In February 2013, Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, decided to put an end to remote work at the company. In the memo, the company stated “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” All Yahoo employees were expected to give up any remote working arrangements and get back into the office.
I had a similar experience several years ago at a company I worked for when a new executive came on board. After a short period of time, he introduced a similar policy to the one above. We were much smaller than Yahoo at the time, but had been an extremely remote friendly organization up to that point. He described his motives as much the same (though he did let slip a few times that what he wanted was to look out of his office window and be able to see everybody in his department, for whatever that is worth).
So is it true? Do co-located teams truly perform better? Are communication and collaboration truly better when physically close?
The conventional wisdom today seems to believe that co-located is significantly better. I’ve been personally told that all the research points to that. But having experienced both poorly performing, co-located teams as well as high performing distributed teams, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the research as well as experiences of others.
Some of the Research
There have been a number of studies that have taken a look at co-located and remote teams. While there could still be significant research done in this area (and I look forward to more of it), there has been quite a bit written and there are some key points we can glean from these studies.
How organizations support distributed project teams: Key dimensions and their impact on decision making and teamwork effectiveness
In this study, the researchers looked at how organizational support impacts project teams both in the decision-making process and the overall effectiveness. Ultimately, it found three key contributors to success:
While the primary focus of this study is on the agility of distributed teams, and the difficulties presented by remote work, it also has some key takeaways for the success of distributed teams that I found helpful.
This study took a look at leadership in partially distributed teams, analyzing the different dimensions of distance such as geographic, cultural, and temporal.
The key conclusion was that leaders must assist the team in bridging the distances. It took a different kind of leadership to make this happen on the teams, and ultimately took effort from leaders and team members to be effective.
Supporting the development of shared understanding in distributed design teams
Shared understanding is a key measure of communication effectiveness, especially on distributed teams. Reaching and maintaining shared understanding is critical, both perceived shared understanding as well as actual shared understanding.
For teams to reach this level of communication and effectiveness, they need appropriate training and support. The tools that teams have access to are also very important in their ability to communicate, work on tasks, and reach a shared understanding.
This study also highlights the difference between homogenous and heterogeneous teams, noting that more diverse teams (diverse in background, experience, location, culture, etc.) will require more support initially.
Project Risk Differences Between Virtual and Co-Located Teams
It shouldn’t be taken for granted that there are different risks in creating and managing virtual teams as opposed to co-located teams. This study looked at 55 project risk factors that other studies have identified as important to project success.
Of the 55, seven were identified as greater risks for virtual teams as opposed to co-located teams. These included insufficient knowledge transfer, lack of project team cohesion, cultural or language differences, inadequate technical resources, inexperience with the company and its processes, loss of key resources, and hidden agendas.
Effects of team member psychological proximity on teamwork performance
Some studies have claimed that as team-member physical proximity increases, the frequency and quality of communication increases, resulting in better team performance. More recent studies have found that there is no effect of team-member proximity on team performance. The missing factor may actually be the idea of psychological proximity, which takes into account all the aspects of proximity for a team.
This study analyzed the psychological proximity factors (spatial, temporal and social) and their impact on teamwork quality factors (communication, collaboration, coordination, and cohesion). Ultimately, reducing social distance helped overcome spatial and temporal distance, and was the most important factor in team quality. Social ties are incredibly important among team members. The spatial distance can be overcome with the right tools and coordination, especially when supported by the broader organization. And some sort of synchronous interaction is needed for overcoming both social and temporal distance.
Most studies I reviewed showed that there are hurdles to remote/distributed teams. But these challenges can be overcome with certain adjustments. We’ll take a closer look at some of those below in addition to a few examples from other teams.
Some Team Experiences
I personally have had the opportunity to work on successful satellite teams as well as high-performing distributed teams. The success of these teams wasn’t by chance.
