24 Comments

Summary:

Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster believes that in-person teams are much more effective than those that collaborate remotely. Suster says that it’s hard for distributed teams to communicate effectively with fewer non-verbal cues and no in-office chatter? But can better technology bridge that gap?

Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster believes that “in-person” teams are much more effective than those that collaborate remotely. Suster says that it’s hard for distributed teams to communicate effectively when so much communication is non-verbal, and notes how difficult it is to develop company norms, beliefs and, ultimately, culture, without office chatter. Suster is talking from his experiences with startup companies, but many of his points would also apply to more established businesses, too.

Having worked in both dysfunctional “in-person” teams and distributed teams that were highly effective, I’d say that Suster’s opinion is probably not always true, though it is hard to argue with his point that building a startup is easier if everyone works from one location, particularly because it is so difficult to establish a company culture within a distributed team. I also agree with Suster that it’s more important for certain team members to be present and available in the office — such as the CEO and CTO — than others.

However, thanks to the Internet, working in a distributed team is easier now than it ever was before. Technologies such as video conferencing, IRC and IM, and collaboration software, like Yammer and Socialtext, are helping to bring distributed teams closer together. And not only are the tools that that we use getting better by the day, but our knowledge of how best to use them to work effectively is improving, too.

So, given that many of our readers have personal experience of working in distributed teams I thought I would post an open thread asking for your opinion: Do you agree with Mark Suster’s view that “in-person” teams are more effective than distributed teams? If so, can technology (such as collaboration apps, VoIP and video chat) ever bridge that gap for distributed teams?

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  1. It depends on the type of work the teams are doing. I do agree that certain people should always be available in the office. I worked on a project this year where the Project Manager was nowhere to be found. It really hurt the project because no one could really invest anything other than the hours they were supposed to work.

    1. Agreed, the type of work can have a big impact on the potential effectiveness of a distributed team — for some teams distributed work is impossible.

  2. I’ve been on fully distributed startup teams that developed solid (and positive) cultures. And I’ve been on many more in person teams that were full of back stabbing, posturing, and other noxious attitudes that destroyed the teams.
    I believe that distributed teams allow for a higher level of interaction without the ego trips that seem common in face to face teams. And I believe those who are prone to negative interactions are going to destroy whatever team they’re on, distributed or centralized.
    I have to wonder if Mr. Suster is the kind of guy who has to see someone working to believe that they’re working. That 80s mentality should be jettisoned from our work environment. Especially with teams Nationwide. You wouldn’t expect to stay up on a webcam while working with teams in India or Singapore, and yet, if someone is on-shore, you don’t believe they’re working unless you see them?
    Bottom line: remove ego, update expectations, have clear objectives, and the positive culture will develop even in distributed start-ups.

    1. I agree with you, Lara — establishing culture is more a function of effective management than whether a team is distributed or not. However, it’s probably easier for poor management to manage an “in person” team.

  3. Been in both sides since 2001 and it works only with a culture of transparency. Plus results will always show who can work in a distributed environment. Those who can’t can always work in a setting set with punch cards and IDs.

  4. Great comment, Lara! I agree with you 100%. I have been working remotely and managing a remote team for years and it works well because of leadership. Going to an “office” where you can be seen “working” is such an old-world mentality that will not survive. Results are what survive and those who can produce them, remote or not, will win.

    One of the tactics I employ is to make sure we do get everyone together at least 4 times a year to spend some quality team-building time. We also tend to tackle some of the larger issues that are easier to talk about in front of a whiteboard in the same room.

    But when we are not together, we are just as effective and communicate a lot. I find that it is clearly a style and education issue – the leaders who cannot learn to adapt to a remote style lose. Their egos are based on needing to “see” people working rather than understanding the value they add.

  5. I fully believe that work is best done when co-located. Non-verbal cues are very important even in technology centric work activities.

    To me, the implicit advantage of having everyone together far outweighs the cost benefits of multi-sited work teams.

  6. I have worked on both local and distributed teams in small companies as well as bigger companies. I can say that working in small teams especially for startups is a lot more efficient if people are all in a single office. This has nothing to do with looking over who is working or not , but more to the amount of discussions that happen in the hallway, the bonding that you build working long hours together , going out to lunch with the team. Its also the ability to step in right away when there is a confusion between teams as you can overhear the conversations.
    I also think that the cultures are different at different locations , even within the same country with some people working early, others working late etc.
    So if you have very independent pieces that need to distributed , then a strong process is all that is required , but if you all are working on a single piece then being in the same office helps.
    Video conferencing and IM can never replace the impromptu discussions in the hallway , or create the ability to help fix issues as you can overhear.

  7. Mike Sellers Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    I agree with Lara’s comment.

    In the mid-1990s I co-founded a startup with a distributed team; it was a near-disaster. We pulled out a product but the team was not a happy one. This was as much due to the people involved as the more limited technology of the day.

    I’m leading a highly distributed team now, and it’s going amazingly well. Again, the people make all the difference — and good technology helps. Skype, IM, Googledocs, a solid wiki, and a few other tools are absolutely vital for us.

    Along with the individuals and the technology, creating an effective culture — part of the CEO’s primary job, IMO — is a key part of making this work. This is true in everything from how we handle IM presence and interruptions to how much time we spend in our daily status calls talking about things other than work (see my post on company cultre and the 90-minute 15-minute meeting).

    This team I’m working with now is the best I’ve seen. I count my blessings every day. Would we be better off if we were in the same office? Maybe. OTOH I could not hire the people I have for the simple fact that it would be prohibitively expensive to do so if I had to bring them all to one location. By being distributed I’m able to do “on-shore off-shoring” — hiring terrific people who don’t happen to live in a major metropolitan city (and I don’t have to pay them New York or San Francisco wages).

  8. Ashwin Desikan Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    co-located as well as distributed teams have their own share of issues. It comes down to the leader/ manager of the teams to facilitate and ensure camaraderie amongst team members. In addition to this tools play a key roles; IM’s, video chat, skype, livemeeting, wiki etc help share knowledge. Most important though are the people, if you have the folks with right attitude the team can be successful as they can help each other out, not all teams are privileged to have all good men/ women.

    The experience of working with in-person and distributed teams is enlightening. In today’s world one requires an open mind and ability to look beyond team members language, accent and purely judge people based on their skill.

    Having worked on a globally distributed team of 80 people and implementing Agile methodology successfully having distributed teams can be financially rewarding for any organization, if executed well.

    Personally I would prefer a blend of both, having folks in a location co-located and multiple such locations does give best of both worlds.

  9. We’ve been a remote working organisation for years, combining as many tools to make the environment as interactive as possible. IM and Skype are used a lot (we are finding the video conferencing features of Skype 5 immensely useful) and communication between team members is almost constant.

    I agree that there are a number of roles this is less suited to though, such as Project Managers, CEOs, etc – the on-the-floor motivators if you will – although they don’t need to be excluded from a remote working environment – maybe just remote less.

    Relationships are still key though and for new team members it is important to make sure they put in more face time with other employees before they start remote working in anger, particularly if it is a small business.

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