Building a Virtual Paradise: How To Make the Most of Distributed Teams

Everyone wants to live in paradise, but more often than not, the down-to-earth responsibilities of earning a living keep people tied to locales that are decidedly unlike their dreams.

In this digital age of virtual communications, though, many things are possible that recently were mere pipe dreams. Maintaining an effective but freewheeling atmosphere of remote collaboration is a central aspect of the Lean Labs company culture. With team members located across the globe working in together like a well-oiled machine, we’re huge proponents of this model. 

How to Create a Virtual Paradise While Working Remotely

We love the flexibility and work-life balance that it affords us. And, having been at it for several years already, we’ve learned a lot about how to coordinate with one another, circumventing the pitfalls of limited face-to-face activity.

So why not sit in paradise, do your work in cyberspace, and stop worrying about going into the dreary office that’s been keeping you from your dreams?

What If Your Workplace Could Be in Paradise Too?

All it takes is a relatively new computer and a super-fast modem. As long as your profession is more digitally oriented than not, you should be able to work from wherever you like.

Email and all kinds of collaborative messaging applications enable both synchronous and asynchronous communication with team members, clients, service providers, and any other relevant stakeholders. Apps for project management make this easy, and some of the best in class – Asana and Trello come to mind specifically – even offer free versions, while premium products like Slack and Basecamp are so useful that they’ve built cult-like followings. Syncing files with platforms like Google Drive and DropBox also helps considerably, while services like Hangouts, Skype and FaceTime allow you to virtually see your clients and coworkers.

If you need it, there’s always the phone, too, and getting on a plane a few times a year isn’t much of a showstopper.

Besides All-Day Pajamas, What Do I Gain?

By managing your business remotely and working from your livingroom – or your bedroom or patio or the local café or beach, for that matter – you save your company all of the money that it would otherwise be putting towards a physical office and the infrastructure and services that go along with maintaining such a facility.

By working remotely, you can save those funds. You can also do something useful with the money you’ll save, like rallying your spread-out team at industry conferences throughout the year. That kind of team development is exciting and valuable – not just for your culture but also for opening doors to new revenue streams, so it’s arguably a must. Your business directly benefits from using funds for these types of investments instead of a physical facility.

Secondly, by shedding your geographic limitations, you can hire staff strictly based on factors like skills, experience, know-how, affordability and cultural fit. When proximity isn’t an issue, your options grow exponentially. If your personal Shangri-La isn’t much of a hub of commerce (the most alluring locales are generally relatively rural, aren’t they?), you may have a dearth of local candidates for the positions you seek to fill. 

On the other hand, even if your paradise is in a New York City high-rise, you may still prefer to hire someone based in Alaska. Why? Because that professional could be tops in their field, or perhaps because you can save yourself oodles of cash because of the vast differences in local wage economies.

Remote teams are major time savers, too. By not having even five minutes of commute, let alone the national average of 25.4 minutes each way, you can devote yourself to… well, almost anything. Spend more time on yourself (go for a jog, learn to crochet or get a pedicure), your family (make the kids pancakes, take them on adventures) or your business (with no commute, you can turn around more projects, network more and enrich your skills further by learning and experimenting).


What About Office Culture?

Meh – the office isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sure, you think you need that time at the water cooler to bond with your coworkers, but do you really? Office distractions are numerous and potent – experts estimate that it can take 20 minutes or more to get back in the zone following each interruption.

You may not even realize the degree of unintentional peer pressure exerted when a group of people in an office takes a break together, but the odds are good that you’ll join in, even when the timing is inconvenient for you. Similarly, in a physical office, people stop by to touch base with one another when they haven’t had reason to speak for a while. On the one hand, that’s a lovely gesture, but on the other hand, the surprise drop-in visit is a productivity interruption.

So instead of chit-chatting at the office, which fundamentally takes you away from your work when you’re in the office, communicate with your colleagues about actual work. HipChat, Glip and scores of other apps facilitate easy distance real-time communication, and yes, you can still pepper the discussion with references to the latest Game of Thrones spoilers. If you make good use of the collaboration tools at your disposal, the non-work chatter will be minimized, and efficient productivity will reign. Moreover, the unparalleled impact of in-person team building can still happen when you all gather for a conference or a retreat together once or twice each year.

Keep in mind, too, that when your employees are located in different time zones, you have several advantages, depending on the nature of your business. If you have people on coverage schedules for answering phones, monitoring dashboards or whatever else, then with international workers, it’s far easier to make sure all hours of the day are covered.

Better yet – when you have someone in Spain, for example, another in Delaware, and yet another in Oregon, then you enjoy the possibility of one team member completing his or her tasks in time for the next to take over immediately upon punching in. This way, you are maximizing productivity across the globe.

The Lonely Man

Back in the day, before collaboration was such a dominant force in the way businesses operate, it was common for people to hunker down on their own to complete projects on their own. They’d hole themselves up in their offices and plug away, emerging only for coffee and bathroom breaks; focusing on fully completing the most important task that is a shining example of their best work.

Today’s open cubicles and “bullpen” office models encourage the free flow of ideas, but studies show that often, productivity suffers as a result. When too many people attempt to focus on a single project, they are too much for too little of a task at hand, and the work suffers.

In a virtual office, on the contrary, this drive to complete the mission at hand is back. You can be that “lonely man” who does nothing until the job is done – and you’ll do the work that much sooner, that much better and that much more creatively. The dynamics of a remote team mean to make for sharp, single-minded focus on tasks and deliverables. This kind of goal-oriented intensity fosters productivity and creativity. It is the pressure cooker of the lone wolf that evokes those hard-hitting questions about where a project is headed.

Roll Like We Do

Just as you no longer expect all of your clients to be local, there are some key advantages to not having all of your employees within arm’s reach. You will bond through technology and regular, if occasional, gatherings.

Our team consists of people from Kansas and Oklahoma now living in Seattle, Austin, and even Costa Rica. Our design team is based in Ibiza, Spain and London, England. We think these are pretty sweet locations all around! But the greatest thing is, we all work together every day and we have a great team.

Cherry-pick your team from the most qualified and least expensive people you can. Concoct a team of players who complement each other, so that you can focus the attention of each one on his or her particular expertise. Realize that when you have the whole world to choose from, you are more likely to choose well.

In time, you’ll have the team you need to move forward, and far sooner than you might have expected if you were working out of an office together. The virtual world moves quickly – use it wisely to create your own working paradise.

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