At one company, I worked for several years with a highly functional, and highly distributed, development team. Our lead developer was remote as well as our UX designer. Two other team members were primarily remote, and everyone else on the team was partially remote on any given day. As the product manager, I shifted my mindset from an “in-office” focus to a remote focus. Even being in the office, we utilized the tools for effective collaboration across the entire group. It gave everyone the chance to either be present physically or dial in, whether from their desk down the hall or from their office across the country.
This type of mindset was across the team. We often took time to call other team members regularly, even just to chat. This mirrored the kind of discussions that often happen sitting together. Our developers pair-programmed on the phone and shared screens regularly. Our UX designer and I regularly brainstormed and prototyped over video calls.
Our team was intentional in our effort. We had to be, given our distributed group and the fact that we were working on the single most important product for the company. We made it work and were incredibly successful in developing and launching a brand new product (more on that in another post). We hadn’t read any of the studies above, but seemed to understand intuitively or from previous experience that we needed to put in the effort to bridge the gaps and create a cohesive, effective team.
By the end of my time with that specific team, we had successfully launched our new application to over 100,000 students, saving the company millions of dollars and setting the stage for significant growth thereafter.
I’ve been interested in companies that either have remote teams, are fully remote from the start, or have transitioned to being remote. InVision is a prime example of a company that built remote work into their ethos from the beginning, and then transitioned to being fully distributed as they grew.
If you’re not familiar with InVision, it is a prototyping and design tool widely used across the technology industry. I’ve been using InVision personally for many years. Since it was founded in 2011, InVision has grown to over 1,000 employees and is used by over 5 million people at thousands of companies worldwide.
The benefits of being completely remote have been significant according to the founder, Clark Valberg, and CPO, Mark Frein. These benefits have included the ability to hire without geographical restrictions, saving millions by not having office space, and building a better product.
InVision has been incredibly successful, and has done it with a completely remote workforce.
Automattic is the company behind Wordpress, a popular content management system and site builder that is behind many websites on the internet. And it is a fully remote organization. While it also didn’t start out that way, it moved to being fully remote when it realized that it could better empower its employees by allowing them to work when and where they wanted, and after deciding that too few employees were showing up to the office anyway. Automattic now has hundreds of employees across more than 60 countries.
As described in this HBR article, there are numerous lessons from Automattic, as well as some very compelling reasons why remote work has worked so well for them. One of the keys is creativity. Creativity thrives online, and allowing people to find the best way to work allows them to be far more creative than they might be otherwise. That means allowing employees to work when they are most productive, and from wherever they are most productive. Additionally, being distributed allows Automattic to hire the very best people regardless of location (a common theme among the companies I looked at who favor remote work).
Automattic has been very intentional in developing its culture, and it ensures there is ample communication on teams by hiring right, providing good onboarding and tools, and then bringing people together periodically. Those steps have allowed Automattic to thrive as a remote organization, as evidenced by its growth and continued popularity of its products.
Zapier has been a remote company since its founding in 2011. It has literally written a book about the subject as well. For those unfamiliar with the company, it allows a user to easily connect apps together to automate processes or accomplish any number of tasks. It essentially allows non-developers to accomplish development tasks that wouldn’t have been achievable before.
Many of the lessons described so far are the ones that Zapier offers as well, as described in an interview with the CEO. The key benefits of remote work for the company have been in attracting and retaining talent, and in overall employee satisfaction.
No discussion of distributed organizations would be complete without discussing Basecamp. Its founders have long been proponents of remote work, and they have also literally written the book about working remotely.
Basecamp was founded in 1999, and has had a longstanding remote-friendly environment. Though the company has stayed intentionally small, it’s longevity and growth is a testament to its values.
The keys to success at Basecamp revolve around the idea of allowing employees to do deep work — limiting synchronous communication, interruptions, and meetings — and allowing employees to do their best work, however and wherever they do that.
Basecamp’s style is significantly different than many other companies. It may even seem radical. But the general principles are similar to other remote companies and they’ve clearly found success in what they’re doing.
