The Art of Distributed Teams with John O'Duinn
The last few months has reframed the debate about how we're able to do busy at home. The benefits are quite obvious and the technology to make this a humanly friendly, go-to solution has been improving every day. Tech companies are racing to enhance our at home capabilities here so remote conferencing will become a permanent reality.
John O’Duinn has been working in the Distributed Teams arena for over twenty-eight years. He is a kindred spirit, as my own experience involved facilitating virtual teams over twenty years ago. Here is our conversation about John’s work with personal insights on the power of remote teams and working together while physically apart.
Sherry: Tell me about yourself John.
John: As a computer guy, when I started working, my first jobs just happened to be in distributed teams. I didn’t know this was unusual, and thought this was just how everyone worked. For the last twenty-eight years, I have been working in physically distributed teams and of those, the last fourteen years have been leading these teams. Over the past seven years, I have been coaching and advising early stage companies and facilitating workshops on distributed teams. I learned a lot through trial and error over the years and wanted to share that with others. In 2018 I published my business management book, Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart.
Sherry: What have you learned about yourself through leading distributed teams?
John: I always thought of myself as a computer guy who was fascinated with writing code and solving complex technical distributed systems problems. So I was surprised to realize that I was just as fascinated with detangling complex human problems. It’s interesting to me how so much of people’s ability to work together is determined by the physical structure of their workplace and the tools they use while working.
Thinking about the situation with my “distributed systems engineer” brain, I noticed that many of the disconnect and trust breakdowns are caused by literal mechanical issues. For example, when someone always knows what going on because their desk is near the office coffee machine – until they have to travel for extended work and suddenly feel “out of the loop”. Or when video tools don’t easily and reliably work, people start avoiding video and instead send rushed written messages, where tone and nuance are lost. This can lead to people sending messages to each other, using written words that they would never consider verbally saying to each other in person. A few rushed back-and-force written miscommunications in a tense work situation can damage months of established trust. Left unfixed, those faulty tools will literally destroy your team cohesion and trust.
Once you have consistently reliable working technology, then you can better foster trust and respect so people work effectively and well with each other. I have worked in places where managers treated their human staff employees as interchangeable disposable resources. This feels disrespectful and ironically, I note how many of those same managers complained about lack of staff loyalty. People are unique humans – not interchangeable widgets – and it is important to have empathy for people and the environments that they work in. Their unique perspectives bring so many positive aspects to our work. It allows us to think outside the box, overcome unexpected problems and adopt new ideas. All this is only possible if we trust and respect each other.
Sherry: How do you imagine the future right now?
John: It’s hard to tell these days, there’s so many unique things going on at the same time. And I don’t have a working crystal ball! However, I do think it’s clear we will not be going back to offices for a while, and if we do, whatever offices we go back to will be so different, even disorienting.
It can be a challenge for some to work from home. Even for people who were already comfortable working from home, these times are stressful. Global pandemics are scary and anxiety-inducing. And there added complications of school closures for parents, medical visit restrictions for caregivers and real personal concerns about health risks for anyone with any pre-existing medical conditions. Even going to the local shop to buy milk has changed from trivial to precarious.
In all this, we need to remember that humans are social beings and social isolation is unhealthy. It is therefore healthy and normal to want to be back working in an office, with the other humans we worked and socialized with and used to spend most of our waking days with.
It is fair to want to go back to “normal” life – life “Before Covid”. But for that, we need a time machine – which we haven’t invented yet.
If we go back to our normal office, the office will have to be rearranged to be “COVID-safe”, changing the dynamic completely. Offices will be so different as to be disorienting.
We’ve spent decades designing offices to have more humans per square foot – shared offices, open plan, bullpen – as this saves us on recurring real estate costs. Since COVID-19, this open-plan density is obviously a problem.
The fastest way to reduce density is to only allow about one third of staff into our offices at one time. There will be limited staff allowed on any given day so offices will look very different today and well into our future. The CDC have already recommended that common spaces like coffee machines and water coolers be closed, and meeting rooms capacity be heavily reduced. Even “simple“ things like reducing elevator capacity for safety has practical consequences on how long people will have to wait to get from the lobby to their floor as well as when waiting to leave at the end of the day. For organizations that do reopen their offices, the experience of working in an office will be disorientingly different.
As companies think through what their offices will be like, and the cost to convert to this new reality, I expect many to decide its simply not be practical.
Obviously, it will be emotionally hard to make that decision for some companies and some employees – justifying the sunk-cost of an expensive empty office is hard enough; telling staff that their familiar offices and workplaces will not be re-opening will be even harder. While they figure out the public messaging on this, some will keep announcing “another 3-6 months” until people get gradually accustomed to the change.
Losing the familiar anchor of daily commuting to work in an office adds to our uncertainty today.
Similarly, school closures complicate life for parents, especially single parents. Social distance when commuting on public transit is another concern. Campus environments and trophy tower offices here in Silicon Valley and other locations are going thru intense re-evaluations. The economic and organizational impact of COVID-19 will be with us for quite some time.
