People on distributed teams got there by design. Someone believed they could create a stronger team by hiring the best people -- regardless of location. Scattered teams seem to evolve in spite of a preference to have everyone together. Distributed teams embrace their geographic diversity. Scattered teams fight it every step of the way.
If you're not going to physically head to an office each day, it's clearly better to be on a distributed team that has the capacity and wherewithal to make it work for you and everyone else. But so many teams with people in multiple locations are struggling. I work on a distributed team and know what works for us.
I was curious about how uniting remote workers works for other, larger, and growing teams. When I had the chance to interview Fred Stevens-Smith, the CEO of Rainforest QA, I wanted to know how this growing company uses their thousands of distributed testers and managers to help other companies figure out what's broken in their sites and applications. With this level of extreme distribution, staying organized, focusing on priorities, and serving customers is fundamentally different from how traditional office-based teams do it.
Read on to learn the specifics of how they do it and what might work for you:
How do you typically structure your day? Are you available 24/7 or do you have "office hours" when staff know they can reach you with issues?
At Rainforest, we have over one third of our company working in a fully distributed way, across 13 countries. Additionally, in our San Francisco headquarters, many of our team members will work remotely from home a fair amount of time. And because there are many business trips for me, other execs and customer-facing roles (sales, customer success, etc.), we are truly a highly distributed team. And, most importantly, I believe strongly in work-life balance to ensure that others also make time for themselves and their families. Combined, these factors fundamentally change the way I approach my work and how I've sought to enable a productive environment for everyone here at Rainforest QA. For example, 24/7 availability is not sustainable, healthy or fair to ask of everyone. So we work differently to collaborate in a productive, but healthy way.
In my own approach, I try to make space for both formal (e.g, meetings) and informal (e.g., 'in passing' or 'ad hoc' conversations) interactions with people.
We have bi-weekly "ask me anything" (AMA) meetings where anyone in the company can -- and does! -- submit questions for me to answer. These take place over hangouts so everyone in the company can be involved, and are recorded for those of us who aren't in the same timezone. I also send a weekly update email with our current progress against our company-level KPIs. These two simple steps ensure that anyone in the company has the chance to get my perspective on a regular basis, which prioritizing the folks in the office too much.
On the unstructured side we use Peakon, an anonymous feedback and eNPS tool, so that we can have a free flow of constructive criticism and feedback. This creates lots of opportunities for me to communicate directly with Rainforesters and is hugely valuable to spotting trends and addressing issues before they blow up.
What's your biggest time management challenge?
As CEO, the biggest time management challenge is the constant re-prioritization and context switching that comes with the job. There can be a constant, nagging worry that I'm not aware of something important, or not able to help with the right things at the right time, to help Rainforest QA thrive. Beyond managing the exec team, customer relationships, board members and more, there is a relentless stream of things to manage: managing overall company performance, building company values and culture, managing cross-functional team issues, and more. Sometimes CEOs call themselves Chief Fire Fighters (or Janitors), and that can truly be the case. Now add that I and many others in the company can and do work remotely at any given time -- often across several timezones -- the time management challenge is exacerbated.
What tactics for time management and communications make you feel most effective?
My ideal tactics are to address issues proactively, set clear goals and empower others. While this is an ideal state I strive toward, real things get in the way like the clock, myself, and other human beings. You know, the usual.
Among the key tactics that help me day-to-day, especially as things get crazy, is focusing on efficient communication with others.
Over the years, I have worked on being more direct in communication and encouraging others to do the same, especially on my executive team. The focus is on meaningful, direct and productive communication. And in order to build up to this, we work on mutual trust by building up our relationships through working offsites, social events and one-on-ones (face-to-face, or at least by video conference whenever possible). Once that trust is established, and clear expectations can be set, then I know that my heads of engineering, product, marketing, sales, people, or whomever, can take on the task of helping build a great company. Then my job can elevate to building a great team that can build a great company.
For the broader company, we focus on keeping a close-knit community and do so through three main efforts. First, we send out monthly surveys to all employees which they can answer anonymously. They are asked about things like how valuable and satisfying their work is, how clearly goals are communicated to them, and whether they have the right work environment to be successful. Second, we hold regular "ask me anything" meetings. And because our team is remote, everyone must log with their own laptop, even if they are together in the main office. This puts all people, including me, on a level playing field. I provide company updates and answer literally any question people ask me including 'are you going to shave your beard?' to 'how does the board feel about a recent development?' Finally, the entire company comes together every quarter for a week. Many team member stay longer to work together more. We bring our team from across 13 countries to our San Francisco headquarters. And we have a great mix of bonding, decision making and information sharing sessions. So, in between times we see each other again, the relationships are reset and deepened. That eases collaboration and communication overall. Importantly, it can carry us together through more challenging times, as we feel the strength of our real bonds as a team.
The last key tactic that helps me personally, especially when things get pressurized or complex decisions need to be made, is to take real time to think. On my calendar, every week, are two large blocks of time set aside. Especially when we have to think about changing or tuning something, I need that time to think more deeply, whether that's by myself or with a key group of people. Related to this, I spend a fair amount of time outdoors on the weekend, whether hard-core wilderness trekking, dirt biking or something else that allows me to recharge, reconnect and often facilitate some worthwhile reflection.
What advice do you offer your team on how to prioritize their work?
Focus is the proverbial key. Understand the situation and what you're trying to achieve as a group. Sometimes there are less deterministic goals to work toward, but focus is still possible. Often what we say 'no' to is more important than what we say 'yes' to. And then there's the reality check. It's always great, for example, to have the healthy skeptic or devil's advocate on the team. If a team can be direct and honest with each other, then focus is easier to achieve.
The other key I find important, especially after a team has had to make a tough or contentious decision as a group, is the 'rally.' We encourage each other to speak our minds at Rainforest -- in fact "No bullsh*t' is literally the first company value -- but then we need to rally behind the decision and move forward as a team. This helps us prioritize, make good decisions, have everyone feel heard and then get to work.
How is remote leadership different than in-person for you?
At a high level, to make remote work well, there is an extra investment in clear goal setting, relationship building and creating a sense of fairness and equal access for all employees, no matter where they are based.
For example, while I enjoy face-to-face conversations because of how much engagement we can have through eye contact, body language and perhaps taking a walk together, remote relationships don't work this way. So then I focus on creating the most 'authentic' interactions whenever possible, and making things feel fair to everyone. For example, I still put myself in a private room if I'm doing a one-on-one remote meeting with someone. With team members, I always try to do a video conference if possible so we can see each others' faces. I wear over-the-ear headphones so I am more engaged and immersed in the conversation. I switch the times of our meetings so that we alternate between what time is best for each of us, based on our respective time zones. Beyond the more engaged, deeper conversations with individuals or groups, we use a lot of technology to share information company-wide like email, Slack or shared documents (e.g., Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, etc.). Even in our San Francisco headquarters, we all spend a fair amount of time on Slack because of its equalizing effect.
Ultimately, the goal of communication and leadership, whether in-person or remote, is the same. We want to have a shared understanding of goals and work, build mutual respect for each other, create the most engaging and authentic interactions possible and ensure that everyone can feel they are on an even playing field when it comes to information and knowledge.