Team

Managing distributed teams

Distributed Teams: Eight Ideas to Help Them Thrive

2246 1090 Paul Breloff

We believe that talent is global and the strongest teams are borderless. The digital-first jobs of tomorrow — engineers, data scientists, digital marketers and content creators — can be done by anyone, anywhere as distributed teams,  as long as they have the right skills, a computer, and wifi access.

The rise of global freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, and Toptal is a bellwether, but so is the increasing number of firms that choose to be distributed from the start, with teammates scattered across living rooms, coffee shops, and WeWorks, and connected through Slack, Zoom, and WhatsApp. Some investors have gone as far to proclaim that distributed teams are the “new cloud for startups.”

The concept of a global distributed team is deeply ingrained in our Shortlist DNA. We launched in two markets (India and Kenya) nearly simultaneously, and today have three offices across two countries, along with consultants and board members in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco and Mauritius (not to mention clients in 12+ countries).

We certainly still believe in the power and the magic of working (mostly) alongside our teammates. Special things can happen when brainstorms are done in person with a whiteboard, when data can be explained while pointing at the same screen, and when relationships can be formed over regular coffee or lunch meetings rather than just messaging platforms.

But with 80+ Shortlisters in across our Nairobi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad offices, we’ve become thoughtful and creative about how best to build a #OneTeam culture and generally get stuff done efficiently and to our high standards. So what are some of the things that have worked for us in operating through distributed teams?

1. Create spaces for chatter and personality

Because we can’t count on the spontaneous collisions of a single shared space to deepen connections, we have had to create these opportunities digitally. We have a series of WhatsApp groups keyed to different logical divisions (by geography, function) where there’s a steady flow of welcomes, birthday wishes, photos of social events, GIFs, and more. It’s the modern day company-wide water cooler.

Shortlist team

We also have a weekly Zoom call among the senior leadership, which is less a space for substantive discussions and  decisions, and more space to just chat and catch up. Each person has a lightly structured few minutes to share travel plans, a mood check, points of nervousness and points of celebration, which usually involves a lot of venting, movie references, and vacation longing. It’s the one time when no one cares if you take the call from the back of an Uber.

2. Institute a global social operating system

As we’ve built and tweaked our social operating system (i.e., the processes and tools in place to ensure an efficient flow of information and decision-making), we’ve done so at a global and local level. It’s helpful when everyone is on the same page about how we structure functional team check-ins, send calendar invites, and join video chats – especially when they’re happening remotely!

We have quarterly Town Halls where we attempt an (often fraught) global video-conference, with all the offices beaming in (below are all three distributed teams tuned in to our most recent Town Hall). The meeting features updates on important stuff, but also introductions to new folks, celebrations of promotions, and cross-office “high fives,” where the Kenya team gives shout outs to members of the India team and vice versa. It’s a valuable chance to express recognition of great work to team members who you won’t have a chance to thank in person.

3. Invest in “unnecessary” travel for distributed teams

We accept that part of the cost of multiple offices is increased travel bills. We make sure to budget for frequent flights between Hyderabad, Bombay and Nairobi – for the senior functional heads, of course, but also for more junior managers on the team.

These visits serve a critical culture transmission-and-smoothing tool, as teams learn from the visitor (who is usually extra motivated to go out for some local food, drinks and adventures) and the visitor brings back lessons and perspective to their home office. Below are snapshots from Product Manager Austen and Talent Advisor Mehndi’s visits to the Mumbai and Nairobi offices.

4. Commit to annual retreats

While this can sometimes feel like a scary line item in a startup budget, I highly recommend committing to gather parts or all of your distributed teams together in one place on a regular basis. Our leadership team meets for a retreat at least once a year (here we are during an epic brainstorming session) and we make sure to find a place that feels suitably adventurous: the hills of Lonavla outside Mumbai; a house on the shore of Lake Naivasha outside Nairobi.

It’s an incredible opportunity to push strategy forward but also go deep as teammates and as whole people, and have a little fun as well. We also recently invested in an “All-India” retreat bringing together the Mumbai and Hyderabad offices at one resort for a couple days of programming, a “gala” evening of team appreciation, and a surprisingly competitive cricket match.

5. Don’t cheap out on phones, speakers and internet

This should probably be #1! We’ve cycled through so many different pieces of technology in hopes of finding the Holy Grail of cross-border communication. Would that Pied Piper’s video calling were real!

The best answer we’ve come to (and we’re not being paid to say this): the Jabra 510, a steal at $110. We have a few Jabras and it takes us from our standard sequence of “Hello?… Can you hear us?… What?… Switching wifi to data… Seems there’s a delay… There’s an echo… Let me try you back…” (you know you’ve been there!) to a welcome sense of “We’re in the room together” crispness and clarity. Even better is when we get video working: we’ve had a lot more luck with Zoom than Google Hangouts or Skype but we’re still hunting for The Answer!

