Distributed teams and asynchronous work

December 4, 2019

Inspired by Ethan Marcotte’s excellent talk on power and justice in tech, I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula Franklin recently.

The last chapter of her collection of CBC Massey Lectures, “The Real World of Technology” takes a hard look at what she calls the “interface between the biosphere and the bitsphere,” the not-totally-physical, not-totally-psychological space where human life is transformed by work, communication, and interaction on the Internet. Her concern, primarily, is how the Internet (i.e. the “bitsphere”) introduces asynchronicity into what has historically been the otherwise synchronous nature of normal education, work, and governance. Her concern is asynchronicity both in time, and in space.

While the biosphere, existing in real time, encompasses past, present, and future, the bitsphere — a product of human minds — exhibits no tense or temporality, and no roots in physical space.

It got me thinking about working at Mozilla and the highly-distributed nature of the “place.” When I first joined Mozilla, the biggest change in work dynamics that I had to adjust to came from the fact that it was the first time I’d ever worked on and managed a fully distributed team. While I had worked on partially-distributed teams prior to Mozilla, and had spent nearly two years as a remote engineer on a partially-distributed team at Adobe, I had never managed a fully-distributed team scattered across the globe.

Mozilla’s Platform Layout team — the team responsible for the part of the Firefox browser engine that lays out and styles web pages — is scattered from Australia and Japan to North America to Europe. We have, on average, six different time zones to deal with. I’m not going to lie; it’s a pain at times.

Growing and maintaining a positive team culture is challenging when everyone is in the same office. Accomplishing the same when nearly everyone is in working from home or in a different office across multiple continents is … difficult. Franklin foresaw this in 1989:

But how and where … is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task? … When people no longer work together in the same place — the shop floor, the typing pool, the warehouse or the factory — opportunities for social interactions, for social learning and community building disappear.

Getting together, physically, helps. It eliminates separation in both time and space. Mozilla does this twice a year with a company-wide all hands and we take advantage of it. Team dinners, team meetings, team activities.

Videoconferencing is the next-best thing. But it eliminates the temporal separation only. And it requires willingness and flexibility on the part of those who participate to join at possibly inconvenient hours. If a team spans only one or two time zones, this is not much of a problem, but for teams like ours getting everyone together at the same time can strain schedules and personal life. We do this sparingly.

Through all this, the one thing I’ve quickly learned is that on a distributed team, everything must be more deliberate. Opportunities for shared learning must be scheduled. Systems for timely decision-making must be documented and made clear, lest you are relying on the response of someone who may be presently asleep. Trust is absolutely essential, it takes more time to build, and you have to create opportunities to build it. Written documentation is always important, but it’s even more critical than in a 100% co-located environment where you can just walk down the hall and interrupt to get information out of a person’s brain.

Contrary to what Franklin asserts, opportunities for social learning and community building do not “disappear,” but they do require different support structures. And they won’t feel the same, but they are there nonetheless.