My distributed team is more efficient than your colocated team

How some companies thrive with completely dispersed workforces while others flounder with last-century control policies like punch-clocks.

Poor Joe

Joe is a friend of mine. Last Wednesday we agreed to meet for lunch to catch up. He had texted me an hour earlier letting me know he’d be 10 minutes late. So when I pulled into the parking lot, I decided to wait in my car till he got there.

At one point I picked my head up from my phone and noticed Joe had pulled in and parked right next to me. He threw a finger up in the air, motioning to wait as he fumbled with something in the passenger seat.

I got out of my car and walked around to his door. I realized then that Joe was lurched over his center console, frantically clicking and typing on his laptop.

He hopped out shortly after. We did the typical handshake and lean-in, followed by 2 pats on the back. As we walked toward the diner entrance I asked him, “Getting some last minute work done?”

Joe said, “Oh, no. I forgot to clock out of work for lunch. I was just taking care of it because if my manager sees I’m out and checks my timesheet I’ll be screwed.”

“Stop.” I continued, “WHAT?!”

Joe told me, “Yeah dude, don’t even get me started. My company just reinstated some old policy from the 80s where we have to clock in and out whenever we leave the office.”

I stared at him. I wanted to believe he was kidding. He wasn’t.

Knowing how badly he had worked to land this job, the only thing I could muster out was, “Oh man… that’s… rough. But how’s everything else going? C’mon, let’s get a table! I’m starving!”

Things fall apart

I read a Reed Hastings quote from Netflix’s culture slide deck that went, “The more talent density you have the less process you need. The more process you create the less talent you retain.”

A generalized statement like this is easy to throw stones at. There are myriad organizations where process and protocol are a must. Think hospital ERs, labs that test new strains of HIV vaccines, and the armed forces.

But Joe isn’t curing AIDS. Joe works at a company that created and licenses real estate software.

How can Netflix and Joe’s company, both in the software industry, offer such wildly different experiences for their staff?

More importantly, how can Netflix dismiss all of the standard HR practices the working world (including Joe’s company) accepts as rules, and still be worth $100,000,000,000?

But it’s not just Netflix.

Companies like InVision have bent and broken the rules. Their workforce is 100% distributed. And I’m not talking about a headquarters in San Fran and one satellite office in Menlo Park.

Jennifer Aldrich, InVision’s Sr. Mgr of Design Community Partnerships, said:

“Working for InVision has been a truly incredible experience. When I interviewed 3 years ago we had 50 employees — we’re now up to over 500 team members in 25+ countries. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a company grow that rapidly and still retain a positive work culture. And not only maintain, but increase productivity across the board. We have better communication at InVision, a completely remote distributed workforce, than I’ve ever experienced in a traditional office.”

So then, let’s look at some of the work hacks these companies employ to keep punchcards at bay, and their staff happy and efficient from wherever they call “the office.”

Using technology. Not using technology.

Last year, while at Google’s Sprint Conference, I met Jim Kalbach. Jim works at a software company called Mural. Mural provides teams a virtual whiteboard where they can create and collaborate without having to be in the same room, office, city, or continent.

We talked about the extremes organizations go to when it comes to employing technology that allow people to work together without being together — Mural, Hangouts, Skype, GoToMeeting, etc.

He pointed out that most take 1 of 2 stances here: that will work here or that won’t work here.

The former, unfortunately, is where Joe works. Their view is — if you’re in the office, you can and should be working. If you’re not in the office, you’re not working… unless of course someone important sends you an email at 10:00pm, in which case you’re expected to respond ASAP. Funny how that works, right?

In the latter scenario and all the way to the other extreme, companies implement tools and technology with reckless abandon. These are companies where coworkers sit 7 feet away from one another but rely solely on Slack to communicate.

Getting it right

The companies that make technology work well are the one that strike a balance between tech and human. Here are a few ways.

  • They acknowledge that the humans using the technology are faulty and will surely do things poorly or altogether wrong.
  • They’re patient. They don’t shift, overnight, from no technology to all technology, or the other way around.
  • When technology fails (it will) they ask questions about what went wrong, make small adjustments, and see how it works. They also ask if humans would be better at the task than technology and adjust as necessary.