Key Factors to Success
So what can we take away from this? How can we make our teams successful and high-performing?
In order to be successful, forming and maintaining a remote or distributed team needs to be intentional, as some of the keys to success are different than co-located teams. While either structure (co-located or distributed) can be effective, both types of teams need to be designed and led with intention.
When managed correctly, distributed teams perform just as well as their co-located counterparts. But therein lies the rub: you can’t simply put any team together and hope for success.
It would seem that co-located teams may generally perform better because they take the path of less-resistance. There is more room for mistakes when everyone is together in an office. You may not need as strong leadership or as many tools to make co-located teams effective. The effort to communicate can be smaller and the amount of time to bridge some of the distance can potentially be shortened. That’s perfectly fine. But let’s stop claiming that one outperforms the other.
With intentional leadership and design, we can create high performing distributed teams. As we’ve seen from the research and the examples above, the limiting factors to remote work are often in the effort put in rather than inherent in the nature of the team.
Like what you read? Feel free to follow me over on Twitter (@kylelarryevans) or sign up for my newsletter, where I post other interesting pieces and explore a range of topics.
Cash, P., Dekoninck, E. & Ahmed-Kristensen, S. (2017). Supporting the development of shared understanding in distributed design teams. Journal of Engineering Design. 28(3), 147–170
Cha, M., Park, J., & Lee, J. (2014). Effects of team member psychological proximity on teamwork performance. Team Performance Management.20(1/2), 81–96
Drouin, N. (2013). How organizations support distributed project teams: Key dimensions and their impact on decision making and teamwork effectiveness. The Journal of Management Development. 32(8), 865–885
Ocker, R., Huang, H., Benbunan-Fich, R., Hiltz, S. (2009). Leadership Dynamics in Partially Distributed Teams: An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Configuration and Distance. Group Decision and Negotiation. 20(3), 273–292
Reed, A. & Knight, L. (2010). Project Risk Differences Between Virtual and Co-Located Teams. The Journal of Computer Information Systems. 51(1), 19–30
Sarker, S. & Sarker, S. (2009). Exploring Agility in Distributed Information Systems Development Teams: An Interpretive Study in an Offshoring Context. Information Systems Research. 20(3), 440–461
I had a few wake up calls a while back.
The first came when I was looking at some photos of myself, I looked really chubby. It was somewhat unexpected. I didn’t think of myself as overweight, and didn’t see that when I looked in the mirror, but there it was — photographic evidence.
The second big wake up call came when I purchased a smart scale. It was an Amazon lightning deal, and I got it on somewhat of a whim. I like technology and like data, so it seemed like an interesting thing to do. But when I stepped on the scale and went through some of the analysis, not only did it confirm what the photos had shown, but took away all possible excuses. Not only was I overweight, but I was flabby and soft too. Well outside of the weight range for my height, way too much visceral fat, a slow metabolism, weak bones, and on and on. I could no longer use the excuse that the camera adds 10 pounds or that muscle is heavier than fat. I had to face reality.
We can certainly debate the accuracy of photographs and consumer smart scales, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that I needed to change. I needed to lose weight and get into shape. Not only for myself but for my wife and my kids. I wanted to be a fit husband and the kind of dad that my kids would not only be proud of, but would want to emulate.
So that is what kicked off my journey. This post is a bit different than my usual writing. I’m not a fitness writer and probably won’t become one. But this is about the things that worked for me. I know that they won’t work for everyone. So if you’re reading this and disagree, you’re probably right in some way. Your mileage may vary and you’ll need to find the things that work for you.
But these are the steps that worked extremely well for me. I’ve lost around 35 pounds and am much more fit and lean than ever before (including my high school and college days). And the main reason I am writing this because a person very close to me asked for some help and guidance. So this is mostly for them. But if there is something useful, hopefully others will be able to leverage it as well.
1. Measure, Track, & Monitor
The first step to making any change is to start to take measurements. As the saying goes, it is difficult to change what you don’t measure.
