From access to a global talent pool to the ability for individuals to work where they want, it’s easy to see why so many startups and established enterprises are exploring the potential of distributed teams.
Discussions around distributed teams often go down the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ route, highlighting the many challenges and benefits of the distributed workforce. I wanted to take a slightly different tact with this post and look at how we overcome the main challenge of productivity within distributed teams: communication.
It’s good to talk
Communication is the most obvious challenge for distributed teams, and the most crucial to overcome, for both productivity, and team morale. In a traditional office environment, you’re within walking distance of each other. Heck, team members usually sit in the same area, often lunch together, and might even have the luxury of spending time outside work getting to know each other.
The key information is often traded in passing comments, “I’ve pushed a commit”, “I’ve updated a document”, “I’ve fixed an issue”, crucial points that don’t require the time it takes to have a full conversation, but are integral to productivity, shared in a throwaway second.
In traditional settings, communication is easy, and everything from team-building nonsensical chit-chat, to crucial updates, are taken for granted. In a distributed team, it’s a lot harder. Not only do you have the different time zones to contend with, there is also language barriers and cultural differences. Communication, while crucial, can become a chore. Thankfully, in the Deveo team, we’ve managed to overcome the challenge of communication, using a few key apps, automation, and integrations.
Communication and team building
In any work environment, a strong team bond is crucial. In distributed workplaces, this bond is even more important, and a lot more difficult to cultivate. In the Deveo team, we’re lucky enough to get together every 6 months for a retreat, where we work, and relax in the same location for a few days. But the reality is even that won’t replace the lack of constant contact and communication.
Instead of relying on being in the same physical location, we use instant messaging to stay connected throughout our workday. Central to this communication workflow is Flowdock. This is where the magic happens, or at least where the majority of our communication, from brainstorming to sharing nonsense, takes place. The chat room style removes the intimidation and formality of emails and means we get to experience open, transparent conversations, with the entire team.
Splitting conversations into channels for different types of communication - such as business, UX, support etc. - means all communication is kept on the topic. We even have a channel specifically for off-topic conversation, creatively named “Off-topic”.
Passing comments and essential updates
With a constant channel of communication covered, it’s important to find a way to emulate the updates and passing comments that prove so crucial to productivity in a traditional office environment. In our case, this was simple, as we have integrated Flowdock with Deveo - alongside some basic app, email, and RSS automation. Now, whenever a crucial update occurs, such as a commit pushed to a repository in Deveo, a side comment is posted in the relevant channel within Flowdock and a notification is sent to relevant team members.
This keeps every team member in the loop, no matter what the change. What’s more, it means every minor change is documented and assigned to a team member, keeping everyone accountable. If we want to see if an update or commit has happened, or find out who made it happen, we can look through the notification logs in Flowdock, and don’t have to interrupt someone else’s workday.
How did we live without RESTful APIs?
We use Deveo every day. Though it might seem quite meta, it likely comes as no surprise that our team relies heavily on using Deveo when building Deveo. We also rely heavily on third party tools, like Flowdock, and we knew from the start that other users would be in the same boat. The established and startup software world is rife with amazing tools that solve a whole host of productivity and communication issues. The need to integrate Deveo to play nice with these tools and apps was never been in any doubt. As a result, everything in Deveo has been built with integration in mind, using the power RESTful APIs.
Using well-defined RESTful APIs means, while my example of increasing productivity using Flowdock notifications and channels is specific to the Deveo team, our users can build integrations with their favorite apps and tools, to improve their own processes and productivity.
Communication can be a huge time-suck, and can all but destroy productivity in distributed teams. Unsurprisingly, other than communication, Deveo is the main tool we use on a daily basis. As a result, it made sense for us to overcome the challenge of communication and productivity using extensive, well-defined RESTful APIs, which allow us to integrate Deveo to hundreds of third-party apps, and keep us communicating as a strong, productive team.