But sometimes, no matter how error-free our tech is, people need to meet.

Making time together efficient

One of the most common objections we hear from clients when kicking off new product innovation engagements is, “If we’re going to work together, we’ll need your entire team inside our offices for the majority of this project.”

When I press to learn why they think this is only way to work, they talk about the lack of efficiency of reading countless emails and spending hours in poorly run Skype calls.

Here, again, we have the extreme mindset — if we’re not in the same room, we might as well be on the other side of the planet.

Actually, they’re right.

Efficiency for most teams falls off the table the second they go from working on the same whiteboard in the same conference room, to dialing in across four timezones.

The question is, at what point does the cost of paying top-dollar local salaries or flying employees around the world in order to enforce your policies around colocated teams, become grossly prohibitive?

For example, one of our innovation programs is a 15-week process called Idea-to-MVP. Of those 15 weeks, we have not once found a good reason to spend more than 4 weeks together — 2 or 3 at the start and 1 (if necessary) during launch week.

Here are some other general practices we use to make necessary face-to-face time together lean and mean:

Strict door policy

We’re a bit fussy about who attends the gatherings we organize — in-person or otherwise. We want each person to be committed to the conversation and have some insights to share.

Why? Because it’s often the people that join — just to listen in — who are the same multitaskers causing distractions and taking the group through tangent after tangent.

If you’re not sharing something the group needs to hear, you can catch up separately, afterward, by reading the meeting minutes.

Be present

We have a rule in our home during school mornings — no consuming of anything other than what’s for breakfast and whatever’s streaming on Pandora.

No YouTube, no TV, no devices. I can write an entire post on why this is a practice every human and family of humans should adopt. But the gist is, if you’re consuming you’re somewhere else, instead of investing in either yourself or the others sitting next to you.

I take the same approach when facilitating working sessions — if you’re in a meeting with me or my team and you’re on your phone or checking your inbox, we kindly ask you to leave and return when you’re done.

No hard feelings. We all have the same 24 hours. Your time is as limited as everyone else’s in the room.

If you’re there, be present, listen, and when it makes sense, contribute.

In-person tech

We use technology. Duh.

Remember, just because you’re sitting across the table from someone doesn’t mean you can’t take capture virtual stickies in Mural, take notes in a shared Google Doc, or review visuals in InVision or Marvel.

Jim from Mural noted:

“If the work you’re doing is significant enough to invest time and money into bringing a team together, then it should be digital from the start. Important information ends up digital anyway. A ‘digital first’ mindset means that capturing work electronically is central to your way of working, not an afterthought. This gives you flexibility to pivot quicker, the ability to include a wider range of teammates, and eliminates the need to transcribe content.”

Design Sprints

If you know anything about New Haircut by now, you know what fans we are of design sprints — we like to say that they allow us to get more done in 5 days (or less) than most organizations accomplish in 5 months.

We use the mindset, pace, and structure not only to build software, but for sales discovery, team buildings, hiring updates, pipeline reviews, and so on.

If you’re reading this and sick of big brainstorming sessions that result in absolutely nothing actionable, Sprint by Jake Knapp should be the next book on your reading list.

Together and not together

Just because 5 people are together, doesn’t mean 2 or 3 others can’t be virtual.

Again, resist the temptation of being so extreme that it’s all or none.

Wrapping up

What I’ve really been talking about in this article is change when it comes to how work gets done.

For companies looking to attract the best talent, they need to be open to new ways of working, learning from others, being able to spot good trends from bad, and then adjusting appropriately.

Or, they can keep asking Joe to punch in, and pray that he sticks around more than 12 months.


New Haircut is a product innovation studio with offices in NYC, New Jersey, Berlin, and Romania. We value smart, efficient collaboration across our offices and with the client teams we support. How else could we promise to move from idea to MVP in 15 weeks? Contact us at start@newhaircut.com to learn more about it.