Get a Smart Scale
To start, get yourself a smart scale and start weighing yourself. This will help establish a baseline and allow you to track progress and trends. I use Eufy. There are lots of good ones based on Amazon reviews. I haven’t tried out many others, but mine was $25 and works perfectly for what I need. I weigh myself every day at the same time so I can keep track of my progress and my trends over time. This helped me establish a baseline and begin to actually monitor my progress as I began to make changes.
Track Your Movement
I’ve been a Fitbit user since the very first wristband came out. Way back when it was just 5 dots and no one had any idea what you were wearing on your wrist. I’m a big believer in it. Tracking your activity level and sleep will help establish a baseline that you can build from.
I’ve personally set a goal of 10,000 steps each day. That tends to be a stretch for me most days. It gets me going outside to walk around the office complex a few times a day (it’s about 1,000 steps to make a full loop). I wouldn’t otherwise do that.
I don’t think there is anything magical about 10,000 steps. But understanding where you are currently and then setting a stretch goal is the real key. Once you have measured your current activity, you can then start to set those stretch goals and actually get moving.
Track Your Eating
To truly make a change, you have to track what you’re eating. I’ve used MyFitnessPal for this, though there are other good apps as well. Enter everything into it, even if you don’t change anything to start. Simply understanding what and how much you’re eating will be critical to making changes.
This may feel onerous to start. And it is. However, you won’t have to do this forever. This is meant to help you get started. Once you’ve established the right habits (more on that below), you’ll likely be able to scale this back. But it is critical to get started. You’ll likely be surprised at how much you’re eating every day. I know I was shocked when I started tracking my food. It helped me make a few changes right off the bat, though that hadn’t been my intention.
Tie It All Together to Monitor
There are numerous apps that can bring everything together for you. As a Fitbit user, that one has worked well for me. I also use Google Fit to see some of my trends, including weight trends since I can add my smart scale to it. Whether it is a single app or multiple apps, use technology to your advantage. I’ve tended to use a variety of apps since each have their own strength. You can certainly tie them together though since many of them have integrations with each other (though not all of them, so don’t expect to get your Fitbit data into Google Fit for example).
2. Eat Right — Diet Is Key
I used to believe that exercise was the most important key to fitness. With that mindset, I used to exercise frequently with little regard to what I ate. When that didn’t work, I continued to increase my level of exercise more and more, spinning my wheels endlessly. At the same time I was spinning, my wife was taking the opposite approach. She didn’t have a massive exercise regimen like I did, but focused on eating right, both in quantity and quality. And she managed to lose weight and look great. This was especially pronounced after she gave birth to our kids. She was able to rapidly return to her pre-pregnancy weight while I struggled to do anything.
When I switched to a similar mindset, I was actually able to make massive progress.
Control the Quality
The first key to eating right is to focus on the quality of the food you consume.
When I started really focusing on my eating, I wasn’t as concerned about the amount of food as much as I was concerned about getting the food right. For me, that meant switching to a Keto-style diet. I’ve long believed that fat and meat and those types of food are significantly better for you (check out The Big Fat Surprise for a fascinating read about the history of dietary guidance). A Keto diet focuses on cutting out most of the carbs and sugars in your diet and replacing them primarily with fat and protein.
I started scrambling some eggs for breakfast every morning. I started to cut out breads and carbs in other meals wherever I could. I also switched some of my snacks from crackers (I love Ritz Bitz) to nuts like almonds.
At first, I didn’t even cut back too much on how much food I was eating. I simply started by replacing foods and eating better. That massively helped the transition and got my body ready for bigger changes.
Now I’m not a Keto purist, and I may be missing some of the benefits of that. I still have some sweets and some carbs and some things occasionally that aren’t the best. But I do believe in the principles and have found that the closer I can align to a Keto diet, the better I’ve done and the better I’ve felt.
