Blog Post

Open Thread: Can Technology Ever Bridge the Gap for Remote Teams?

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?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Report: The Real-Time Enterprise

24 Responses to “Open Thread: Can Technology Ever Bridge the Gap for Remote Teams?”

  1. As a veteran of a number of growth companies, both localized and distributed, it is critical to have SOME universal vehicle for real-time, ad hoc, rich conversations. In-person environments have this inherently through verbal and visual channels in real time. Skype and its peers offer acceptable proxies when they are implemented organization-wide.

    My question for the group: Reliable presence indication is very important if a distributed environment is to be amenable to impromptu conversations. Skype’s (and other software’s) presence indicator does a POOR job of indicating someone’s actual presence, particularly if they have multiple devices logged in.

    Do YOU have a RELIABLE presence indicator that can show someone’s actual presence, and within that, their availability for a discussion?

  2. I have had two experiences in my work life managing Remote Teams, one where i had very few collaboration tools at my disposal, and one (my current company) where i have every collaboration tool i could want, including IM, LiveMeeting, and Video Conferencing.
    Before i was at this job, I though that managing Remote employees was fine, but, I always found myself on the road because i wanted FACE time with my employees in the different offices they were working at. With my current company, the addition of the Video Conferencing piece of the puzzle has really added a lot of value. At first, i really didn’t think video conferencing was any better than a conference call with my team, but then i started to realize that everyone paid more attention on the calls when there was video as well. After using it a while, i also started to notice how much the non-verbal cues did make a difference too. You would often hear in the meeting someone make a statement, then a pause, and a then something like…”okay, so i see by your expression you aren’t too excited about the idea…” and at that point i realized that it DOES make a difference being able to SEE your employees.

    So, i guess to sum up my vote on the subject, i think the technology is really doing a great job to make a remote workforce more effective, and i do like the flexibility that it allows for in having good employees stay with a company even if they need to move.

    Although i am voting that the technology IS bridging the gap, I do have to admit that i’m still of the mindset that I DO feel there is a lot of CHATTER that happens when people are all in one location and that is extrememly helpful in being able to develop a BIG PICTURE view of what part you play in the company.

    A good follow up topic might be…”Do you have a better chance of advancement if you work onsight as opposed to remotely?”

  3. Paul L

    Tim Heyes and others on this string have it correct; communication, communication, communication, is the key as well as software to manage the process. And… there is plenty of project management software available to manage the process. I’ve worked for a global semiconductor manufacturing company that was noted for dispersed teams and it was never a problem. It may been a pain at times attending 4AM conference-calls, but the overall process went smoothly. We would also have team meetings about every 3 months in places like Singapore, California, etc so everyone could get to know each other and forge relationships.

  4. I ran a distributed development team for three years, and IM was equivalent to calling over the cube wall. Even though you never saw them, you knew the moment they stepped into the “office” because their indicator turned green. I found it to be very effective, and many times we just started up conversations where we left off (without all the niceties) because it felt like we were “sitting next to each other” all day. And improptu conversations happened all the time… someone has a thought, and quickly IMs it over to another, who brings in another to the conversation. And no one has to be found to give commentary on the conversation. They are all there.

    I agree with the statement that several have made that it’s the leadership that defines the success of the arrangement. The way I usually say it, though, is that the communication model is very different than the in-office communication model, and it takes a certain kind of person to manage that different communication form.

    Now I work in a (different) large corporation that, by necessity has teams that are distributed across all its offices. One thing I’ve learned is it’s better to either have everyone on tele/web conference, or everyone in a meeting room. There have been these huge meetings recently when 1/2 to 3/4 of the team flies to one location for the meeting, which is great for the in-person atmosphere. But the people who can’t fly that time are struggling to listen in on the room. Unbelievably frustrating, and you don’t really get the benefit of their full input.

    I disagree that video is needed. I don’t want professional colleagues to see my unshaven face, disheveled hair, and relaxed clothing, and I don’t want to have to dress up to go to my home office. However, I agree that occasional in-person meetings, especially and more often in the first 2-3 months, are important for building a team. On the other hand, in this large corporation that I work in now, I have built close working relationships with people I haven’t seen in the two years we have worked together.

    • That’s a great point AD (about either having everyone call in or be present for meetings). It’s something I really struggle with in our weekly editorial meetings — little comments, asides and even whole side discussions made by those in the meeting room get missed by those of us on the phone.

  5. Doug Peck

    The development of culture, I believe, depends more on management than on physically being together. No doubt, the group culture will develop differently on a distributed team, but that does not mean it won’t develop at all, or that it’s inferior to a culture developed on a co-located team. The bottom line, I think, is it depends on the work being done and the members of the team. I’ve been part of distributed projects that worked well and some that didn’t. The results of those efforts have depended on team members having the appropriate skills for the project, and the management of the work and the team. Same success factors needed for teams that are all in the same place. I do think it helps to get together in one place occasionally so that team members can get to know each other a bit. In my experience I haven’t found video conferencing to be helpful, but I’m all for other collaboration tools.

  6. Remote collaboration may not be ideal in every situation but it’s quickly becoming the norm. It has alot to do with the tools that are available. We still can’t forget that collaboration does not happen without people and someone managing the process. Many of the tools can cause more pain and interruption than success, and contribute to the failure of teams being able to work together efficiently. If we choose the tools that fit into a teams current work habits we can transition into increased acceptance and success with remote collaboration.

  7. 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.

  8. Ashwin Desikan

    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. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. Arvind

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    • 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.

  15. 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.