Operating as a distributed team22 Mar 2020
At Sage AI Labs (SAIL) we have talented Engineers and Data Scientists spread across North America, Europe, Australia and often have to collaborate with teams in Asia. As a result the group has made a concerted effort to adopt techniques and processes that help us succeed as a distributed team.
Distributed team members are not co-located and thus rarely see each other, this differs from a remote team that still works in the same office but in a different location to a company’s headquarters.
Some benefits of a distributed team
Hiring top talent
With a distributed team as you open yourself up to a talent pool that extends beyond geographic boundaries.
Cultural diversity plays a critical role when it comes to thinking outside of the box with a number of studies showing that diversity helps bring out unconventional solutions and new ideas. Having team members spread across the globe is a great way to foster such diversity.
As team members are given autonomy to complete their work and control over their environment they can set up a work flow and workplace that best suits them, allowing them to optimize for productivity.
It feels like the future
Talking to others about the location of my team and how we are approaching distributed work excites me. There is little doubt that the nature of work is changing and to be at the forefront of this change is professionally satisfying.
Often companies start hiring distributed workers and assume that their current processes will transfer into this new dynamic. This is a flawed assumption yet few organizations make the effort to reorient themselves. Below list some of the practices SAIL has adopted while transitioning into a distributed team.
SAIL’s distributed team practices
Taking inspiration from companies such as GitHub that have pioneered distributed teams, speaking to peers within our network that run distributed workforces, and iterating on our own approach we came up with a set of conventions. Below lists some of these key practices SAIL has adopted while evolving as a distributed team.
If one of us is remote in a meeting, all should be on their laptop with their camera turned on. This removes the ability for those congregated in a meeting room to dismiss those remote and creates a level playing feed for discussion. Plan the agenda carefully and share it in advance.
If something complex is to be discussed, link to a document with the details of the meeting so that discussion can happen asynchronously prior to the meeting (literally getting people on the same page).
We have a single person responsible for championing our distributed culture and approach. We also have periodic retrospectives run by our champion so that we can reflect on how we might improve our distributed processes. They also serve as a contact that other team members can channel potential ideas on how we might improve.
Work from home policy
So as to build empathy with remote work we encourage everyone to work remotely at least once a week, even if they have access to an office they can reside in.
As a team we are encouraged to be mindful of the fact that at any one point in time only half of our team is available so it is critical to over-communicate important things that are discussed. We try to radiate decisions on the Internet either via broadcasting them in appropriate Slack channels or other forms to catalog what has been decided.
I started writing this post well before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived however as remote working is increasingly seen as a necessity to practice social distancing I felt compelled to finish my post. I am passionate about distributed work and am sure it will very quickly become the new normal as such I hope some of these ideas resonate with teams as they transition.