Control the QuantityMy next focus was on reducing the quantity of food. Once I established a baseline for my daily calories and food intake, I started to scale back.
My first step was to cut out a lot of junk food. I noticed (by tracking) that I ate a lot of sugary foods. I have a sweet tooth, and anyone who knows me can attest. So starting to limit myself to a few treats a day was the first step.
Next, started to cut out other snacks. I found (again, by tracking) that I ate a lot of snacks. My meals were pretty normal sized, but I ate a few meals worth of calories each day just in snacks. So cutting that back was a key to success.
Start Intermittent Fasting
I’d heard about the benefits of fasting for some time, but hadn’t really tried it until more recently. And it was a huge boost to my weight loss.
The idea behind intermittent fasting is that going without food for an extended period of time forces your body to use its fat stores (rather than the food in your system) for energy. So you start to use up that stored fat. It also helps decrease your insulin, which also helps your body start to use its fat stores as energy. A good start may be 12 hours of fasting, while going up to 14–16 hours is often the goal of many folks. There are other combinations as well, but I haven’t tried those.
I’ve seen the benefit fasting for myself. Not only have I been able to lose weight, but I’ve also been able to lower my body fat, and I largely attribute that to fasting. I still haven’t even fully optimized my fasting routine either, so I hope that as I get better at it, I’ll see even more benefits.
Personally, I started my intermittent fasting by ending snacks in the evening. We usually finish dinner around 6:00 pm, so that is when I finish eating for the day. This was a huge change in itself because I always used to eat in the evening. And not healthy food. I know some folks skip breakfast, but I never have done that. I have my scrambled eggs around 7:30 am (sometimes 8:00 am if I’m lucky enough). That typically gives me around 14 hours of fasting, which I’ve found to be great. If you can push that further, go for it. The key for me was cutting out evening snacks (and desserts). Other people aren’t breakfast people. I have a friend who prefers to eat in the evening and skip breakfast. That has worked for him. Personally, I’m a breakfast person. But the key is narrowing the window of time you’re eating on a given day.
3. Exercise — Resistance Training First
Another misconception I had a while ago was that cardio was key to weight loss and fitness. When I didn’t see results with cardio, I doubled down, often skipping lifting days to do more cardio. It was a vicious cycle.
Lifting and Resistance Training
The reality is that strength training is more important than cardio in my experience. If you have to choose, choose to lift or do resistance training over the cardio. When I made that switch, I started (gradually) to see much better results. The great thing with strength training is that it compounds over time. By increasing your muscle mass you can increase your metabolism and actually burn more calories at rest. Which is the dream, right? Actually being able to burn more calories by not having to constantly be exercising.
Cardio and Steps
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do cardio type exercise. Like I mentioned above, moving is really important. Doing it every day is important, especially if you sit at a desk all day like most of us.
Additionally, I’ve found that switching to high-intensity intervals is better than simply hopping on the elliptical every day. So as I’ve done cardio, I’ve been doing my normal cardio routine for about 3 minutes, and then I kick up my speed and resistance for 30 seconds, basically sprinting for a short burst. Then going back to a jog.
By chance, I also found out that having rest days was critical for me. For a time, I was exercising every day. However, as my schedule got busier I had to start taking some evenings (I exercise in the evenings) for other work. Against my expectations, that actually seemed to jumpstart my progress in losing weight. I don’t know if I wasn’t getting as much out of my workouts by doing them each day or if I just needed some extra rest, but I’d suggest making sure that you have some rest days. Keep up with the steps, but try and do it throughout the day and take a break during your normal workout time. The key takeaway for me is that I didn’t have to exercise every single day to see results. I could actually have time for other things as well, as long as I was getting the most out of my workouts and eating right.
4. Push Through
One of the most difficult things is getting started. You’ve likely created habits that you have to start to break. Your body is going to be upset with you. I know that as I started to make changes, my body rebelled against me. I had overwhelming cravings for all things sweet. I occasionally binged on ice cream or pie or cookie dough.
