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How to scale your distributed team

Christine Del Castillo
Christine Del Castillo

Former Community Manager at Workable specialized in employee experience, talent brands and our event series, Workable Ideas.

Technology has advanced to the point that remote working no longer conjures the image of freelancers in pajamas. Thanks to high-speed internet and an improving array of online collaboration tools, many companies employ partially or fully distributed teams working across multiple time zones and locations.

Tech companies like Basecamp, Buffer, Stack Exchange, and Trello have mostly taken the lead, but it’s not difficult to imagine other industries adopting this setup, as long as employees did not have to work on-site with specialized equipment (e.g. construction, healthcare, hospitality industries).

But can you really get away with no office? Automattic, Mozilla, and Soundcloud, the three massively distributed companies profiled below, have done so. They share key aspects that contribute to their longevity and continued growth. First, all three companies have defined shared values and make hiring decisions that help them keep that in their culture as they scale. Second, distributed teams must communicate, even over-communicate, in order to keep the gears of collaboration and productivity running smoothly. Finally, great tools are the bread and butter of any distributed team. If your team can’t meet in person, you should pick good options for face-to-face communication, getting quick feedback, recruitment, project management and more.

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Case study: Automattic

The most fascinating thing about Automattic isn’t their size (400 people), their success (Automattic is valued at 1 billion dollars) or their staying power (10 years and going strong). It’s their organizational design—the backbone of the company, the idea that supports everything else.

The company is a champion of the open-source movement and a major contributor to WordPress, which now powers one in four websites. Open source advocates believe that software that anyone, anywhere can use for any purpose makes the internet a better place. According to their CEO, Matt Mullenweg, “This mirrors the meritocracy that makes Open Source great and treats people on the quality of their ideas and their work whether they’re in San Francisco or Argentina. (Or if they started in San Francisco and moved to Argentina.)”

Mullenweg considers the opportunity to work from anywhere to be the single greatest perk that Automattic provides. Being a distributed team enables them to compete with traditional tech giants like Facebook for the very best job candidates. At Automattic, a range of communication tools have replaced the traditional office. These include the P2 (a WordPress tool), Slack, Trello, and Github. Instead of paying rent for office space, Automatticians go on team hackathons and summits in far-flung places like Hawaii, Mexico and New Zealand

Case study: Mozilla

Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox browser, has 13 global offices and people working in more than 30 countries. Mozilla also supports any employee’s decision to work from home. Despite their decentralized structure, this company has succeeded tremendously in building an inclusive culture.

Here’s what that looks like in practice: Employees can join any meeting by calling in, and can talk to anyone at the company via video conferencing and IRC. Improved collaboration is a great byproduct of such a culture. “There are pretty low barriers to cross-pollination. If wandering down a rabbit hole leads you to a bug elsewhere in the code: fix it. Barriers to ‘hacking in other people’s turf’ are low,” writes Johnathan Nightingale, VP of Firefox, in his Quora response. This extends to hiring. “There’s little to no distinction between contributors who pop out of nowhere, contractors, and employees. Mozilla is the community,” says Brian Bondy, a software engineer at Mozilla.  People who want to work at Mozilla are encouraged to join their community and contribute as volunteers.

This is related to their other core value, transparency. It’s important to build trust with people you don’t see on a daily basis. At Mozilla, they build trust by taking information out of silos. “For example, if you want to know how you may get a raise, you can look up this information including data sheets, considerations, processes, and tools,” says Bondy.

Case study: SoundCloud

Like Automattic and Mozilla, Soundcloud stresses that the key to a productive distributed team is constant communication and transparency. “Communication at SoundCloud directly links to one of our core values: #open. We believe that being open creates better results, that information needs to flow like an undercurrent to enable velocity.”

SoundCloud, a leading audio platform, has over 300 employees in Berlin, London, New York, and San Francisco. That’s four time zones. To ensure that they don’t miss a beat, they hold weekly All Hands meetings. Having a theme for these meetings keeps conversation focused and productive. The inclusion of remote employees is especially prioritized with high-quality video streams. “IT is basically producing a full, hour-long TV show,” says David Noël, SoundCloud’s VP of Community. High production quality is a priority as it increases engagement among their employees.

SoundCloud has also built a world-class internal communications hub. Their intranet, Opus, prioritizes community-building features and is designed to look and feel like a SoundCloud product. In addition to purely functional company memos, it’s packed with engaging content, in such as Opus Questions, a “Reddit-like Q&A tool where questions can be voted up or down.” Despite being a distributed company, several employees report seeing messages multiple times–a strong indicator of their system’s efficacy.

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