6. Enshrine and preserve the important stuff at a global level…

We’ve had to be even more deliberate and intentional about defining our global values, culture and identity, given the fact that we can’t count on it to simply “emerge” from the great people we have sitting around the same table. We spent significant time on our core values (read how we did it here and here), and we make sure to highlight these values and recognize the importance of company-wide culture and ways of working together at every chance we get.

Last year our co-founder Matt started an internal  “values podcast” in which he interviewed folks on the team about their personal stories and journeys to Shortlist, including a deep dive on the person’s favorite value and what it means to them. It’s been amazing to draw out the different dimensions and texture of our values that are important, deepening the words beyond just posters on the wall.

7. …but let local be local

At the same time, not everything can be global. We have such vibrant teams and offices in our two markets, and there is plenty of space for local innovations: from our Holi parties to games of Kahoot to First Friday team brainstorms to “Biggest Loser” fitness challenges to “Wellness Wednesday” self-care breaks (check out that chair yoga!) to the once-famous “Meditation Room” to the Snack Wars to the After-Hours Ping Pong Tournaments to the chai breaks to the Throwback Thursdays (game of “guess who” with childhood pictures) to Friday Jam Sessions (with guitars and beers), each office has found unique rhythms and rituals and inside jokes to keep things fun and human.

8. Cherish the diversity 

One of the best parts of building global distributed teams is that there are so many differences across the group, and so many opportunities to learn from each other. Beyond national diversity, we’re proud that 75% of our senior leadership and 65% of our global team is female. We celebrate a range of Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays, we sample foods from all over India and Kenya, we learn from the dramatically different life experiences of folks who have grown up in all sorts of different circumstances, went to all sorts of different schools, come from all sorts of different prior jobs.

Managing distributed teams

This is magical and fun and one of the most enriching parts of my job, so while building that global team, don’t forget to embrace and enjoy the differences!

To be clear, we haven’t figured it out and we’re always looking to make improvements, learn, grow. We’d love to hear how others do it out there. If you’re on a team that’s distributed across multiple locations or has multiple offices, how do you make it work? Any tricks, tactics or tools you can share? Let us know; this is only going to become more common and more pressing for all of us to figure out!

One Team: A Fifth Shortlist Value Enters the World

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By Paul Breloff, Simon Desjardins & Matt Schnuck

Our Kenya team, happy about our fifth value (or so we choose to believe).

A year ago, we wrote a blog about how Shortlist defined our values. It’s been fun to see the engagement with that blog, which has interestingly been our most popular one ever. We interpret this to mean that people really like stories about team culture & values — or people just happened to be Googling the term “swashbuckle” and stumbled on us.

So we thought we’d share an exciting development: We’ve added to our values!

Values, and the culture they help define, are living breathing things. Just as our team continues to grow, expand, change, move around… well, we wanted to create some space to revisit some of our basic building blocks and see if they’re keeping up.

And when we considered that, we decided: mostly, yes… but they were missing something.

Specifically, we wanted to call out the importance of team and collaboration a little more directly. We loved our existing values — but with a critical eye, we realized they came across as more individualistic than we’d like.. Own it; Act with intention; Find the adventure; Be a whole person. These are all things you can do just as well on your own, with or without a team.

In the time since we defined our values, we’ve seen how crucial it is to us to emphasize a team-centric spirit. We strive for the “we” rather than “I” in most things. We want people to act and believe that when the team wins, each individual wins.

This was brought home for us when we acquired Spire last year. While we brought the legal entities and office space together, we went through a parallel process of merging our team cultures and work-styles (see below white board). We realized how the values of both teams were more similar than different, and as a team we connected each team’s distinct values to a set of shared underlying principles and behaviors we could all get behind. With one exception: one of Spire’s value was “Generosity,” which was reinforced through mantras like “feedback is a gift” and practices like gratuitous fist bumping, which represented a generous burst of personal connection amidst otherwise busy days and personal agendas. We really liked that, and we wanted a little bit of that in our global Shortlist culture.

Epic work session merging Shortlist and Spire values…

To make the change, we learned a little bit from our last process: we made sure we pulled ideas from everyone, but ultimately took it upon ourselves as co-founders to define the actual words. We held three brainstorms across our offices in Nairobi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, collecting examples of what great team moments look like, what behaviors embody the teammates we want to be, and what sort of practices we want to avoid. We also collected different phrases or words or ideas that were particularly resonant for the team, and got lots of great ideas.

One of the brainstorms about being a great (and less great) team…

Then, the three of us co-founders combined individual journaling and co-drafting (hey, it worked last time!) to come up with the “new value.” We went back and forth, discussing what different words and phrases meant to us, and what behaviors we most wanted to enshrine and discourage. Ultimately we settled on the following:

One team. Teammates come first. Mood is infectious. Listen loudly. Feedback is a gift. “We” instead of “I”. When the team wins, we all win.

This captures so many different meanings for us. The idea that we’re “one team,” united by a vision, mission, and passion for unlocking professional potential, despite a variety of backgrounds, offices spanning three locations on two continents, and the dozens of individual life trajectories that have converged on the shared Shortlist adventure. These ideas orient us towards the credit-sharing “we” and away from the credit-hoarding “I.” They remind us that in our company (which we try to keep as flat and nonpolitical as possible), the best way to win individually is to help the team win. And they encourage us to think about feedback not as a critique, but as a gift from your colleague, who is giving it in the hopes of mutual growth.

Will this be the last change we make? Who knows, but probably not! But that’s all part of the adventure.

P.S. Curious to see the whole set of values? Search no more!

Own it. Be your best, even when no one is looking. High standards are contagious. Generate discipline. Drive for results. See the needful and do it.

Act with intention. Do the work to get clear. Buck convention. Big goals start with small steps; step with purpose.

Find the adventure. Changing the world should be fun. Inject romance into the everyday. Be bold. Dream loud. Swashbuckle.

Be a whole person. We’re more than our work. Seek balance and health. Learn from differences. Unlock your potential.

One team. Teammates come first. Mood is infectious. Listen loudly. Feedback is a gift. “We” instead of “I”. When the team wins, we all win.

 

 

Shortlister Spotlight: Meet Tilak, Software Engineer

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Meet Tilak!

At Shortlist, we love building our team almost as much as we love building yours! We have some pretty amazing people across our three offices who have a real passion for what they do and for the Shortlist mission.

The second installment of Shortlister Spotlights (a Q&A series to get to know some of our team members) stars Tilak, a Software Engineer in our Hyderabad office!

Tell us about what you do at Shortlist:

I’m a Software Engineer on our tech team. We are building an awesome platform for job-seekers to find their dream jobs and employers to help build their dream teams. In my job I do everything from fixing bugs on the website to developing a cool new feature or product.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be an F1 racer 🏁🚗 or dancer💃🏾.

So what led you to a career in technology, and what were you looking for in your next career step when you found Shortlist?

To be honest, I was taught from childhood be an engineer or a doctor. I knew that medicine is not my cup of coffee, so I went with engineering and did a Bachelors in Technology. I had heard a lot about startups — how you can learn a lot, be a part of great ideas and do a variety of projects instead of the same mundane tasks every day. I was looking for a startup which does its own product for a meaningful purpose and found Shortlist. I joined this family in August 2016.

What’s your favorite Shortlist memory?

I actually have a few favorite memories: One is when we launched the webportal for the first time back in October 2016, it was crazy time, and another is when we all pulled together in early 2017 for our biggest contract yet — hiring for a big four accounting firm.

A few months ago, four members of our team went on an adventure trip, where we did a motorcycle ride, rafting, hilltops, waterfalls and had an awesome time together.

Teams that play together stay together

What would you say is your professional superpower?

I am good with communications, be it professional or personal. I’m a good listener as well, ping me if you want to share something!

What are three words or phrases you would use to describe Team Shortlist?

“Cool,” “Rocks,” and “Explore Yourself.”

Tech team selfie 📷

Why is the Shortlist mission important to you?

When I was a job seeker before joining Shortlist, something that constantly bugged me and my friends is that employers might reject us based on a verbal interview or less, even before testing what abilities we have. We used to think, “Give us a problem and a chance and show if we can solve it or not… “Luckily our mission is to do this, taking employers from traditional resume search to competency based hiring.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I watch a lot of movies and series, play PC games, and hang out with friends and close ones.

What’s your favorite Shortlist value? (Learn more about our values here!)

OWN IT!!! I strongly believe in it personally.

We like to give high fives to recognize when our team members do something awesome. Now is your chance to make a public high five to a fellow Shortlister:

I have high-fives for two people: One is our CTO Sudheer, a true leader, always backing us and standing as wall in front of us. Second one is for Niranjan, “ROCKSTAR” for guiding me through every step I take (you could call him my guru).

What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to?

As a Game Of Thrones fan, I’m currently waiting for Season 8, and I’m also listening a lot to Linkin Park’s album “One More LIght.”

How is Shortlist different than other companies?

The tech team is a big surprise compared to other companies, the team here is so innovative and constantly staying ahead of new technologies and using them in our products.

Any final words?

CHALO KEEP ROCKING m/