Distributed organizations are becoming more and more common as communication tech improves, making staying in touch easy and effective, and as employers discover the benefits of hiring the best person for a position regardless of location. It's great having employees working around the clock in all timezones, and having boots on the ground in cities around the world. Employees love the flexibility that working remotely provides, making remote work a perk that attracts and retains great talent. 

But there are pitfalls to running a distributed org. I know them all: Techstars has been a distributed company for almost ten years. Please, learn from my mistakes, and keep these things in mind: 

It's Not Necessarily Cheaper

If you're thinking of going distributed because you want to save money--think again. While you may save on office space and its associated costs and be able to hire great talent at lower salaries that still match local standards of living, other costs go up. 

Your travel budget is the biggest one. You're going to need to bring your team together sometimes. We fly in all new employees for onboarding, and we bring the whole company together once a year in order to help everyone stay connected. Individual teams are going to need collaborative time together sometimes, too. Flights, meals, and hotel rooms will add up quickly. This is not something you can skimp on: the greatest danger to a distributed company is disconnection. 

Planning Meetings Matter and Takes Time

I've learned that the optimal times for me may not be the optimal time for the majority of the people that I am working with. My rule of thumb when planning a meeting is to turn on the multi-timezone option in Gmail and then schedule my meeting at a time that is mutually convenient to first the majority of the people and then to me. 

I make sure that I am intentional and transparent in these efforts. This is to raise the awareness of the people who are the edge case, not the majority, and also to lead by example. I've found that if I share how I am thinking then the people who I am engaging with may also go on to adopt the same practice.

At Techstars, we have a weekly meeting with the whole company. There are four challenges that I've had to solve for with scheduling and leading this meeting:

  1. There are a lot of people in our biggest office (we don't refer to it as "headquarters"), and when they are all together in a room, it can make everyone else who is not in the room feel less a part of the group. My solution here is to join the call from my office versus from the big conference room. I think it's important for the employees who are together to  be able to socialize, but I also want to be equally welcoming to everyone.

  2. We used to have a single set time for our meeting. However, this meant that as we grew our employee base in other timezones, there were people who either were braving the very wee hours of the morning to attend, or who simply could never attend. Yes, we record these meetings for later viewing, but it's not the same. So we move the time based on the timezone makeup of the company. If a quarter of our employees are in one timezone, then 25 percent of the time we run the meeting on a time that is best for them.

  3. Not everyone has the ability to join our calls with video due to bandwidth, being in transit, or being in a place where there is poor internet service or a country that doesn't allow for the apps that we use. We make sure that there are phone numbers that people can call in to and that we record the meeting and video so that people can access the full experience after the call.

Inclusion Is Essential

Being truly inclusive is absolutely essential. Your whole team needs to feel welcome and valued, whoever and wherever they are. I've found that what may feel inclusive to me is not necessarily welcoming and inclusive to others. Simple things like words, phrases, hand signals, and greetings can be very different across cultures.

For example, a baseball metaphor like "we knocked it out of the park" might not be well understood in other countries. I've learned the hard way that the hand signal for a peace sign in the U.S. is an inappropriate hand signal in other countries, that your left hand is not for eating with in some places, that jeans don't work for a business meeting in a country that is more formal, and that hugging may be either expected or completely inappropriate. 

Listening and learning are so important. You're not going to get this completely right on the first try--it's going to remain forever a work in progress, as different cultures and expectations butt up against each other and sometimes create problems. 

It's amazing to run a company that is truly global. Yes, there are pitfalls, but to me, the benefits far outweigh the problems. 

Published on: Aug 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.