be intentional. Our Head of Brand and Creative Director, Marin Finerty, has been with SketchDeck for years, most of it working from Rome, Italy. She says that, “Building relationships is the best communication tool: often times things get lost in translation, cultural background and in writing. Trust, mutual respect and friendship. Use any opportunity that arises to prove them. Be open and vulnerable with people and they normally will give you their trust in return.”

Other times, good communication is just about being present. Although we don’t sit in the same room, we still talk over the phone often. Having a quick call when needed is a great way to put a confusing topic to rest, and is a simple tool to ensure that your voice is heard.

We’ve created tools to remind us to keep in touch with everyone. One tool is a weekly email where we each share:

  • Our achievements this week
  • Our top goal for next week
  • A shout out to someone who helped us or did something impressive

Another tool is sharing your Goal For The Day (GFTD). GFTD originated with engineering, and whilst not mandatory, other members of the team have begun to adopt it. GFTD promotes accountability, and helps us work on what’s most impactful.

Focus on outcomes

Focusing on outcomes rather than tasks is important. With clear goals set out, managers can give their team space to achieve their goals. Done well, this is a more motivating and productive work environment for everyone.

To make this successful, each team should have a clear measure of success. Our project teams own retention, sales owns new revenue quota, design owns project feedback, and marketing owns lead generation. Everybody is responsible for hitting the goals they’ve been asked to achieve.

Of course, focusing on outcomes is already a core part of many businesses, but a distributed first approach makes it essential. On a distributed team, you have no way of telling how other people are doing the work. The process is not observable, like it is when you see others in the office working. So outcomes are the only sensible way to measure progress.

Set boundaries

Remote work lacks visual cues around looking busy, like seeing someone typing or wearing headphones. One of our Account Delivery Managers, Ryan Brown, says that the biggest challenge to managing a relationship with his remote co-workers is, “...finding out when your co-workers need their time to work uninterrupted. We essentially are ‘on’ all the time when we are in front of our computers.”

Ryan’s team have “developed a code phrase that gently lets the other team members know – hey, no offense to you, but I need to be left alone to get this done.” This lets them set expectations as to when they’re in quiet working mode, while still being polite.

Working from home can blur the lines between work and play. Turning off and taking time away is important. One of our Design Directors is in the habit of blocking off evening hours and putting her computer in a dresser drawer until the next morning, just so she’s not tempted to peek at emails or other projects.

Productivity experts agree. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, says, “Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”

Finding ways to get productive work done comes from respecting your colleagues, and respecting yourself.

Use modern work tools

Slack is our primary internal communication channel. Everyone has an account. Every month we send an average of 60,000 messages. 94% of those were sent directly to another person, while 6% happened in groups.

When chat isn’t enough, we use Zoom for video calls. We’ve tried many different video call apps, and Zoom was the most reliable. We recommend installing the Zoom Scheduler Extension for Chrome and Firefox for a one-click Google Calendar integration. Every meeting is set up with a video or call conferencing option, so it’s easy for team members to join.

Across our design teams, the SketchDeck platform manages work, ensuring transparency for everyone on the work that’s needed and when projects are due. It’s essential in making distributed work work. Our clients use it too. Nicole Conley, one of our Project Quality Managers, says “Our project management tool allows me to know when things are due, how to prioritize tasks, and who's working on them.... I can work through client requests like a checklist, which helps ensure I don't miss anything important. I spend my entire day there, aside from checking email and Slack.”

Intentionally build culture

Culture is built by the actions, feelings and relationships of the team. This becomes more difficult when the team are not together in the same place. Culture is important. In 2015, Google published the results of a study which determined that their highest performing teams built a culture of emotional safety. Familiarity leads to safety, whilst lack of familiarity leads to tribalism, and an ineffective company.

Within the design team, identity is important to culture. Head of Brand and Creative Director, Marin Finerty says, “Each of the [design] teams have their own distinct style and brand book. That helps with feeling like you are part of a team.”

To promote communication and relationship building we’ve created a Slack channel called #watercooler. Everybody at SketchDeck is in #watercooler. It’s a safe place to share fun experiences, Giphys, and pictures of our pets and families. One SketchDecker said, “I've seen more folks [in #watercooler] than I did in the office.”

Sandra Draude, Office and Community Manager at SketchDeck , says “It may look like just photos of our dogs, but it’s much more than that – It represents the personal relationships that cannot afford to be lost when working remote.”

Work face-to-face sometimes

Whilst it’s possible to do most of our work today remotely, there are still benefits to being together that the tools above can’t solve.

SketchDeckers located in the San Francisco Bay Area have been arranging to work from the same cafe or living room. If someone’s planning on working from a coffee shop tomorrow and would like company, they post their location and schedule to Slack. Whoever’s interested and around can reply, but there’s no pressure to join.

We also go on an annual company retreat, and have several other “All Hands” gatherings where the team come together to work and play. At the time of writing, 20 SketchDeckers are together in Miami. These events build great energy across the team, and amazing ideas are generated through the sharing of experiences.

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Working in an office is what most of us do. But that’s changing. SketchDeck was built on the foundation of working from wherever, whenever. There are great upsides if you can make this work. For HQ, this experiment has just begun. We believe this change will let us accomplish even more in 2018.

Interested in working with a distributed team? We’re hiring for engineers, designers, and sales – check out open jobs.

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