The importance of distributed work for colocated teams

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Last week, I celebrated three months on Trello 🎉 and it's been awesome! The time has just flown by and I still feel the excitement of having “just joined” Trello. One of the biggest changes from my previous team is how Trello is embracing and practicing distributed work. Although I had worked in a distributed team before and feel comfortable in all kinds of distributed collaboration, I wasn’t quite sure how teamwork and particularly the design process would work this time, given the new team and all.

But to my own surprise, the distributed work—some of which with people I’ve never met in person—is going way better than expected. More importantly, though, I’ve noticed that practicing distributed teamwork improves collaboration in colocated teams as well. But before we dive into that, some context:

For successful collaboration, all teammates need to have somewhat equal ability to participate

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Here are a few common examples:

  1. If there’s only one person dialing into a meeting while everyone else is colocated in the same room, they’re going to have a harder time participating than the people in the room (presence disparity).
  2. Some people are naturally confident and outspoken, while others are rather quiet and reserved. The confident, outspoken teammates are going to have an easier time making their voices heard than the quiet, reserved ones (difference in personalities).
  3. For people who are physically bigger or have a louder voice, it will be easier to lead or "dominate" a meeting than for people who are rather petite and have a quieter voice (physical differences).

By following some of the guidelines for distributed collaboration, however, we can mitigate some of these effects and create a more equal playing field. Let’s start with example 1 from above:

Instead of putting the person who’s working from home on the big screen in the meeting room, each team member could dial into the meeting from their own computer, using the camera and Zoom’s gallery view (Commandment #3). That way, everyone’s equally present in the meeting and the person working from home is not at a disadvantage. Additionally, since everyone gets the same amount of screen space, physical size doesn’t matter as much anymore. And since you can adjust the volume on your computer, your voice matters a little less as well.

By adopting distributed work guidelines, we're reducing the presence disparity and hence equalizing participation.

In our example above, we haven’t really done much to empower people who are naturally shyer or more reserved. This is where some of the practices of Trello’s Design Huddles can be helpful. For example:

  • In distributed meetings, it’s easy to talk over each other. Having a dedicated facilitator and structure in place can help reduce the moments where we interrupt each other.
  • Using Mural or any tool that allows participants to jot down thoughts for everyone to see is a great way to take the meeting beyond words and to have some sort of documentation after the meeting.

The reason I believe this is a big deal beyond just making distributed collaboration work is that these practices improve all collaboration, distributed or not. Here’s what I mean by that:

The more we’re used to distributed work, the more normal it becomes for us to do the things necessary to equalize participation.

  • We become more sensitive to things like presence disparity,
  • consider our teammates’ ability to participate,
  • leave longer pauses to avoid interrupting anyone,
  • check our own behavior,
  • appoint a facilitator,
  • and set up a meeting structure beforehand.

In a way, we’re "sub-consciously designing" for the users with the deepest need, the teammates who are not able to participate equally. And in doing so, we're improving the collaboration for all teammates.

For context, this approach is often referred to as designing for extreme users and a good way to design in general. In short, extreme users are users whose needs are amplified and therefore often easier to identify. Here are a few examples of products that were inspired by so-called extreme users:

In a recent internal blog post about distributed work in large enterprises, Trello's head of design, Chris Kimbell wrote:

“It gets harder when you consider what approach will ultimately be most beneficial to a large complicated enterprise with a broad range of configurations. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Or does a "all for one, one for all" approach make the most sense?”

To me, the needs of the few point us in the direction of how we can improve things for the many:

Practicing distributed collaboration is valuable for all teams because it will help us get better at collaboration and train us to optimize for the best ideas, not the loudest voices.

If you’re curious, I recommend trying it out. Here's a challenge: For four consecutive weeks host at least two distributed team meetings each week. Follow the guidance that Chris Kimbell, Courtney Drake, and Lauren Moon have laid out on the pages below and see how it affects your team's collaboration.

If you’re taking the dare, I’d love to hear about your experience. If you’ve done something like this before I’d be just as interested in hearing your takeaways. If you have other thoughts about this or resources everyone should be aware of, send them over at @jannishegenwald or @trello or @atlassiandev. ✌️