"Remote" or "Distributed" is a Misnomer

It's taken me awhile to finally wrap my head around the notion of working in distributed teams.

That is, just saying that a company is "remote" or "distributed" isn't the full picture or the determining factor.  Instead, it's where the company sits on the spectrum of working synchronously versus asynchronously.

There are a few considerations here:

  1. The companies that have had success here seem to have chosen a side, and that drives their preference for where they hire from.  They're not "in the middle", or if they are, they're conscious of how this complicates the design of how the operate. Further, they've given careful thought to how the size, stage, and shape of the business they are operating informs this.
  2. Based on this, their processes, tools, rituals, and expectations are aligned with being sync vs. async.  This is akin to the idea of "designing for everyone is equivalent to designing for no one."
  3. They have a clear understanding, not just of the advantages of the approach they've taken, but the tradeoffs. What constraints are imposed by this choice?  Is everyone on the team aware of these contraints, and have they adjusted their expectations, in turn? Where will you need to compensate?
  4. In whatever mode they choose, they not only have a thoughtful onboarding process by which they help new employees adjust to this mode of working, they may have also tailored their recruiting strategy and processes to optimize for those who are likely to be successful working in this manner.

Most of the problems and pitfalls seem to arise from a misalignment that either goes unnoticed or unhandled.  And, further, it may make the difference between making it feel like you're being controlled vs. working within a system.

I'm loathe to make a sports analogy here, but it's not unlike the manner in which basketball teams can make a choice to impose a system on their players, or adopt a system that takes advantage of the players they have.  Either strategy could work, and there are plenty of examples where a system can be poorly implemented, as well.  However, the difference here is that a team's system is very much a part of the dialogue, almost as much as talk about who is on the roster, as is the understanding that it's a fundamental aspect of the team itself.