Sherry: How will we look at space?
John: I think we are on the edge of the biggest change in urban planning since WWII – when we invented suburbs. In the 80s we started to return back to major cities. I believe this current experience is going to change all that again.
There’s a hidden assumption that to have a meaningful career, you need to live within commute range of a set of bricks. That’s been rapidly changing. I helped write a law in Vermont around remote work and there are other similar initiatives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Savannah, Georgia, and Remote Shoals, Alabama. What if you could have a meaningful career and also live whereever you want?
Additional factors here are generational. 2016 was the first year that Millennials became the largest part of the workforce and in 2020, Gen Z will become the second biggest segment. Both were brought up comfortable with virtual technology. For them, to go to an office is a downgrade in the technology they use in their life. Additionally, both these generations grew up knowing there was no such thing as a job for life, and more people are in two-income families. All this means fewer people are relocating for jobs – migration trend data in the US continues to drop and is now below 10% for the first time since records began. As these generations become leaders and founders of new companies, they probably will not see the office as an asset; instead they will see it as a recurring hiring, operational and financial liability. Most hiring will be remote by default.
Sherry: Does this give an advantage for start-ups?
John: I think it will be an advantage for all sorts of organizations: start-ups, small firms and large firms. The advantage is for leadership who successfully figures out creative ideas for bringing diverse talent into their companies.
Requiring talent to come to their offices has limited the talent supply chain – and people just thought that was the way it always was. Now that is changing and opening up in a positive way. People will be less likely to apply for a job if they see a rigid “must be in the office everyday” philosophy, as it tells them lots about the leadership of the organization.
Over the years, we’ve talked about Results Oriented Work Environments (ROWE), Management by Objective and other similar concepts. The social and work changes because of COVID-19 will force management to grapple with trust, accountability and delegation of authority, taking a hard look at what the outcomes need to be instead of forcing a new hire to relocate, just so you can “manage by walking around the office”.
Sherry: What is the game changer that you see five years from now?
John: Some may want to return to the office, but the conditions to make it safe and economical will be tougher and harder to overcome. It won’t matter if you are in the office or not, you will be seen as an important resource tied to a project or outcome that has value.
Companies will have realized that just because we are moving fast and growing quickly, does not require us to be together. The old assumption was that we had to be together to work effectively and grow. However, there are now 1000+ person companies that are fast-growth, out-competing others and doing this for years. It is working fine for them. For office-centric organizations, the sudden change was disruptive and painful but one-way-or-another, they’ve got through this. It is working so well, the question is now – why do you need the office? Workers also have a voice in this – they resist going back if the workplace, or the commute, puts their health at risk.
In the past, when people discussed “remote work” or “working from home” they frequently confused this with discussions about gig work, contract work or freelance work. Without realizing it, they shift from talking about the proximity of coworkers to the very different topic of contractual terms or categories of employment. The hidden assumption is that if you are “working remotely”, “working from home” or part of a distributed team, you must not be a full-time employee.
Sherry: What are you hopeful about?
John: We all see a lot of change and economic disruption right now. That can be scary and its important to be up-front about that. In my opinion, it is also important to be explicit that things were not working so well before and some of these changes also open up new opportunities.
Requiring job applicants and employees to live within commute range of our physical office buildings impacts hiring, the wider economy and the environment. Workforce diversity was a challenge for we were tied to candidates in our own geography. Removing that daily commute requirement opens up diversity in a way that we were artificially constraining ourselves before. That will be one of the positive changes.
Reducing the carbon foot print sounds admirable, but its worth being explicit about how much of a problem commuting is. In California, the Air Resource Board tracks CO2 emissions across shipping, public transit, aviation, construction, agriculture – everything. In 2018, each of these different sources of emissions were under 10%. The only single source of emissions over 10%, over >20% – at 28% – was passenger cars. Most of that is single occupant cars commuting to/from work. If we upgrade how we lead and manage, we have an opportunity to reduce that significantly, simply by asking people to do what they already want to do – stop commuting.
Reducing carbon emissions at that scale gives me hope. Increasing diversity of workforce talent pools at scale also gives me hope. And all of this is happening today, literally today – not in some vague 5-10 year timeline. Using existing consumer grade technology – not some still-to-be-invented expensive future technology.
Could you have imagined this at the start of this year?
Sherry: Who are the role models for distributed team effectiveness?
John: There are several industries and companies embracing this concept of working from anywhere. Of course, it depends on the nature of their work. Some roles are location-specific – for example, brain surgeons, people re-stocking supermarket shelves and government employees operating secured systems. Even within a specific business, I see some location-independent roles staying location-independent, even while others return to their location-specific work. Front line managers are figuring this all out live on the job – things may change over time but for now, those strong personally trusted relationships allow us to explore and experiment as we figure out what works and what doesn’t work.