The exciting thing about getting started, though, is that you’ll likely see some good progress up front. As you make some changes, you probably have some room to lose weight. Which will help you get going. Use that momentum!
It does get easier. But you will also hit some plateaus along the way. I hit several plateaus as I moved toward my target weight and fitness. It was hard to break through.
First, stick with it. As you focus on eating well, exercising and doing the things you need, you will be able to make progress, even if it seems slow or stalled.
Second, it may be worth it to “juice up” your returns by going to more extreme lengths for short periods of time. I’ve done this by completely cutting out snacks (even healthy ones) and any dessert/treats for a period of time. I’ve gone extra hard during my workouts and made a big push to get through. This has usually worked for me and has allowed me to then get back to my regular, sustainable routine but at a new, lower weight.
5. Create New Habits
None of the things I’ve talked about above are easy. They’re actually really hard. To be successful, you have to literally rewire your brain.
I found that giving up an evening snack was massively difficult. My body had gotten accustomed to eating around 9:00 pm every day. Breaking that habit was hard. But I established the habit of not eating after 6:00 pm, and now it’s hardly a temptation.
The ultimate goal of all of this is to change your lifestyle. It has to be long-term to be sustainable. You can’t starve yourself indefinitely, so you need to adjust your body and your habits to make these changes sustainable.
Hide the Food
Willpower is a muscle. You can build its strength over time, but you can exhaust it on any given day.
I know that when my favorite treats are out on the counter, I’m much more likely to snack on something than when it is hidden in the pantry. Make things easy on yourself, and don’t leave your favorite snacks out. Even better, stop buying some of those things. It is much easier to avoid Oreos if you don’t have any Oreos.
Create a Workout Routine
This is something that I did a long time ago, and it is a habit that has served me well. I’ve tried workouts at all different times of the day, but have found that the evening is best for me. The kids are in bed and I’ve done everything else I need. When 9:00 pm comes around on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, that is my workout time.
Find the time and days that work best for you and then make them a habit. No excuses because you’ve already planned for this time. Once it’s not in questions, it becomes so much easier.
And do something you enjoy while you workout. One of the few times I watch TV or movies is during my workout. It’s basically the only way I can keep up with any shows or Netflix. I’ve also gotten through a ton of audiobooks while working out. Find something you enjoy and add it to your workout.
Make Switches Wherever You Can
Swapping out breakfast food for eggs was a big change for me. But a couple of scrambled eggs in the morning are now a habit for me. It’s easy now. I eat eggs for breakfast.
Make these types of switches wherever you can. Get a big thing of Costco chicken strips and take those for lunch every day. I do something similar to that now. I’ve made a few switches where I’m in control and that gives me some more flexibility where I don’t have as much control (such as family dinners).
Be Intentional & Mindful
I’ve found that being intentional and mindful is another key to success. It is easy to mindlessly snack while watching TV or staring at your phone. I alwayseat more when I’m not paying attention. So pay attention! When you’re eating, take it slower. Focus on what you’re doing. Don’t zone out to the TV with a bag of chips. Even if you only intended on having a few, you will end up eating the whole bag before you realize it.
Stick With It
The biggest key is to great some routines and stick with them, even when it is difficult and even when you’re not seeing quick results. The goal isn’t to lose tons of weight immediately — it’s to create a new you. So make the changes, however small, and keep them going. The funny thing is that you’ll look back in 3 months and see tons of actual progress, even if it felt like you didn’t make any progress day to day. That is how my experience was. By sticking with it, you’ll be able to see massive (albeit gradual) changes too.
Nothing about this is easy, though some items are easier than others. The picture above is my actual trendline for this year. It is even more dramatic if you look at last year as well. It’s been an incredible journey, but it has taken time and commitment.
At the end of the day, you can do this. It may take some time, but don’t get discouraged. You’ve done harder things than this. You’ve survived much more difficult things. You can do this!
My personal musings on a variety of topics.