How to Manage a Distributed Team

At Mapillary, we empower our team by working remotely and communicating asynchronously. Everyone is different, so we believe that the best productivity doesn’t necessarily exist between 9 to 5 in one physical location. The advantage of having a team that covers multiple time zones with a multilingual team is something that will help us excel. We’re currently (2017) a team of 32 people in 11 countries, 7 timezones, and we speak 11 different languages. Some of the team members work together in the same office or co-working space, while others work remotely from home.

How We Work Remotely?

We focus heavily on written asynchronous communication in our daily work. The core of our communication is transparent, open, and encourages giving feedback to each other. We default to transparency so that everyone can learn, chime in, and help out. One of the things we live by is that we engage in conversations at an early stage, we’re as clear as possible, and share any thoughts about anything.

The tools we use are built for this purpose and help us to communicate faster and better in a distributed setup. These are the tools that keep the team running:

  • Slack: our chat app where we can quickly connect with each other and where all conversations happen.
  • Github: social coding for our development team and we have dedicated team boards where we have longer discussions about projects. We also track all non-developer projects (growth, operations, etc.) using Github so that it is visible for all and properly tracked.
  • Google Suite: the entire Gsuite apps like Gmail/Gdocs/Sheets help us to easily communicate and share documents internally and externally.
  • Google Hangouts and Zoom: We do recurring 1-on-1 and team video conferencing to have the ability to hear and see each other and speed up discussions.

Hiring People Without Meeting Them in Person

Hiring remotely allow us to find the best talent regardless of geographical location. Working this way gives us a huge competitive advantage compared to companies that need to recruit locally or relocate people to a particular region. While hiring remotely, we’re building a range of diverse team members from all over the world, where diversity and inclusion is one of our most important focus points.

We recruit using global job boards (LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, We Work Remotely, Remote OK, etc.) and interview and test candidates using the same tools that we use in our daily work. During this process we use Slack chat conversations, assignments using GitHub, and video conference for interviews or presenting candidates work. It does require mutual trust and extra research to decide it’s a right fit or not. Meeting someone psychically helps but it’s by far a deciding factor.

The advantage for candidates applying at Mapillary is that we allow them to live and work wherever they want, which gives them more control and flexibility in their work/life balance. The reduction in stress to commute is a revelation to team members and allows them to be more productive in return. We’re convinced that this setup makes it possible to keep team members involved and decrease turnover.

How We Keep the Team Motivation

Feeling motivated to be part of the team and working on a product you believe in is critical. We encourage feedback sharing and listen to all team members input. Praising each other and recognizing personal or team accomplishments is a vital part of how we work. Besides that, we celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, and family member’s life events. These small celebrations help to keep the team tight and create a trusted environment where we as an employer genuinely care about employees wherever they are.

Twice a year we bring the team together on a company offsite where we spend a week working on projects, present work, discuss strategic topics, and getting to know each other better. Having these occasional physical meetups help team members to feel connected on a higher level. In between offsites, some teams have smaller meetups to work on specific team projects, and we have a daily/weekly/monthly meetings over video to see each other.

How Our Distributed Model Scales

I’m proud to say that my past experiences profoundly influenced the setup that we currently have at Mapillary. I’ve seen where things went well and what didn’t when teams tried to scale their remote team. To me, the foundation period is critical when scaling a distributed team. The Mapillary base consists of deeply rooted values like Transparency, Feedback, Empowerment, and Community that keeps the team tightly together throughout the ride. Every existing or new process is built with our values and future team growth in mind.

The main challenges of scaling will be keeping teams as productive and manageable as possible, let team members feel motivated throughout their career path, and finding new talent.

When teams grow, we will likely divide them into smaller sub-teams/squads to maintain the startup atmosphere, swift communication, and feeling of ownership. The team member’s career paths will be more structured to encourage professional growth and compensation. Altogether, our foundational approach is the most efficient way to find talent, scale, and build the world’s best-distributed team.

Inspiration from Others

There are many other companies out there that share our vision and pushing forward to this new different of working. The working remotely trend is increasing and organizations are willing to switch their habbits to thrive and survive in a fast moving industry. Here are some great resources that could help your company to transform: