When I was CEO of the software company, MySQL AB, 70 percent of our 400 employees worked from home. They were located in 32 countries across 16 time zones. To visit every employee, you would have had to fly to 100 different airports. The distributed model worked wonderfully for us, and we are following a similar pattern at my current company, Eucalyptus, with teams and individuals already in China, Bangladesh, India, Europe and several cities across the United States.
Several studies have shown that people who work from home have a higher level of motivation, take more responsibility for results, and work as hard, if not harder than those in an office. A key benefit with distributed teams is that it is only the most self-motivated, communicative and balanced thinkers who are ready for that model -- and those are exactly the type of employees you want to hire anyhow.
Based on my experience, I believe the following principles are essential to successfully managing a distributed workforce:
1. Communicate a clear shared purpose. Every member of the team must share a common vision and culture. When the team is distributed, you need to make sure that everyone is marching in the same direction. When they know the purpose of the business, they can make the right decisions on their own.
Southwest Airlines is a great example. They operate in a distributed fashion by necessity -- in order to have a presence where their customers are. They built operational efficiency and cost-consciousness into their culture. Southwest spices it with a loving and fun attitude among its staff.
2. Encourage personalities to shine online. Starting from the leaders, you must go all-in when it comes to online presence. It’s not enough to share your business communication online with your colleagues. You must share your own personality too. In a physical office, colleagues get to see the personal side of each other in the parking lot, the kitchen, and so on. You quickly get an idea of who your colleagues really are. In a distributed organization, you need to cultivate those same social aspects online. Encourage people to display their personality and their vulnerabilities and talk about their non-job activities. Let people be people.
3. Don't forget to be empathetic. We tend to be more empathic in-person rather than in writing. In personal encounters, we may be kind and understanding, but in our emails, we can be coldly rational or overly critical. Body language can soften the over-rationality and edginess of our words. But when you are online, that gets lost.
When you communicate with colleagues almost entirely online, be mindful of this. It's why we need emoticons. Take concrete steps to be highly empathic in emails. Some rare individuals have learned to be as warm online as offline, but that is a very unusual characteristic.
To get people excited and inspired through online communication, focus on seeing the positive aspects of things, and make an extra effort to understand what people really intend, thought their communication may be terse.
4. Hire people who can write. No matter how you manage a virtual team and no matter what amazing new online tools you use, there is by necessity a higher focus on written communication than in local organizations. That's why you need to hire people who enjoy and are relatively good at communicating through writing.
While you should use phone, video and other media to communicate, of course, there will always be a core communication conducted through email.
5. Encourage openness. Openness is a virtue for any organization, but the requirement is heightened in a virtual one. To allow people to feel a common purpose and trust one another despite physical distances, encourage people to be transparent and inclusive. Information and insight should travel fast and wide. People need to trust that they are not being excluded.
Set an example of sincerity and honesty and your team will follow.